The research process often uncovers helpful evidence that fill in otherwise exasperating gaps of knowledge. For example, while recently looking for information about an officer from the 4th United States Colored Infantry (USCI), who was killed in action at the Battle of New Market Heights, an obituary in his hometown newspaper came to light. This notice, printed in the Franklin Jeffersonian, provides significant details of a heroic life and death that would otherwise likely be lost to history, but instead, it along with other sources, helps construct a biography for this patriotic soldier. Corroborating the obituary’s information are the diary entries and letters home that Vannuys wrote and were later published in 1913 in History of Johnson County, Indiana (pages 420-485).
According to his gravestone Samuel Watson Vannuys was born on January 23, 1840, in Franklin, (Johnson County) Indiana. His parents, John and Caroline, ran a successful farm and Samuel grew up as the eldest of a group brothers and a sister. Educated at local Hopewell Academy, young Vannuys was preparing to obtain a college education when the Civil War erupted. As the obituary declares “he left this school, abandoned his studies and, although, of fine manly form, and commanding personal appearance, he modestly stepped into the ranks as a common soldier” and enlisted on September 13, 1861, in Company F, 7th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Vannuys soon received recommendations for promotion to officer status, but with no vacancies in his regiment, “his papers were forwarded to Washington, and he was eventually appointed to a first Lieutenancy, in the 4th U.S. Colored Regiment.” Vannuys passed his officer’s board of review examination in Washington D.C. His service records show that he received appointment as 1st lieutenant in Company H on July 23, 1863, and reported for duty on August 7.
As a lieutenant, Vannuys “engaged with zeal in the training of these Colored patriots, in the use of firearms, and the duties of the soldier.” As he worked with his soldiers Vannuys lost any “doubt as to their possession requisite of the soldier—bravery in the face of danger.”
It appears that Vannuys missed leading his troops in the June 15, 1864, fighting at Petersburg, which served as the combat initiation for the 4th, as he was absent serving as adjutant at division headquarters. Although he received promotion to captain of Company E on July 1 to fill the place of its former captain, Vannuys continued to serve in his adjutant role. However, unfortunately, Vannuys’ time as captain of Company E proved short lived.
During the September 29, 1864, attack by the 4th and 6th USCIs at New Market Heights, “Captain Vannuys’ horse was killed and he led his men on foot to within a few yards of the rebel pits [earthworks], when they were met by such a murderous fire, as no men on earth could stand.” Devastated by the concentrated fire of the Texas Brigade on the two initial assaulting regiments, the attack lost its momentum and began to withdraw. “As they turned [Vannuys] received a shot in the neck, severing the carotid artery, and, it is supposed, killing him instantly.” However, “the men were soon rallied and reinforced and returned to the charge and drove the enemy from their works. Although, not more than 20 minutes elapsed between the retreat and the return of the attacking party—the enemy had robbed [Vannuys] of his watch, money and clothes.”
Much of the information in the obituary apparently comes for a letter written to Capt. Vannuys’ father from Lt. Z. F. Wilbur, Acting Assistant Quartermaster for the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Division, XVIII Corps, and obviously Vannuys’ good friend. His warm sentiments provide ample evidence of their friendship: “What can a stranger say to comfort those nearest and dearest to him. But of one thing I can assure you, that you and your lady have the heartfelt sympathies of every officer in our Brigade, for Van as we called him was universally esteemed as a man and soldier. He has no enemies, but many friends, warm friends. It could not be otherwise with one of fixed principles, strict integrity and kindly heart. The death of no other officer in the 4th regiment, or of this brigade, has created such a sensation, and we who were his daily companions will miss him sadly at our mess table and at our little circle around the camp fire.”
The last letter written by Capt. Vannuys to his Indiana family did not come from him, but interestingly from an unknown Confederate soldier. In a small envelope postmarked Old Point Comfort, Virginia, and cancelled on October 10, 1864, was a small piece of paper. On it, written by Capt. Vannuys and dated two days before his death at New Market Heights, it read: “This testament [Bible] belongs to Capt. S. W. VanNuys, Acting Ass’t Adj’t General 3d Brigade, 3d Div., 18th Army Corps. Should I die upon the field of battle, for the sake of a loving mother and sister, inform my father, John H. VanNuys, Franklin, Indiana of the fact.” In postscript the Confederate soldier wrote: “Mr. John H. Vanings: It is my painful duty to inform you that your son was killed on the 29th of the last month near Chaffin’s farm, Va. I have his testament. I will send it if you wish. From your enemy, one of the worst rebels you ever seen.” The postscript was initialed “L. B. F.”
Vannuys’ body was recovered from the battlefield by Lt. Wilbur, who had it embalmed and returned to his “stricken parents and friends” back in Indiana who had the pleasure of beholding once more, the noble form of the fallen Patriot and Hero.” The young captain was only 24 years old.
Today, Capt. Samuel Watson Vannuys rests in peace in Greenlawn Cemetery in Frankiln, Indiana, having performed his duty faithfully and giving the last full measure of devotion to his country.