77th New York Regimental Balladeers  

The Civil War Letters of
A Dutchess County, N.Y. Volunteer
Richard T. Van Wyck

Some Book Reviews

A War to Petrify the Heart The Civil War Letters of a Dutchess County NY Volunteer, Richard T. Van Wyck. edited by Virginia Hughes Kaminsky, with chapter introductions by John C. Quinn. Black Dome Press, RRI Box 422, Hensonville, NY 12439 (518) 734-6357
E-mail blackdomep@aol.com  Web Site: http://www.mhonline.net/~black/
1997. 381 pp. Index, letters, roster, biblio., maps, illustrations, photos. HC $35.95 SC $24.95

This publication, in soft cover, can now be purchased directly from John Quinn for $14.95. John will personally inscribe each book. Send a check or money to:
     John C. Quinn
     91 Cross Road
     Windham, NY 12496

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What makes for a "good" history of a unit that participated in the Civil War? The story of the regiment or battery as told through the experiences of its members. It is a tale of discovery and self-discovery, an inner and outer journey. As citizens become soldiers, they write with an intense sensitivity to their environment both physical and social. I like to see unsentimental, poignant, and/or humorous anecdotes expressed in rich language. The reader should come to see how lives were interconnected the unit's connection to the folks back home is an important part of the ideal narrative. In publishing the 150th NYV Sergeant Van Wyck's letters, Black Dome Press has made a significant step toward their evident goal of publishing work representative of New York's Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. He was a rather articulate "dutch" farmer from New York's Mid-Hudson Region. It was wisely decided to have a section in back where letters judged irrelevant to the book's narrative are nonetheless reproduced. Thank you, Black Dome, for not underestimating your readers! The book also includes Van Wyck's brief jottings in a vest pocket journal that he kept during the 150th's time under Sherman, as well as a few other documents not written by the New York private. You can pretty much dip anywhere among Van Wyck's writings and come up with pay dirt. I especially enjoyed his letters about life in shanty winter quarters, his time spent in earthworks around Atlanta, and what he saw once inside that city. This is not a book about combat, however. Van Wyck marched in the Gettysburg, Atlanta, Savannah, and Carolinas campaigns, but you will not find extended word pictures of specific battles, as much as descriptions of the process of soldiering. A War to Petrify the Heart succeeds in meeting both the needs of Civil War enthusiasts and the requirements of scholars.

Ben Maryniak, President Buffalo NY CWRT
The Civil War Courier
March 1998

As John Quinn notes, "Van Wyck lived in a letter-writing culture," and all through the war he wrote an average of two letters home per week, most of them to his stepmother Elizabeth [ Van Brunt ] Van Wyck, some to his future wife Sarah Van Vechten. Miraculously nearly two hundred of these letters were saved by his family and given to the East Fishkill Historical Society, which sponsored this publication. The letters are especially valuable because they chronicle the everyday life of the ordinary soldier. Van Wyck's comments on news from home show how important it was to hear from friends and relatives; he also gives his opinion on other events in the news, from the New York draft riots to Lincoln's assassination. When read together, the letters provide a good picture of the Civil War experience, both at the front and back home in Dutchess County. The letters have been carefully edited by Virginia Kaminsky, and John Quinn's introductions are worth reading by themselves.

Harry Macy, Associate Editor
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
January 1998

Richard T. Van Wyck and the soldiers of the 150th New York Infantry spent their first months in uniform on duty in Baltimore. Their first taste of combat came at Gettysburg on Culp's Hill in July 1863. It was a stark introduction to the horrors of war. In a letter to his father, Van Wyck wrote, "I was never on a battlefield before and the Lord preserve me from such a sight again... we did terrible execution,
Richard T. Van Wyck
Richard T. Van Wyck

literally piling the Rebs up in masses... I wish I could give you my impressions of the scene, which was awful beyond description." Any illusions this young soldier might have had about war were forever lost in the smoke and death of Culp's Hill. Van Wyck and his regiment joined Sherman's forces in the Western Theater, battling their way through Georgia and marching into Atlanta. When Sherman marched through the heart of the Confederacy, Van Wyck and his comrades went with him. When the 150th New York was mustered out in 1865, General Henry Slocum paid them high tribute when he said, "No regiment goes home with a better record" Van Wyck's letters are well organized and presented in this volume. He was a prolific writer, and corresponded with a number of family members acquaintances. The editor, Virginia Kaminsky, is to be commended for her skill in choosing which letters to include in this collection, while the chapter introductions by John C. Quinn and the informative footnotes help to place Van Wyck's descriptions and whereabouts in historical context. The title of the book comes from a December 4, 1862 letter by Van Wyck to a cousin in which he states, "The effect of war is to petrify the heart." He learned the truth of this statement during three years of service. His letters are full of mundane experiences of the common soldier, as well as moments of grim revelation on the battlefield. At the end of the book, Van Wyck is described in his obituary as someone who "seldom talked of his war record except when he was with some of his old war comrades." Thanks to the diligent efforts of Virginia Hughes Kaminsky, John C. Quinn, and the East Fishkill Historical Society in New York, students of the Civil War can now read and learn from Richard T. Van Wyck's "petrifying" experience as a member of the 150th New York.

John E. Deppen
The Civil War News
July 4, 1998





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