About Cornelius Van Houten

These letters were written by Cornelius Van Houten (1841-1916), the son of Ruliff or “Ralph” Van Houten (1808-1891) and Catherine Van Wagoner (1810-1887) of Pompton Plains (Pequannock township), Morris County, New Jersey. Cornelius had at least six siblings: Letitia (1831-1893), Albert (1835-1900), Elizabeth or “Libby” (1838-1901), Matilda (1844-1918), Samuel Crane or “Sammy” (1849-1912), and Georgiana (1852-1935).

The letters in this collection span the entire period that Cornelius served in Battery B of the 1st New Jersey Light Artillery from September 1861 until June 1865. There are 27 letters in the collection—most of them penned by Cornelius. One was written by his father, one by a comrade in the battery named James Onderdonk, and two by his brother Albert Van Houten who served with him during the last year of the war.

I have not been able to find a biographical sketch for Cornelius but we know that his parents were descendants of early New Jersey Dutch families. We know that Cornelius stood above average height at 5’10” tall and that he had a fair complexion and blue eyes. Before his enlistment, Cornelius was active in politics. He was a member of the opposition party during the Buchanan presidency and campaigned for Lincoln’s election in 1860. A record in the Sentinel of Freedom in Newark indicates that he served as the corresponding secretary in the Lincoln & Hamlin Club.

Cornelius entered the service as a private with aspirations of rising in rank but after the  disappointment of being passed over for a corporal’s position, he attempted to pull wires with hometown politicians to secure himself a commission in some capacity but apparently never received any serious consideration—most likely because he never seemed to get along well with his immediate superiors whose recommendations he required for such a position.

We learn from his letters that Cornelius described his pre-war life as one of “wickedness” and we are led to infer that his relationship with his parents was strained. He apparently did not even tell them that he had gotten married until he had already volunteered. Over time, we see Cornelius mature and become a “more dutiful son” to his parents and more accepting of his responsibility to his wife who struggled during his absence to raise their son on the meagre earnings he mailed home. As the war progressed, Cornelius grew more and more religious.

As near as I can discern from his letters, Cornelius was present with his Battery during most of their engagements. We know that he was with them throughout the Peninsula Campaign, that he fell ill and separated from his battery during the fall of 1862 but rejoined them in time to participate in the fighting at Fredericksburg, the Mud March, and the Battle of Chancellorsville where the Battery was the first to turn their guns on Jackson. At Gettysburg, he was with them on Peach Orchard Ridge to turn back Longstreet’s assault on Sickle’s salient. Finally he was with them throughout the Wilderness campaign and at the fall of Petersburg, only leaving for a time at the close of 1864 due to illness. Presumably there were at one time more letters in this collection which included descriptions of Cornelius’ observations of these battles. Regrettably, however, they appear to have been culled from the collection and I have not found them on-line. There are eight letters in the National Library of Australia which seem to be limited to 1865 (see below).

Following the war, Cornelius returned to New Jersey and worked for several years as a carpenter in Newark. Cornelius’ first wife was Mary Jones Ryerson (1837-Bef1895), the daughter of George G. and Anna (Graves) Ryerson. Both the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census records enumerate Cornelius with his family in Newark employed as a carpenter. By 1880, the couple had six children, the oldest being Frederick—the son frequently mentioned in these letters.

Sometime prior to 1895, Cornelius was widowed and he remarried to a woman named Susan Alice Foster (1853-1913) on 17 December 1895 in Portsmouth, Virginia. Susan was the daughter of George and Angelica Spencer of South Carolina. In the 1900 US Census, Cornelius was enumerated in Portsmouth and employed as a joiner at the shipyards there.  From 1912 to 1916 (when he died), Cornelius was living at the National Home for Disabled Soldiers at Hampton, Virginia. He was buried in the National Cemetery at Hampton.

During the last year of the war, Cornelius was joined in Battery by his older brother, Albert Van Houten (1835-1900). Albert was married in February 1860 to Mary Francis (“Fanny”) Stevens (1841-1895). Albert was working as a carriage maker in Newark at the time he registered for the draft in June 1863. He was part of the “One Year” men who joined Battery B in the fall of 1864.

Other known letters:

ALS (1865 April 27) written by Van Houten while serving with the 1st New Jersey Light Artillery to his father, Ralph Van Houten, pertaining to political affairs at the close of the Civil War. Van Houten discusses the surrenders of Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, punishment for Jefferson Davis, and other military and political leaders. Also includes a partial letter, a memorandum listing several men of his unit, and several covers. Eight items. Housed in the National Library of Australia.