- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

John C. Van Sickle is an adjunct instructor of air conditioning and heating on the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College, but recently he has been living in the 19th century.
While designing the air conditioning of a building on the corner of Lee and King streets in Old Town Alexandria, he inquired about the history of the house. When he was informed that it had served as one of the city's numerous Civil War hospitals, Mr. Van Sickle's mind raced to an 1863 letter in his family's archives.
Lyman Van Sickle, John's great-great-grandfather, served in the 5th Michigan Cavalry in George A. Custer's brigade. He wrote home on Sept. 29, 1863, "Sick in the Hospital, King Street, Alexandria VA." John Van Sickle makes a pretty good case to support his belief that is the building on which he worked. (Lyman recovered and returned to duty.)
Not long ago, while inspecting a 200-year-old home in Warrenton, Va., Mr. Van Sickle made another discovery. A brownish-pink roll of paper in the basement beams caught his eye; it was a $500 Confederate war bond. He was told he could keep it.
The Confederate States of America, with little hard cash and almost worthless paper money, issued two types of bonds to raise funds i.e., bonds per se and certificates. (Certificates did not have coupons attached.) The bond Mr. Van Sickle discovered still contained seven coupons; the first that remained was dated March 1, 1865, the last July 1, 1868. Each would have paid the bearer $17.50 for six months' interest.
This bond call it the Van Sickle bond was authorized by the Confederate Congress on Feb. 20, 1863, and issued on March 2, 1863, at an interest rate of 7 percent per year, payable semiannually. In 1864, a $500 bond issued on March 1 yielded 6 percent per year, with 60 coupons dated from Jan. 1, 1865, through July 1, 1894.
The most common bonds were in $50, $100, $500 and $1,000 denominations, but $5,000 and $10,000 bonds also were issued. The $50 bond coupons were redeemed for $2 each, and the $10,000 bonds brought up to $300 each. Imagine the dismay of those in 1865 who had purchased bonds in early 1864 expecting to draw interest until 1894.
The Van Sickle bond has two signatures and two sets of initials. The initials on the left are from people who entered and recorded the bond. The signature on the right is from the Register of the Treasury, Ro. Tyler, son of John Tyler, 10th president of the United States. A.S. Bradford signed each coupon for Tyler.
A brief history commonly was written on the back of a bond by the owner, but the reverse of the Van Sickle bond carries only the serial number 9776 which also is written on each coupon and on the bond itself in two places.
The ink has turned a dull dark brown. Luckily, it has not eaten through the non-acid-resistant paper of the era or seeped through to the back. There are Civil War letters in red ink on expensive watermarked bond that look as fresh as the day written but most documents do not fare so well.
Similar bonds are available for sale on the Internet. The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond estimated the Van Sickle bond to be worth about $90 to $110. Collectors often will pay $12 for individual coupons, but the bond is worth much more to John Van Sickle than the current Internet price. It is another source of connection he feels to his great-great-grandfather Lyman.
Lyman Van Sickle was born on July 11, 1834, the 12th child of Cornelius and sixth child of Sara Van Sickle, in Delaware County, Ohio. In "History of the Van Sickle Family" by John W. Van Sickle, M.D., Ph.D., published in 1900, Lyman is described as a farmer and violinist who enlisted in Company G, 5th Michigan Cavalry on July 23, 1862.
"The motive which led him to the battlefield was not the desire of fame, but must be sought in a higher and nobler cause his pure and lofty love of country," John W. wrote in flowery prose and with compassion for the misfortune Lyman suffered.
The 5th Michigan fought hard with Custer at Gettysburg. Lyman wrote on July 8, 1863, "We march on, some giving out and falling in their tracks, overcome with hard fighting at Gettysburg. May I never again witness the scenes of the past six weeks. You can read of the horrors of the battlefield, but to experience them is a different thing."
He then asked, "Shall I ever see the boy and his mother, and the girls?" This was followed by a moving passage understood best by all fathers serving their country in time of war: "One of these past times that I did not know how to appreciate, was when Adelphia (his first daughter, born March 27, 1857) was following me across the corn field, and how well pleased she would be for hours asking questions, and playing in the dirt." Lyman Van Sickle had become aware of his mortality.
His brigade commander, Custer, was 23 years old when he was promoted from captain to brigadier general, the youngest general in the Union Army. In 1863, he commanded the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade, which included the 1st, Lyman's 5th, 6th and 7th regiments of the Michigan cavalry.
On July 3, three Union brigades faced Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry in the rear of the Union center, east of Gettysburg on what is known today as East Cavalry Field. Many historians believe Gen. Robert E. Lee anticipated Stuart's breaking through at the same time Gen. George E. Pickett led a successful charge.
After a duel between horse artillery, Confederate skirmishers attacked on foot. The first to oppose them was the 5th Michigan. The men were equipped with Spencer carbines, the lever-action repeaters most coveted by Union cavalry and favorite of the Custer Brigade.
Had the 5th not run low on ammunition as the stock tubes holding copper cartridges emptied, the following scenario might not have occurred: Division commander David McMurtrie Gregg ordered the 7th to charge.
Custer galloped to the front and shouted, "Come on you Wolverines." The fighting flowed back and forth. Eventually, Stuart had eight cavalry regiments involved. The Union horsemen were driven back. Gregg had only one unit remaining in reserve and was forced to commit the 1st Michigan.
Again, Custer rode to the front with "Come on you Wolverines," elevating him to the status of Civil War hero. (The scene was well-preserved for the future by Errol Flynn in Warner Bros.' 1939 film "They Died With Their Boots On.") After a tremendous battle that saw for the first time Union cavalry outfighting Stuart's cavalry, the Confederates retreated. Together with Pickett's defeat, the second invasion of the North was repulsed.
After Gettysburg, Lyman saw action in Maryland and then was back in Virginia. The 5th fought in 1863 at Brandy Station, Culpeper Court House and in the Mine Run Campaign. In 1864, he saw fighting in Kilpatrick's Raid on Richmond from Feb. 18 to March 4, and Hanover Court House on May 21.
One of his last letters home was dated May 16, 1864, from Harrison Landing, James River. "Dear Martha: I am still spared, and able to converse with you," it began. "I have not heard from you for a month, but hope soon to hear. I have been in very hard battles, and helped to destroy a rail-road burned three trains of cars loaded with supplies for Lee's army."
On May 28 he wrote, "We have done some hard fighting with the saber we make a business of fighting, and have got so used to it, we go at it as if to do a day's work in harvest."
Finally, on June 6, "Old Tavern Stand on the road to Richmond. Have been in three hard battles since I commenced this letter. One line of battle is ten miles long, fighting all the time. I hope to meet you soon, but not my will be done."
(Frederick H. Dyer's "A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion" lists 5th Regiment Cavalry action in 1864 along the Pamunkey River May 26 through 28; Hanovertown Ferry, Hanovertown, and Crump's Creek on May 27; and Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor May 31 through June 1.)
Lyman's letters do not mention his health, and it is hypothesized he was actively engaged in the fighting of which he wrote. His luck ran out during Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Trevillian Raid, June 7 through 24.
After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was defeated at Cold Harbor and was back across the James River, he realized the importance of the Virginia Central Railroad to Lee. It connected Lynchburg and the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan, by then the commander of Union cavalry, was ordered to assist in destroying the railroad. Lee ordered Wade Hampton, who had assumed command of the Cavalry Corps after the death of Stuart, to stop Sheridan.
Sheridan was across the North Anna River with 8,000 cavalrymen on June 10 and approached Trevillian Station. Hampton countered with two divisions, but Custer and the Michigan Brigade managed to split and get between the two Confederate divisions. They were not reinforced and soon were surrounded by troops commanded by Custer's friend and West Point classmate Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser. Custer was forced to pull back after losing 437 soldiers. One of the captured was Lyman Van Sickle.
Actually, Lyman may have been captured on June 17, the date recorded in the Van Sickle family history. June 11, however, is listed in the Record of Service of the Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War. Both sources agree that he eventually was imprisoned in Andersonville, Macon County, Ga.
A report that he "lived seven days in the woods" may account for the discrepancy in capture dates. (It is not certain whether he was hiding from his eventual captors or held in a temporary prison camp.)
July and August must have been terrible months for Lyman, as his physical condition deteriorated steadily. Disease, wounds and malnutrition all may have contributed to his death on Aug. 31, 1864. Nearly 30 per cent of Andersonville's 45,000 Union prisoners never left the gates alive.
Lyman Van Sickle's letter three months earlier contained a fatalistic and poignant poem indicative of the times:
Home is where there's one to love,
The time may now be drawing near
When we shall meet no more to part;
When eye will speak to answering eye
And heart to beating heart.
It matters not, I have oft been told
Where the body lies when the heart is cold.

T.L. Maguder is dean of environmental and natural science on the Woodbridge Campus of Northern Virginia Community College and a volunteer with the National Park Service at Manassas National Battlefield Park.

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