John L. Houck
Papers, 1862-1865

SC18564

Quantity: 2 boxes (0.25 cubic ft.)
Access: Open to research.
Acquisition: Purchased from Lincoln Hill Books in 1985; accretion of eight items received as a gift from James E. Miller, July 2013
Processed By: Processed by James Corsaro, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections, October 1985.  Revised by Abigail L. Fahrenwald Simkovic, Student Assistant, University at Albany, April 2013; revised July 2013

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Biographical Note:

John Lewis Houck (August 14, 1829-July 19, 1910) was the eldest and only surviving child of Jacob L. Houck (1805-1870) and Christiana Houck Houck (1805-1893). His mother was the daughter of Jacob G. Houck, and a cousin to his father. John L. Houck was raised on his father’s fruit farm in Clarksville, a hamlet in the Town of New Scotland, Albany County, New York. In 1848 he married Sophia Elizabeth Beller (1826-1904), with whom he had four children: Emma Louise (1849-1910), Mary Lena (1854-1918), James Lansing (1858-1925), and Ada Christina (1868-1935).

Houck enlisted for service in the 25th New York Volunteers Infantry Regiment on September 13, 1862. On November 29, 1862, he was mustered in as a fifer with Company I and was almost immediately dispatched to the recruitment camp near Alexandria, Virginia. Soon after, his regiment traveled to Falmouth, Virginia, where they remained for the next five months.

In early April 1863, Houck went into the forest surrounding Falmouth to collect and chop firewood. About a mile away from camp he and his companions began to split a pine stump with axes. Sadly, Houck’s axe “glanced off of the stump” and cut off his left great toe “so that it stayed in my boot when I took it off.”  Houck walked back to camp, where the doctor amputated the rest of his toe. This began Houck’s time in hospitals during the war. On May 9, 1863, Houck was moved to Finley Hospital in Washington D.C., which he described as the “prettiest place that I ever was in it is a perfect Eden,” in order to fully heal his toe. However, once the beauty of the landscape wore off, Houck wrote of the reality of the hospital, describing in detail some of the injured men, “there is one that the ball went in through his mouth and came out on the right side of his neck and went through his right shoulder… it tore the whole roof of his mouth out and it was a horrible sight,” as well  flatly stating that “we will have to starve if we stay here” because of the meager rations of stale bread and coffee.  It was during his stay at Finley Hospital that Houck began to dream of the reality of returning home, writing in every letter that he believed he would be sent back to Albany to convalesce in the General Hospital. This, however, was not the case.

The time between May and September is vague. We do know that on May 27, 1863, Houck was ordered to return to his company and continue his convalescence at the 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital in Virginia. We do not know if he returned to his company. On June 26, 1863, Houck was transferred to Company G of the 44th Infantry Regiment of the New York Volunteers. During July 1-3, 1863, Houck’s unit participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, however it is unclear if Houck was with his unit at this time or in a hospital. On August 28, 1863, Houck was listed as a deserter, and, through a letter from his previous captain, found in this collection, we know that he traveled home to Albany County where he was arrested. His hometown of Clarksville paid his bail.

Houck was incarcerated for an unknown period of time for desertion, at least part of which he spent in Castle William in New York City harbor, which he described as “one of the damdest meanest holes in the United States.” Houck’s absolute desperation to leave the service began to be conveyed clearly in his correspondence around his time. By October 22, 1863, Houck had been cleared of the charge of desertion and was back with his regiment. However, three of his childhood friends had been tried, found guilty and incarcerated because they “ran away from the face of battle of Gettysburg” and deserted. These three men were kept imprisoned with their regiment for most of the winter and “treated most poorly”; Houck visited them regularly. Upon his return to his regiment he began to speak openly about “meaning to get my discharge” from service.

By early November 1863 Houck complained regularly of his respiratory health. He had developed what he described as a severe pain in his side and regular spitting of blood (possibly tuberculosis). Over the next few years he suffered from this condition, and he was regularly given syrup of squills, an herbal expectorant, and mustard packs that covered his side with blisters upon removal. This pain and blood continued throughout the war, and for two weeks Houck was off duty, returning by November 17, taking part in the Battle of Raccoon Ford. Over the next few months it became clear that because of the pain and his respiratory illness, playing the fife was no longer a practical option. After being denied a medical discharge he was transferred from the fife to the drums. Sadly, the pain from the mustard packs prevented him from playing that instrument as well. Once again denied a medical discharge he was transferred to work as a nurse in the 1st Division 5th Army Corps Hospital.

Houck described his regiment’s involvement in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, as well as the march to and participation in the Battle of Cold Harbor, also in May of 1864.  Following these battles his regiment began to march toward Richmond, Virginia. In describing the campaign from right outside the city, Houck wrote, “we had a hot time a getting here we have had 30 days campaign and hard fighting all the time.” 

In October 1864 Houck’s regiment, the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was mustered out of service and he was transferred to Company A of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He continued to work as a nurse in the 2nd Division 5th Army Corps Hospital after his transfer; however, he had to struggle to maintain his musician pay status despite his inability to play either the fife or the drum.

John L. Houck’s company participated in the Siege of Petersburg in March and April of 1865, with Houck serving in the field hospital. Houck’s company also participated in the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse.  He discusses both battles, as well as the surrender of Lee’s army in his April 14, 1865, letter. After the end of the war was declared Houck and his regiment traveled to Arlington Heights along the Potomac River on the Iola where they awaited their discharge. He was mustered out of service on June 23, 1865.

Upon his return home to Clarksville, Houck remained on his farm with his family until his death in 1910. None of his children married. Emma Louise became a dressmaker, working out of the family home, where she lived until the end of her days. Mary Lena (referred to in the letters as “Lena”) became a school teacher; she is the only one of the Houck children to have lived away from home for any period of time. James Lansing (referred to as “Lansing” in the letters) continued to work the family farm until his death.

Scope and Content Note:

This series of letters are almost exclusively from John L. Houck to his wife, Sophia E. Houck, with a few noted exceptions. There is one manuscript letter written from Caption Dudley Oleott to Sophia relating the little information he had surrounding John’s arrest for desertion, and there is one facsimile of a manuscript letter and its transcription from Sophia to John. All the other letters are from John to his children.  Two of the letters to his son were sent in tandem with letters to Sophia. These letters have been retained with their original accompanying letters to Sophia. Houck’s letters to his daughters are in a separate folder.

Houck covers many topics in his letters: the flora of the areas he traveled through; the beauty of the regiment’s wooded camp outside Alexandria, Virginia; and the awe-inspiring gardens at Finley Hospital in Washington D.C.;  the state of all of the produce that he encounters in the South. In writing of the produce, Houck describes the items that were similar to what was grown back home (apples, corn, peaches), and the crops that farmer Houck became so enchanted with that he collected their seeds and sent them home to his wife for planting, including a white squash of “incredible sweetness” and persimmons.

Houck frequently wrote about food, describing in detail what he had been fed in the camps; the meals made by himself and others from the packages sent from home; the livestock and goods taken from “secesh” families; the meals he was fed in the hospitals; as well as the prices and contents of meals bought in towns and cities.

He also commented on the politics of the time, and used his wife as his main source of information about what was happening in the world outside of his army camp. The early letters discussed in great detail the possibility of the establishment of a draft.

Houck regularly requested that his wife send him copies of the local Albany newspapers, and that she ask the opinions of the people in their community about recent events. Houck wrote his wife about his decision for his vote in the 1864 presidential election (he voted for “old uncle Abe”), and gave her specific directions on how to deliver his vote to his father, who was then to deliver his vote for him.

Beginning with the amputation of his toe and continuing through to the end of his service, Houck describes in detail many of the injuries he saw and the medical procedures he observed and endured.

Houck’s mental state is easily visible throughout his correspondence. In the beginning of his service he appears optimistic and sure that the “war will not last the winter.” However, as the months progress, his confidence wanes. By his first spring in the service Houck had lost his confidence in a quick end of the war, regularly writing that the end was nowhere in sight. His depression and desperation may be directly related to his alienation from information and news sources. He regularly begged his wife to send him news on what was happening politically in the country.  He even wrote once about how all newspapers were intercepted and burned before they could reach the camp. This separation from information seems to have added to Houck’s frustrations surrounding his arrest in the summer of 1863. It appears that he had been denied information about his own arrest. Houck regularly accused his wife of forgetting about him and, in each missive sent home, begged for more letters, even asking his children to ask their mother why she did not write more often.

At each point that his regiment participated in a battle, or when they were near a battleground, Houck described the events against the “Johnnies,” as he called the Confederate soldiers. The regiments to which Houck belonged all wore Zouave uniforms, which Houck described in detail.

Container List:


Box Folder Description
1 1 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, December 1862 (3 items).
  1. Camp of Recruits near Alexandria, [Va.], December 4, 1862
  2. Camp of Recruits near Alexandria, [Va.], December 11, 1862
  3. Camp near Falmouth, Va., December 28, 1862.
1 2 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, January-February 1863 (5 items)
  1. Camp near Falmouth, Va., January 14, 1863.
  2. Near Stafford [Courthouse], [Va.], February 1, 1863.
  3. Camp near Falmouth, Va., February 5, 1863.
  4. Camp near Falmouth, Va., February 15, 1863.
  5. Camp near Falmouth, Va., February 20, 1863.
1 3 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, March 1863 (4 items)
  1. Camp near Falmouth, Va., March 1, 1863.
  2. Camp near Falmouth, Va., March 8, 1863.
  3. Camp near Falmouth, Va., March 14, 1863.
  4. Camp near Falmouth, Va., March 26, 1863.
1 4 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, April 1863 (5 items).
  1. Camp near Falmouth, Va., April 3, 1863.
  2. Camp near Falmouth, Va., April 6, 1863.
  3. Camp near Falmouth, Va., April 12, 1863.
  4. Hospital, camp near Falmouth, Va., April 17, 1863.
  5. Hospital, camp near Falmouth, Va., April 24, 1863.
1 5 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, May-October 1863 (6 items)
  1. Finley Hospital, Washington, D.C., May 10, 1863.
  2. Finley Hospital, Washington, D.C., May 18, 1863.
  3. Unspecified, undated [June-August 1863].
  4. Castle William, [New York Harbor], September 26, [1863].
  5. Camp near Culpepper, Va., [October?], 1863.
  6. Virginia, October 22, 1863.
1 6 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, November-December 1863 (8 items).
  1. Camp near Warrenton Junction, Va., November 4, 1863.
  2. Camp near Kelley’s Ford, Va., November 12, 1863.
  3. Camp near Kelley’s Ford, Va., November 17, 1863.
  4. Camp near Kelley’s Ford, Va., November 20, 1863.
  5. Camp near New Mountain Run, Va., November 23, 1863.
  6. Camp near Rappahannock Station, [Va.], December 7, 1863.
  7. Camp near Rappahannock Station, Va., December 22, 1863.
1 7 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck January-February, 1864 (8 items).
  1. Rappahannock Station, Va., January 20, 1864.
  2. Near Alexandria, [Va.], January 28, 1864.
  3. Alexandria, Va., February 2, 1864.
  4. Alexandria, [Va.], February 9, 1864.
  5. Alexandra, Va., February 13, 1864.
  6. Near Alexandria, Va., February 19, 1864.
  7. Camp near Alexandria, Va., February 23, 1864.
  8. Camp near Alexandria, Va., February 29, 1864.
1 8 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, April-June 1864 (7 items).
  1. Camp near Alexandria, Va., April 13, 1864.
  2. Camp near Alexandra, Va., April 19, 1864 (With letter to [James] Lansing [Houck]).
  3. Camp in the field near Brandy Station, Va., May 3, 1864.
  4. Camp in the field near Spotsylvania, [Va.], May 17, 1864.
  5. Camp near Gaines Mill, Va., June 5, 1864.
  6. Petersburg, Va. June 19, 1864.
  7. 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital in the field near Petersburg, Va., June 26, 1864.
1 9 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, July-August 1864 (6 items)
  1. Near Petersburg, Va., July 9, 1864.
  2. Near Petersburg, Va., July 22, 1864.
  3. Near Petersburg, Va., August 5, 1864.
  4. Near Petersburg, Va., August 7, 1864.
  5. Near Petersburg, Va., August 21, 1864.
  6. 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital near Petersburg, Va., August 29th, 1864.
1 10 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, September-October 1864 (8 items).
  1. 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital in the field near Petersburg, [Va.], September 10, 1864 (With letter to [James] Lansing [Houck]).
  2. 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital in the field near Petersburg, Va., September 24, 1864.
  3. 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital in the field near Petersburg, [Va.], October 7, 1864.
  4. 1st Division Hospital 5th Army Corps near the Weldon Road, [Va.], October 14, 1864.
  5. 2nd Div[ision] Hospital 5th A[rmy] C[orps] near Petersburg, [Va.], October 30, 1864.
  6. Camp at the 140th N.Y.V. in the field near Petersburg, [Va.], November 6, 1864.
  7. Camp at the 140th N.Y.V. in the field near Petersburg, [Va.], November 8, 1864
  8. Camp of the 140th N.Y.V. in the field near Petersburg, Va., November 13, 1864.
1 11 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, January-March 1865 (6 items).
  1. Camp of the 140th N.Y.V. near Petersburg, Va., January 7, 1865.
  2. Camp of the 140th N.Y.S.V. near Parks Station, Va., January 26, 1865.
  3. Camp of the 140th N.Y.Vols near Hatchers Run, Va., March 2, 1865
  4. Camp of the 140th N.Y.Vols near Hatchers Run, Va., March 10, 1865.
  5. Camp of the 140th N.Y.S.Vols near Hatchers Run, Va., March 13, 1865.
  6. Camp of the 140th N.Y.S.Vols near Hatchers Run, Va., March 26, 1865.
1 12 Letters, John L. Houck to Sophia E. Houck, April-June 1865 (4 items)
  1. Camp in the field near Appomattox Courthouse, Va., April 14, 1865.
  2. Aboard the transport ship Iola opposite Mount Vernon on the Potomac River, May 8, 1865.
  3. Camp at Arlington Heights, Va., May 27, 1865.
  4. Arlington Heights, Va., June 3, 1865.
1 13 Letters to and from other family members (5 items).
  1. Letter, Captain Dudley Oleott, Company “I”, 25th Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Army Corps to Sophia E. Houck, October 6, 1863.
  2. Letter, John L. Houck to Emma L[ouise] Houck, Camp of the 44th Regt. N.Y.V. Rappahannock Station, Va., January 3, 1864.
  3. Letter, John L. Houck to Mary L[ena] Houck, Camp of the 44th Regt. Rappahannock Station, Va., January 22, 1864.
  4. Letter,John L. Houck to Mary Lena Houck, 1st Division 5th Corps Hospital near Petersburg, September 7, 1864.
  5. Sophia Houck to John L. Houck, [October 6, 1864]
2 1 Photocopies of John L. Houck’s military records (5 items).
2 2 Genealogical notes, transcriptions of letters, compiled by Sandy Slingerland; also includes photograph of the Houck family grave stone monument), Mount Pleasant Cemetery, New Scotland, New York
2 3 Transcriptions of letters compiled by Charles Milbert – December 1862-December 1863
2 4 Transcriptions of letters compiled by Charles Milbert – January-December 1864
2 4 Transcriptions of letters compiled by Charles Milbert – January-June 1865
Last Updated: October 9, 2013