Captain Robert Newlin Verplanck
Robert Newlin Verplanck left for posterity a historically valuable cache of 59 letters written from the battlefields of the Civil War about his experience of training, leading and fighting alongside African American troops in the U.S.C.T.
Robert Newlin (R.N.) Verplanck was born on Nov. 18, 1842 at Mount Gulian, to William S. Verplanck and Anne Biddle (Newlin) Verplanck. During his boyhood, the United States was a house divided over the issues of slavery and states’ rights. Young Robert was a bright man coming from a family of great privilege, graduating from the prestigious Poughkeepsie Collegiate School, a private boy’s school, in 1858. Growing up at Mount Gulian, he often came into contact with Dutchess County’s small population of free Blacks, many of whom were skilled laborers and craftsmen in the area. James F. Brown, a freed escaped slave from Maryland, was Mount Gulian’s master gardener and trusted property manager throughout Robert’s early life. Robert left home in 1859, when he began attending Harvard College in Boston. Although not a very good student, after the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Robert continued at Harvard until he graduated in mid-1863. Upon graduation, Robert made the fateful decision to volunteer in the Union Army, but in a very special role.
From long before the Civil War, there was a great debate throughout the country about the future role and destiny of Blacks, both free and slave. According to the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the "Slave States" at that time, slavery was legal, slaves were property and free Blacks were not full citizens anywhere. The Slave States were counting on the perpetuation of slavery and its expansion into the western territories. The northern states, although considered "Free States" had many businesses making money directly from the products of slavery, such as cotton, tobacco, rice and other crops, as well as the shipping of these products around the world. The Verplanck family had themselves been slave owners in the 1700’s. Slavery was finally abolished in NY in 1827.
At the outbreak of the Civil War over 4 million people were enslaved. Freemen and Blacks escaping slavery could not initially join the Union Army. Despite the prevailing prejudices, people of principle and humanity, especially the Abolitionists, understood that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL and that all Black people living on American soil had to be free, and would make fine citizens and good soldiers.
Early in the Civil War, Union Army generals such as Ben Butler saw that hundreds of former slaves were crossing into his lines to escape slavery. He declared they were "contraband", a form of enemy property not to be returned to their slave masters. In this way, the slaves had become free and General Butler put them to work as paid laborers for the Union Army. But many former slaves, and free Blacks throughout the North wanted to fight against the slave-owning Confederate States. A number of Blacks volunteered for work units and even for small fighting units in the Union Army, but were initially discouraged because many generals and politicians still believed that Black soldiers could not be trusted in battle. There was also a fear that arming Black soldiers would push more people in the North against the Union cause.
Finally, on August 25, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the formation of a Black fighting unit, the First South Carolina Volunteers (Union), to be commanded by White officers. Then on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the Slave States and in occupied Union controlled territory. (Slaves held in the pro-Union "Border States" of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri were enslaved until freed toward the end of the Civil War).
Later, 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", graduated from Harvard and first reported as a Union Army private in New York City. In the summer of 1863 he reported to Casey’s Board in Washington DC, where he was evaluated and trained in preparation to be a volunteer officer in the newly formed U.S.C.T. On September 15, 1863 at age 20, R.N. was then enlisted in the 22nd Regiment, New York Militia. Two days later he reported to Camp William Penn outside Philadelphia, the largest encampment of Black soldiers in the Civil War. Assigned as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th Regiment, U.S.C.T., he was ready to train and lead African American troops into battle.
Within a month, his raw troops were skirmishing against the Rebels in Virginia. R.N. Verplanck’s 59 existing letters, housed in the Adriance Library, Poughkeepsie NY, are articulate and poignant documents describing the life of a common soldier at war. Written to his mother and sister Jenny, the letters 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., Robert Newlin Verplanck was promoted to Brevet 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-De-Camp to various Union generals. His final letters describe the Army’s response to the total Union victory at Appomattox VA, and to the horror felt at the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865.
After the war, R.N. Verplanck returned briefly to Mount Gulian, later moving to Manhattan and then to New Jersey, where he was a businessman. He entered the infant oil business there but sold out to the Standard Oil Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller in 1871. He married Katherine "Kate" Brinckerhoff on February 24, 1876 and they had five children. Later in life he managed his father’s farm in East Fishkill and other properties in the area, but had financial difficulties. In the early 1900’s he returned to Orange NJ, where he died on January 10, 1908 at the age of 65. He is buried in Fishkill, NY. For many years after his death, his widow Katherine tried to get a war pension from the government for his service in the Union Army. She was eventually successful. In April 1935, Kate Verplanck moved to Norwich, Chenango County, NY, where she died on March 28, 1944.
For more information about "Casey's Board" click HERE for the thesis written by Major Daniel V. Van Every.
For further information about R.N. Verplanck click HERE.