Robert Newlin Verplanck
Robert Newlin Verplanck has left for posterity a historically valuable cache of 59 letters written from the battlefields of the Civil War about his experiences of training, leading and fighting alongside black American troops in the U.S.C.T.
Robert Newlin Verplanck was born on Nov. 18, 1842 at Mount Gulian, to parents William S. Verplanck and Anne Biddle Newlin Verplanck. During the period of his adolescence, 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 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. After the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Robert continued at Harvard until he graduated in mid-1863. Upon graduation Robert decided to volunteer in the Union Army, but in a very special role.
From the outset of the Civil War, there was a great debate throughout the Northern states about the future role and destiny of blacks, both free and slave, in the war effort and in America as a whole. 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. Many Americans, including many Northerners, believed that blacks were either not fully human, or were child-like, possibly dangerous and not to be trusted. Certainly then, blacks could not be allowed into the Army, where they would handle guns. Despite this prevailing prejudice, other people of principle and humanity, especially the Abolitionists, understood that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL and that black people living on American soil had to be free and would make fine citizens and fine soldiers. Early in the Civil War, Union Army generals such as Ben Butler learned that hundreds of former slaves were crossing into his lines to escape slavery. He declared that 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 Ben Butler put them work as paid laborers for the Union Army. But many of the former slaves, and free blacks throughout the North wanted to fight against the slave-owning Confederate States. A number of blacks volunteered into work units and even into small fighting units in the Union Army, but they were initially discouraged because racist generals and politicians still believed that black soldiers could not be trusted in battle.
Finally, on August 25, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the formation of a black fighting unit to be commanded by white officers, the First South Carolina Volunteers (Union). On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the “Slave States”.
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. R.N. Verplanck’s 59 existing letters are articulate and poignant documents describing the life of the 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., R.N. Verplanck 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, R.N. Verplanck 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.
Typed copies of the letters of R. N. Verplanck are available from Mount Gulian upon request at a nominal cost. The originals are at the Adriance Library in Poughkeepsie, NY.