Henry Van Aernam, Surgeon 
Courtesy of William C. Welch Collection
at the U.S. Army Military History Institute 
Carlisle Barracks, PA


by Mark H. Dunkelman
  
 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 154th New York’s original surgeon was the most distinguished member of the regimental medical staff. “Of the many eminent men who passed their boyhood in Cattaraugus County,” a contemporary wrote, “not one has made so marked an impress upon its people as Dr. Henry Van Aernam.” His paternal ancestors came from Holland; his mother’s people were Scottish. Jacob B. and Hannah (Wallace) Van Aernam’s sixth child and fifth son was born on March 11, 1819, in Marcellus, Onondaga County, New York. The boy’s father was a veteran of the War of 1812 and his grandfather had fought in the Revolution. Henry was three when Jacob moved the family in 1822 to what would become the town of Mansfield, Cattaraugus County, New York. For the next seven years Henry did what he could to aid his pioneer parents carve a poor living out of the wilderness. Starting at age ten, Henry began two years of study at his district’s log schoolhouse. A bright and ambitious student, he leapt to the head of his class. 1

Van Aernam was fifteen when he taught during the winter of 1833-34 in a dingy, rough-plank-floored schoolhouse on the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Reservation in West Salamanca. His two-dozen pupils were not Indians, however, but the children of lumbermen, workers in an industry booming along the oxbow cut by the Allegheny River through Cattaraugus County. When spring of 1834 arrived, Van Aernam left the schoolhouse for a clerkship in a store, but that apparently did not appeal to him either, for in August 1835 he went to Virginia to work as the paymaster and confidential clerk of a company contracted to build the James River and Kanawha Canal. After two years of meritorious service to the contractors, Van Aernam returned to western New York and entered the Springville Academy, across Cattaraugus Creek in Erie County. Again he stood out as a student, bound and determined to succeed, and he taught school on the side to earn money.

Immediately after graduating, he began the study of medicine in the office of Levi Goldsborough in the Cattaraugus County hamlet of Otto. Van Aernam had finally found his profession. “As a medical student he was diligent, energetic, and practical,” wrote a contemporary. He was a cautious practitioner, a strong-minded and inquisitive thinker, select in choosing his friends, “with a constitution unimpaired by indulgence.” He attended medical lectures at Geneva College during the 1842-43 session and graduated from Willoughby College in Ohio in 1845. That summer he set up a practice in the Cattaraugus County town of Allegany (then called Burton). On November 30, 1845, Van Aernam married Amy Melissa Etheridge. In March 1848 the couple moved to the Cattaraugus County town of Franklinville, which Van Aernam would call home for the rest of his days. The Van Aernams had two children: a daughter, Dora (later Mrs. James D. McVey), and a son, Charles D. Van Aernam. 2

In Franklinville, Van Aernam soon built a reputation as one of Cattaraugus County’s leading medical men. A trusted doctor of excellent judgment and analytical skills, adept at relationships with patients, and “with a willingness to ride with his pillbags to the hut of the poor as well as to the residence of the rich.” He channeled his popularity and success as a physician into politics. A slavery-hating abolitionist, he was a charter member of the Republican party. After organizing opposition that toppled a county-wide political machine, he was elected in the fall of 1857 to represent his Cattaraugus County assembly district in the state legislature. He returned to Franklinville from Albany after his single term and resumed his medical practice, which was larger and more popular than ever. 3

When the Civil War broke out, Van Aernam gave his whole-hearted support to the Union cause, laboring zealously to encourage enlistments and contributing liberally to aid soldiers’ families. On August 20, 1862, Van Aernam took the ultimate step: He enrolled as the 154th New York’s surgeon. He reported for duty at the regimental rendezvous at Jamestown, Chautauqua County, nine days later. He was mustered in with the rest of the field and staff officers on September 26, and traveled with the regiment to Washington and the Virginia front. From its first camp on Arlington Heights, the 154th marched to Fairfax Court House, where it joined the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 11th Corps. Between Arlington and Fairfax, Van Aernam noted in a letter to his daughter, “The houses are burned and the whole country looks a dreary desolation — no crops — no houses — no cattle — no nothing! Such is war!” In November 1862, during the 154th’s movement to Thoroughfare Gap, Virginia, Van Aernam described the local inhabitants as “thoroughly and earnestly rebellious.” 

During this period, Private George Eugene Graves of Company D reported that Van Aernam was feeling well but complained of being sore. A week later, however, Graves noted that Van Aernam was “rather unwell” and hospitalized. By November 23, the surgeon was in a Georgetown, D.C., hospital. He returned to the regiment at its camp near Falmouth on December 16, feeling fatigued after the seventy-mile journey from Washington, but pleased to find the men generally well and cheerful. The health of the regiment, he reported, was the best it had been since arriving in Dixie. The men welcomed their surgeon back. “It seems like home again to see him around with us again,” declared Gene Graves. About a month later Van Aernam pronounced himself as “quite strong now and am improving every week.” But shortly thereafter he admitted he had to use a cane to walk, and his health was only “tolerably good.” Van Aernam was appointed the brigade surgeon-in-chief in January 1863. He left for home on a thirty-day sick leave on February 7, bearing much cash and many allotment checks sent from soldiers to their home folk. 

After Van Aernam visited a Cattaraugus County newspaper office, the editor wrote, “The Doctor, we are gratified to know, is rendering good service to the Government, and is very popular with the members of his regiment.” Van Aernam returned to the 154th on March 11, about a month prior to the start of the spring 1863 campaign. Private Emory Sweetland of Company B, doing duty as a ward master in the regimental hospital, noted that Van Aernam, as brigade surgeon, “stands quite a chance of being promoted to be a Medical Director” — but such a promotion never came to be. 4

On April 10, 1863, the 11th Corps was reviewed by Abraham Lincoln, and Van Aernam sent his wife a lengthy account the following day, describing the president as “careworn, anxious and fatigued,” and Mary Todd Lincoln as “fat, fair and ‘squishy.’” On April 13 the 154th New York left its winter camp at Stafford Court House and marched up the Rappahannock River to the vicinity of Kelly’s Ford. During the two-week stay at the ford, Van Aernam and Emory Sweetland went down to the riverbank and examined the Confederates on the opposite shore through a field glass. Sweetland described the rebels as “a hard-looking set.” On May 2, 1863, the 154th New York and the rest of the 11th Corps was shattered by Stonewall Jackson’s surprise attack at Chancellorsville. The 154th lost 240 out of 590 men engaged, a 40 percent casualty rate and the fourth highest regiment loss total in the Army of the Potomac. “We have been shelled out of three field hospitals already,” Van Aernam reported in a hasty letter to his wife on May 4, “and I have had over 400 wounded pass through my hands.” After the Army of the Potomac retreated and the regiment returned to its Stafford area camp, Van Aernam noted, “We are a sorrowing and stricken band.” For two weeks he had scarcely slept at all. “The wonder is that any of us are alive and so well as we are,” he wrote. During this period he temporarily held the post of division surgeon-in-chief. “It makes busy times for him,” noted Gene Graves, who acted as a scribe for the doctor. 5

As June opened, rumors flew about the camp regarding the whereabouts of Lee’s army. “The agony of the suspense and the suppressed excitement in such a time as this is really more painful and trying than the storm of the battlefields,” Van Aernam opined. The suspense was lifted on June 12, when the 11th Corps marched north in pursuit of Lee. The path led to Gettysburg, where the 154th New York was decimated in fighting on July 1, 1863, losing 205 out of 265 men present, a 77 percent casualty rate. As at Chancellorsville, the hospital Van Aernam labored at as brigade surgeon in Gettysburg was shelled by the enemy. “I have operated largely,” he wrote after the battle. “My heart is sick contemplating the mutilations.” Among the patients he treated was the mortally wounded Confederate brigadier general Lewis A. Armistead. 6

In the aftermath of Gettysburg, Van Aernam contemplated resigning and applied for a leave of absence. His spirits were low. “I shall almost die of the blues,” he informed his wife. “As a matter of choice I had rather be placed where I should hear the devilish and infernal shriek of the shells than endure this weary loneliness that is upon me!” Then he was troubled by a bout of chronic diarrhea. He returned home on leave in September 1863. The editor of a Democratic newspaper noted that his Republican rival had received “private letters and political gossip” from the surgeon. Van Aernam was reported as absent without leave from October 5, 1863, but he returned to the regiment without consequence on November 3, 1863. “My health has not suffered on returning to camp,” he wrote five days later, “but I find that I am not the man I was once in point of health and endurement.” Still later that month, Van Aernam reported the “complete and glorious victory” of the Union army at Chattanooga in a battle that cost the 154th New York but six men wounded. On November 27, Van Aernam left the hospital in Chattanooga to join the 11th Corps on its march to the relief of Knoxville and back to Lookout Valley, where it went into winter camp. (During the return march, Van Aernam’s horse, Old Abe, fell off a high embankment and was killed; the doctor, apparently unmounted at the time, was unhurt.) For three months from December 29, 1863, Van Aernam was detached as surgeon-in-chief of the 2nd Division, 11th Corps. During that period a friend wrote, “It is a matter of sincere regret that his health is not equal to his loyal devotion to his laborious duties in the field. And as he still continues actively to direct and supervise the increased service, it is hoped that the fine, clear weather of spring will bring him restored health, that he may be continued in the service.” Van Aernam returned to the regiment on March 29, 1864 and was relieved as division surgeon-in-chief the following day. 7

On the eve of the Atlanta campaign, Van Aernam was struck by a series of excruciating daily headaches and once more he considered submitting his resignation. When the 154th New York left its Lookout Valley camp on May 4, 1864, to embark on the Atlanta campaign, Van Aernam was with the regiment, but twelve days later he was granted a leave of absence. On May 26, a Cattaraugus County newspaper reported him at home with his family in Franklinville, recuperating from his illness. “We sincerely hope that home care and the bracing air of this beautiful Spring weather, will soon make him entirely well,” the editor commented. In the first days of July, Van Aernam was in Chattanooga on his way back to the regiment when he encountered Sergeant Horace Smith of Company D. “His health is very poor yet,” Smith observed. But when Van Aernam reached the regiment on July 7, the 154th’s commander, Major Lewis D. Warner described him as “very well and hearty” and “looking much better than when [he] left for home.” About a month later, Van Aernam described himself as “quite well.” He was on duty at the battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20, which cost the 20th Corps almost 2,500 casualties but resulted in the complete repulse of the Confederate attack. The rest of July and all of August was spent in the siege lines outside of Atlanta. Van Aernam described himself as “usually well and very anxious to get home.” Then followed the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and the 154th New York set up camp on the outskirts of the city. On October 23, 1864, Van Aernam took up his old post as brigade surgeon-in-chief. 8

Van Aernam was a political lightning rod in the 154th New York. “There was a great deal of politics to the square yard” of the regiment, Captain Matthew B. Cheney of Company G stated in the postwar years, “and especially around Dr. Van Aernam’s Head Quarters.” Thus it must have been no surprise when Van Aernam was nominated by the Republican party in the autumn of 1864 to run for the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives being vacated by Reuben E. Fenton, who was mounting his own successful campaign for governor of New York State. Van Aernam’s opponent in the 31st Congressional District race was Jonas K. Button, ironically another Franklinville resident. Members of the 154th New York rejoiced at the nomination of their surgeon for Congress. Sergeant William Charles of Company F was “very glad” to learn of Van Aernam’s nomination. “He is a first rate friend to me,” Charles wrote. “Hurray for Old Abe! Fenton! and Dr. Van Aernam!” enthused Horace Smith on November 1. Smith noted that Van Aernam had submitted his resignation and expected to leave for home in a few days. The resignation was accepted on November 5, 1864. 

Van Aernam left for home on Election Day, Tuesday, November 8, aboard the last hospital train to leave Atlanta. “It was a sad day to our boys when he left,” wrote Horace Smith. When the ballots were counted, Van Aernam had defeated Button, 13,996 to 7,374. After the congressman-elect visited the office of a Cattaraugus County newspaper in February 1865, the editor wrote, “We were glad to see that he was looking in excellent health, and seemed to have entirely recovered from the injurious effects of his severe labors and hardships.” Two months into his congressional term, in May 1865, Van Aernam made at least two visits to his old regiment at its camps near Washington, D.C., as the 154th awaited its muster-out. 9

According to admirers, Van Aernam’s wartime service was exemplary. He “ was not a theoretical surgeon,” one wrote in the postwar years, “but was on the operating staff and became famous among famous experts with the knife. He gained the ardent affection of his comrades, and the few survivors of the 154th Regiment today have great respect and veneration for their old surgeon. If they are afflicted with hero-worship for him there is much in his conduct to warrant the devotion.” Another contemporary observed that Van Aernam’s positions as surgeon-in-chief at both the brigade and division levels “were no sinecures, where carpet professionals perform chivalrous deeds on paper, but stern realities in camp and field, amid the din of battle and the clash of resounding arms. As evidence of his high standing in the army, and his cool deliberation under circumstances of severe trial, he was under constant detail upon the operating staff; and there is no possible form of mutilation which the human system is capable of undergoing, that has not fallen under the personal observation of Henry Van Aernam.” 10

Soldiers of the 154th New York offered testimony praising Surgeon Van Aernam’s care. “Doctor Van Aernam has been very kind to me,” wrote William Charles. “When I was sick he sent a man to take care of me, and came himself twice a day to see me.” Sergeant John A. Bush of Company D was badly wounded at Gettysburg and his arm was amputated by Surgeon Van Aernam. In the postwar years, Bush recalled that when the regimental color-bearer was brought to the hospital mortally wounded, Van Aernam broke down completely, saying, “They are taking our best men.” Emory Sweetland remembered that Van Aernam chose only the best men as assistants in the hospitals, saying that “the place required more nerve than in the ranks.” Van Aernam’s compassion extended to the enemy. Sergeant Clark E. “Salty” Oyer of Company G recalled Van Aernam coming upon a Confederate hospital during the Atlanta campaign, in which a number of rebels had been abandoned. The surgeon “stopped and examined them to see if anything could be done for them, but found that their cases were hopeless and their day of life about set.” 11

In 1866 Van Aernam was re-elected to Congress. Reconstruction matters occupied the legislature during his two terms, and he aligned himself squarely with the Radical Republicans. He believed in civil rights for black people and in repentance by secessionists, who in his eyes had committed treason. He thought that ex-Confederates should pledge unquestioning allegiance to the Union, and that mistreatment of the freedmen by whites should be vigorously punished. He also closely guarded the interests of Union veterans. Van Aernam made powerful friends during his terms in office. He was reported to be an intimate friend and medical adviser to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and a daily table companion of Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and Representative John A. Bingham of Ohio. 12

Soon after the inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant, on May 1, 1869, Van Aernam was nominated and confirmed as Commissioner of Pensions, a position he held for two years. During his tenure he initiated important reforms in the Bureau of Pensions, among them the passage of an act making pension payments quarterly rather than semi-annually (and relieving pensioners of the expense of making and executing vouchers), and guarding pensioners against frauds perpetrated against them by unscrupulous claim-agents. Van Aernam served as commissioner until May 31, 1871, when he resigned. 13

On leaving the Bureau of Pensions Van Aernam returned to Franklinville and the practice of medicine. In the fall of 1878 he was again elected to Congress; two years later, he was re-elected. In the latter Congress Van Aernam served as chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, an important post during a period of labor unrest. At the end of his terms, Van Aernam returned to Franklinville and his practice. He was a zealous booster of his adopted hometown, active in incorporating the village, a trustee of its Ten Broeck Free Academy, and a member of the association that organized and opened Mount Prospect Cemetery. 14

Van Aernam’s Franklinville home was described as “a Mecca for the survivors of the war of Cattaraugus and Chautauqua, and especially of his old regiment, and also of the politicians of the two counties.” He took an active interest in 154th New York veterans’ affairs. When he was unable to attend the regiment’s fifth annual reunion in 1893, a group of veterans traveled to Franklinville to visit him. Van Aernam entertained his old comrades with dinner at a hotel and a cotillion at his house. Van Aernam was always ready to help a veteran secure a pension, and he retained an active interest in the welfare of the Republican party. In 1889 he was stricken with paralysis. He remained an invalid, largely confined to his home, until his death on June 1, 1894. A memorial and tribute, illustrated with a portrait, took up the entire front page of the Franklinville newspaper. “The love we had for him, the esteem, the respect, the confidence — all were deserved,” stated The Chronicle. “No man ever deserved more from his townsfolk, nor had it.” Another newspaper declared, “No man has ever held as large a place in the hearts of the people of Cattaraugus County as that held by Henry Van Aernam.” His funeral was said at the time to be the largest in Franklinville’s history. He was laid to rest in the beautiful cemetery he had helped to found, Mount Prospect. The Grand Army of the Republic post in nearby Ellicottville, was posthumously named in his honor. 15


1. Franklin Ellis, ed., History of Cattaraugus County, New York (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1879), 326; William Adams, ed., Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, N.Y. (Syracuse: Lyman, Horton and Co., 1893), 131 (quote), 132; Henry Van Aernam interview notes, January 12, 1894, in Edwin Dwight Northrup Papers, #4190, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (hereafter E. D. Northrup Papers).
2. Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 326 (quote), 327; Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 131, 133-4.
3. Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 326-7; Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 131 (quote), 132.
4. Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 132; Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327; Muster-In Roll, September 26, 1862, and Muster Rolls, December 31, 1862, and February 28 and April 30, 1863, Field and Staff, 154th New York, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; A. G. Rice to Thomas Hillhouse, August 29, 1862, Correspondence and Petitions 1821-1896, New York State Adjutant General’s Office, New York State Archives, Albany; “From the 154th Regiment,” Cattaraugus Freeman (Ellicottville, N.Y.), October 2, 1862, quoting Van Aernam’s letter of September 30, 1862; Henry Van Aernam to Dora Van Aernam, October 15, 1862, and January 19, 1863, and to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, November 5 and 28 and December 12 and 17, 1862, and January 27 and September 3, 1863, courtesy of U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa. (as are all the Van Aernam letters except as noted below); George Eugene Graves to Celia Smith, November 4, 11, and 23, and December 23, 1862, courtesy of Ron Meininger; Stephen Welch diary, February 4 and 7, March 11, 1863, courtesy of Carolyn Stoltz; Henry D. Lowing to his father, December 2, 1862, courtesy of Robert Lowing; Marshall O. Bond diary, December 16, 1862, and February 7, 1863, courtesy of New York State Library, Albany; Special Orders Number 65, Adjutant General’s Office, February 9, 1863, 154th New York Papers, National Archives; “Local and Miscellaneous,” Cattaraugus Freeman, March 5, 1863; Emory Sweetland to Mary Sweetland, February 27, 1863, courtesy of Lyle Sweetland.
5. Van Aernam to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, April 11, May 4 and 7, 1863; Muster Rolls, June 30 and August 31, 1863, Field and Staff, 154th New York, National Archives; Emory Sweetland to Mary Sweetland, April 19, 1863; Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327; George Eugene Graves to Celia Smith, May 14, 1863, author’s collection.
6. Van Aernam to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, June 8, and July 30, 1863; Henry Van Aernam interview notes, August 4, 1890, in E. D. Northrup Papers. For more on Van Aernam and Armistead, see Mark H. Dunkelman, “Additional Notes on the 154th New York at Gettysburg,” Gettysburg Magazine 29 (July 2003): 71-85.
7. Van Aernam to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, August 12, 1863, courtesy of Dorothy Farnham DeSha; Van Aernam to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, September 3 and 10, November 8 and 26, December 4, 1863; Muster Rolls, October 31 and December 31, 1863, and February 29 and April 30, 1864, Field and Staff, 154th New York, National Archives; “Dr. H. Van Aernam,” Cattaraugus Union (Ellicottville, N.Y.), October 2, 1863; “Report of Absentees from 154th N.Y. Vols. for the month of Oct. 1863,” 154th New York Papers, National Archives; Stephen Welch diary, November 3, 1863; Miscellaneous Notes, in E. D. Northrup Papers; David S. Jones to his brother, March 27, 1864, courtesy of Clara Jones; Lewis D. Warner diary, March 29, 1864, courtesy of Charles H. Warner III; “Col. P. H. Jones,” Cattaraugus Freeman, March 24, 1864, quoting letter of John Manley; Special Orders Number 65, Second Division, Twentieth Corps, March 30, 1864, 154th New York Papers, National Archives.
8. Van Aernam to Amy Melissa Van Aernam, April 21 and 28, July 24, August 23, 1864; Muster Rolls, June 30, August 31, October 31, and December 31, 1864, Field and Staff, 154th New York, National Archives; “At Home,” Cattaraugus Freeman, May 26, 1864; Horace Smith diary, July 2 and 3, 1864, courtesy of Mazomanie (Wisc.) Historical Society; Lewis D. Warner diary, July 7, 1864; “Letter of Major L. D. Warner,” unidentified newspaper clipping quoting letter of July 8, 1864, courtesy of Cattaraugus County Historical Museum, Machias, N.Y.; “Letter From Surgeon Van Aernam,” Cattaraugus Freeman, August 18, 1864, quoting Van Aernam’s letter of August 3, 1864; Special Orders Number 107, Second Brigade, Second Division, Twentieth Corps, October 23, 1864, and Special orders Number 118, Twentieth Corps, November 5, 1864, both in 154th New York Papers, National Archives.
9. Matthew B. Cheney to E. D. Northrup, September 3, 1893, in E. D. Northrup Papers; William Charles to Ann Charles, October 25, 1864, courtesy of Jack Finch; Horace Smith diary, November 1 and 14, 1864; Mark H. Dunkelman, “Hurray for Old Abe! Fenton! and Dr. Van Aernam! The 1864 Election, as Perceived by the 154th New York Volunteers,” Lincoln Herald 98, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 12-22; Joshua R. Pettit diary, May 23, 1865, courtesy of Mary Ranney; “Personal,” Cattaraugus Freeman, February 9, 1865.
10. Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 132 (quote); Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327 (quote).
11. William Charles to Ann Charles, September 5, 1863; John A. Bush interview notes, undated; Emory Sweetland and Henry Bliton interview notes, February 18, 1891; Bradford Rowland and Clark E. “Salty” Oyer interview notes, August 29, 1886, all in E. D. Northrup Papers.
12. Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327; Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 132-3; “Re-Nomination of Dr. Van Aernam,” Fredonia Censor, October 3, 1866.
13. Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327; Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 133; Van Aernam biography at http://bioguide.congress.gov.
14. Ellis, History of Cattaraugus County, 327; Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 133.
15. Adams, Historical Gazetteer and Biographical Memorial of Cattaraugus County, 133 (Mecca quote); “They Come to Him,” The Journal (Franklinville, N.Y.), October 18, 1893; E. D. Northrup diary, October 17, 1893, in E. D. Northrup Papers; “Dr. Van Aernam Dead,” undated Buffalo Express clipping, E. D. Northrup Papers; “Dr. Van Aernam,” “Biographical,” “The Funeral,” and “Words of Sympathy,” The Chronicle (Franklinville, N.Y.), June 8, 1894: 1; “At Rest,” Ellicottville News, June 9, 1894; Presidents, Soldiers, Statesmen (Chicago: H. H. Hardesty, 1899), 1621.

Submitted by Mark H. Dunkelman 10/24/2008


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