1861: Robert Newlin Verplanck to Sam Verplanck

This letter was written by Robert “Newlin” Verplanck (1842-1908), the son of William Samuel Verplanck (1812-1885) and Anna Biddle Newlin (1816-1883) of Dutchess county, New York.

The Mount Gulian Historic Site in Fishkill, once the home of Robert Newlin Verplanck, describes Newlin as a “bright man coming from a family of privilege, graduating from the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School in 1858. Growing up at Mount Gulian, he often came into contact with Dutchess County’s substantial population of free blacks, many of whom were skilled laborers and craftsmen in the area. In fact, James Brown, an escaped slave from Maryland, was Mount Gulian’s paid gardener and caretaker throughout Robert’s life until he set out on his own in 1859, when he began attending Harvard College in Boston. Robert did not enlist at the onset of the Civil War. He was identified as a junior in the Harvard University Catalogue of 1861/62, the fall term beginning on 29 August—just 10 days after this letter was written. Upon graduation in 1863, Robert decided to volunteer in the Union Army, but in a very special role.

On May 22, 1863 the Federal government authorized the formation of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) as a branch of the Union Army that would be trained and led into battle by white officers. Eventually, over 200,000 black volunteers fought to save the Union, with over 68,000 killed.

Robert Newlin Verplanck, now signing correspondence as “R. N. Verplanck,” enlisted in the 22nd Regiment, New York Militia on September 15, 1863 at age 20. Two days later he reported to Camp William Penn outside Philadelphia, the largest encampment of black soldiers in the Civil War. He was assigned as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Regiment, U.S.C.T., volunteering to train and lead black troops into battle. Within a month his raw troops were skirmishing in Virginia.” In letters now housed at Mount Gulian, Newlin’s letters to his mother and sister Jenny “dramatically document the contribution of black soldiers and their struggle to find their rightful place in the military and in American society. Serving bravely with the 6th Regiment and later the 118th Regiment, U.S.C.T., Newlin was promoted to Captain by the war’s end. He saw action throughout Northern Virginia and at Petersburg with the U.S.C.T., and was also assigned duties as an aide to various Union generals. His final letters describe the Army’s response to the total Union victory at Appomattox and to the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865.”

“After the war, Newlin returned briefly to Mount Gulian and later moved to New Jersey, where he entered the infant oil business. He sold out to the Standard Oil Company owned by John D. Rockefeller in 1871 and then managed his father’s farm in East Fishkill. He married Katharine Brinckerhoff on February 24, 1876 and they had five children. In the early 1900’s he returned to New Jersey, where he died on January 10, 1908. He is buried in Fishkill, NY.”

Newlin wrote the letter to his relative, Samuel Verplank (b. 1840), the son of James de Lancey Verplanck. There is mention of someone named “Mont Hare” whom I suppose to be Montgomery Hare. There was one such young man by that name born in Philadelphia in 1844. There was also a Horace Binney Hare from Philadelphia appearing as a sophomore in the Harvard University Catalogue.

Robert Newlin Verplanck’s letter with image of “Newlin” taken while at Harvard


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
August 19th 1861

Dear Sam,

Mont Hare and I have just parted after spending two days together at “Briarwood”—late “the farm,” and after talking so much upon the one subject and about the one person in which we are mutually interested, it seems the most natural thing in the world to write to you and say, “Sam, my dear fellow, you haven’t suffered in our hands.” Mont went out with me on Saturday afternoon and came in today so that we had a good long time to talk up the topic.

We used to argue a good deal upon the everlasting politics question, but as long as he is content to avoid singing the praises of the Republican party in general and “Old Abe” in particular, and sticks to the whole country, I agree with him now so well that there is nothing to argue  about. He read aloud to me yesterday afternoon part of ‘Mr. [Joseph] Holt’s’ address to the people of Kentucky. It is very eloquent and except in the lavish praise he bestows upon our Executive, I thoroughly agree with him. Without being any more of a Republican than I was a year ago, I begin to hate the southern traitors with a vindictiveness that I thought a year ago would be impossible.

Can it be right, my dear boy, that the devil should so enter into a man’s heart as to cause him to thirst for oceans of blood? It seems so incompatible with the principles instilled into my mind since childhood—the “peace on earth, good will to all men” principles—that I see now clearly enough how far I have drifted from the path so plainly pointed out in those simple commands, “Thou shalt not kill” [and] “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Snuffling is out of my line, but by George, with these things staring a fellow in the face, it is a mystery to me how I can so eagerly wish to take my life in my hand and go forward to kill or be killed, fighting for the old flag and he institutions of our dear country. But mystery or no mystery, of one thing I am certain—something, fiend or angel I don’t know which, has so possessed me that I long to get at the bloody work in real, sober earnest.

Had ever a fellow a better chance of fighting with his whole heart? with no ties to bind him at home beyond his own father’s house? God knows they are strong enough, but I mean with no young wife or children to make a fellow quail before the mouths of loaded cannon and the line of glittering bayonets, not for himself, but for them.

But it is very easy to talk and I expect if I ever do get before those masked batteries with men falling around me, I’ll wish myself well out of it. We may as well give ourselves as good characters as possible though, and I feel this minute as if I could hack away with a strong arm and a stout heart under the shadow of the dear old flag.

Don’t understand me as advocating a “war of subjugation” as the chant has it. I wish most fervently to see the rebel traitors of the South suffer a terrible vengeance for the disgrace  they have inflicted upon us at Manassas. I want to see their power completely broken. I want to see the Stars & Stripes over Manassas, Richmond, and East Tennessee. After all this is done, if they ask to go humiliated and crushed as they will be, I would say, let them go. Our national honor would be vindicated and the great prestige of military power and prowess, which has always been our best safeguard against the insults of foreign nations, will still remain with us. After such a defeat as we have sustained, it would be ruinous to listen to overtures from them and so I want them to get two, or three, or four good, thorough, old-fashioned drubbings first.

Father left today for Sharon Springs where he will join Madge and Anna and after a few days stay, return with them to Fishkill. Mother and all the rest of our interesting family, except your humble servant, got to the seashore (Atlantic City) on Thursday to be away about a week and I keep “Bachelor’s Hall” at Briarwood. Wouldn’t it be jolly to have our friend Sam VP out with me but I am saving him up for winter if the winter ever sees me with a whole head on my shoulders. But more of this anon.

My dear fellow, why in the work do you blow me up so for saying a cheery word to you once in awhile? What’s the odds if you won’t believe it. You know I speak ex cathedra—I’m posted—and can tell you its devilish poor form is this not sleeping any at night and moping about like a sick kitten in the day time. Keep a stiff upper lip and you’ll find it will all come right in the end whichever way it seems now. I think of you often and pity you as you used to pity me and more too, for then you sympathized with me for not knowing how it felt, laughed at my woebegone face at the same time. But I know from experience that it’s no laughing matter.

Now I’ve spun you a pretty long yard this time and haven’t said anything very disagreeable although all the time I had a rod in pickle for you and will bring it out now as a kind of peroration. Mont Hare told me (and told me not to say anything to you about it but I didn’t promise) that you wrote one letter to me some time ago but said you thought it might offend me and so didn’t send it. Now what I want to say is that if you keep back my property that way any more, you and I will have to come to an understanding. “I was a fool and now am wise.” — Rather, that is, I’m wise enough to know that I was a fool once and you ain’t going to catch my dander up at your letters any more, so do send all along just as fast as you can and please don’t keep the undersigned waiting two months or the undersigned will begin to think that you want to get clear of your old friend, — Newlin

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