William Terrance Vandermeer (9 December, 1832 - 2 July, 1863) was a poet, Medal of Honor recipient, and officer in the United States Marine Raider Division during the Civil War. He and his men are considered heroes for their defense of the Wheatfield during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Family and Early Life Edit
William T. Vandermeer was born to a Dutch family in Kingston, New York. The Vandermeers had first come to America in the 1600s and settled in then New Amsterdam. William's father, Peter, was a moderately successful shoemaker and his mother, Elizabeth, was a teacher at a local school. All three were members of the local Dutch Reformed Church.
From a young age, William was attracted to reading and writing and read his father's newspapers whenever he could. He went through school and developed a staunchly abolitionist view, which became the subject of the first poem he wrote. When William was not needed for work, he wrote poems but also developed a key interest in the heroes of the revolution and the War of 1812 and studied those subjects when he could. His poems were well regarded in his local area and many were published in local newspapers. He graduated school in 1850 but could not afford college, so he took to learning his father's trade and helped Peter in his shop. When the family came into extra money following Elizabeth's father's death in 1852, they had amassed enough money to send William to college at Rutgers College in New Jersey in 1854. When he graduated in 1858, he found few opportunities for his line of work, so he sought and was granted a commission in the 1st Marine Raider Regiment. Though military matters had not been ideal for William, he proved himself well enough and became a Second Lieutenant.
Military Service Edit
2dLt. William Vandermeer's first command was of a platoon in Company D ("the New York company") of the 2nd Infantry Battalion. Though the initial years of his service were simply drills and exercises, Lt. Vandermeer displayed capabilities well up to the rigorous physical and mental standards of the highly-regarded United States Marine Raiders. He quickly became a favorite among the senior officers of the regiment and was well respected by the men under his command. Due to the nature of the de-centralized command structure of the division, Lt. Vandermeer had some room to put in practice some of his own strategies, which emphasized training his platoon to switch seamlessly between fighting as a part of a larger unit and fighting on their own, and vice versa. He sent a good portion of his pay to his family, who had fallen under hard times economically. He wrote poetry in his limited spare time and sent a poem home to his family every few months.
American Civil War Edit
When Fort Sumter had been fired upon and war was declared, the marine raiders were immediately called to action by order of President Lincoln. The marine raiders of the prewar era had been a force to be reckoned with, but the Civil War would put the division to the test like no other conflict had before. The raiders, Lt. Vandermeer's platoon included, were sent to Western Virginia, but it was not long before they were ordered east to the growing Union offensive known as the Manassas Campaign. The New Englanders of the 1st Infantry Battalion had done most of the heavy lifting in the war so far, but the 2nd Battalion would soon see action in the culmination of the campaign at the First Battle of Bull Run. Lt. Vandermeer's 2nd Platoon advanced with the rest of the unit and were some of the first of the Battalion to reach the Confederate defenses. It was not long before Lt. Vandermeer's men pushed back the enemy to Matthews' Hill, where they advanced through heavy fighting. Finally on Henry House Hill, the raiders were stopped by growing enemy numbers and they retreated, putting up rearguard defensive actions as the Confederates counterattacked in force. The raiders retreated all the way back to Washington DC, where they attempted to remedy the disastrous campaign by returning Union soldiers to their broken units. Lt. Vandermeer's men rested in the capital before renewed efforts against the enemy began in mid 1862.
The 2nd Infantry Battalion alone was sent to the Shenandoah Valley to support the Union offensive against the Confederate capital. There, Lt. Vandermeer saw action at Kernstown, McDowell, Winchester, Cross Keys, and Port Republic. All thought they were defeated many times, the fighting skill of Lt. Vandermeer's platoon stood out, and he accepted a promotion to Captain and was given command of the entire company. When the regiment consolidated after the failed Valley and Peninsular Campaigns, D Company under Captain Vandermeer joined the fighting again. They fought bravely at Cedar Mountain, Bull Run (again), Chantilly, and South Mountain. Moving north into Maryland, the Battle of Antietam began and the company under Cpt. Vandermeer fought through the cornfield. It was here that he earned his Medal of Honor. D Company's standard bearer had been killed during hand to hand combat, and a Confederate soldier attempted to pick up the colors. Captain Vandermeer shot him dead with his revolver and charged into the Confederate lines at great danger to his own life to rescue the standard. A young Confederate attempted to stab the Captain with his bayonet, but William wounded the enemy soldier with his sword and took him prisoner. After the action at the cornfield, Captain Vandermeer was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Lincoln himself, which William was reluctant to accept. "The real heroes of that day were the boys I fought with. I don't think I deserve this any more than they do," he wrote in a letter home to his family. He sent the medal home, "in case something should happen to me, as it has happened to scores of other men," he wrote in the same letter. (His Medal of Honor is on display in the 2nd Battalion wing of the regimental headquarters in Massachusetts)
With a great new respect from his men, Vandermeer led his unit at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, at both of which he was astounded at the failures of the general Union command and wrote a letter to President Lincoln, asking him to find a better, more proven general, lest he waste the lives of more good men. The Confederate offensive began at Chancellorsville continued north to Pennsylvania, where Washington DC was under direct threat. The 1st Marine Raider Regiment rolled onto the Gettysburg battlefield with everything they had to obtain a terribly needed victory. The 1st Battalion had failed to contain the enemy advance on the first day of the battle, and the 2nd Infantry Battalion was brought onto the field in full strength to defend the area around the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard on the second day. Cpt. Vandermeer's D Company was situated right in the center of the Wheatfield, and the Confederates attacked them in full force, overrunning the Union forces. D Company, under Captain Vandermeer, however, refused to retreat despite being vastly outnumbered. For hours of continuous combat, they held off the enemy with guns, grenades, and bayonets. By this time, most of the platoon commanders had been killed or mortally wounded and Captain Vandermeer rallied his understrength company under his direct command by allegedly shouting, "Fight on, boys! They shall not take this ground had they a million men, for you are true Americans!" Ammunition was dangerously low and the company's numbers were thinning by the minute. Cpt. Vandermeer himself had run out of ammunition for his Henry Rifle and was down to his pistol hours into the fighting. William knew that his men could not withstand any more combat without the company being destroyed and ordered a general withdrawal. As he turned to retreat, Captain William Vandermeer was shot through the neck and fell into the arms of a young private from 5th Platoon, where he died instantly. The private carried him off the battlefield.
Peter and Elizabeth Vandermeer were stricken with grief at their son's passing. They asked for his body, a request which was granted by the divisional command. He was buried with full military honors on August 12, 1863 in the cemetery outside of the church the Vandermeers had belonged to. Peter and Elizabeth both died in 1882. They had no more children.
The nature of Captain William T. Vandermeer's defense of the Wheatfield has elevated him to a heroic status in the aftermath of the war. Officers of Delta Company visit the site of his death every five years to lay a wreath, a tradition which began in 1913. The officers of the company have worn red tassels on the end of their swords in commemoration of the 100% casualties among officers at Gettysburg, but since 1909, all officers of the 2nd Infantry Battalion wear the "blood tassel".
A commemorative stone honoring Captain Vandermeer was placed in the field surrounding the 1st Marine Raider Regiment headquarters in Massachusetts in 1938. On it is a plaque on which reads a poem titled "Calling of the Wind", the only poem describing his military service and the last one he ever wrote.