Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rebel Property Returns to Lewinsville: A Priceless Relic of Northern Virginia's Civil War Past

A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman named Susan in Ohio. She was going through her father's personal effects and found an antique book from the mid-nineteenth century. Inside was written the following inscription:
Contraband Captured at the House of a Rebel near Lewinsville Va. by William A.C. Oaks Seargent of Co. C. 7th Regt P.R.V.C.
I was floored. I have blogged about the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps (P.R.V.C.) in Northern Virginia since starting this blog. The Pennsylvania Reserves arrived in Langley, Virginia in October 1861, where they established Camp Pierpont. Lewinsville was not far up the road, and Sgt. Oaks apparently found this book in one of the abandoned secessionist homes during his stay in the neighborhood. The Reserves bid farewell to Langley in March 1862.

Inscription by Sgt. William A.C. Oaks
Susan was unfamiliar with Lewinsville, and her research had led her to my blog. (Incidentally, both Langley and Lewinsville are part of present-day McLean, Virginia.) She was extremely generous and offered to send the book to me free of charge. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

The Book

The small book, entitled Sketches of Home Life, was published by the American Sunday School Union. Founded in Philadelphia in 1824, this organization was dedicated to the spread of literacy and Christianity through the establishment of Sunday schools. The book carries a copyright of 1848, although the actual date of printing remains uncertain. A blurred handwritten inscription on the inside front cover appears to say, "Lewinsville Sab. School No. 44." It is possible that the book was one of many belonging to the Lewinsville Presbyterian Church. The church may have numbered them and distributed them to children for use in Sabbath, or Sunday, school. Lewinsville Presbyterian, established in 1846, was the only church in Lewinsville at the time of the Civil War.

Title page

Inscription reading "Lewinsville Sab. School No. 44." on the inside front cover
According to the Oaks' inscription, he took this book from a "house of a Rebel" near Lewinsville. Unfortunately, the book contains no indication of which home. Several secessionist families lived in the vicinity of Lewinsville, and without additional clues, it is impossible to say where Oaks found the book. Presumably if Oaks had come across the book in the church, the inscription would have noted this fact. I assume that Oaks scribbled this information himself around the time that he took the book, but it is possible that he wrote it well after the fact, or that someone else wrote the inscription years later.

Marbled cover of Sketches of Home Life.
The Story of William A.C. Oaks

I immediately wanted to know more about William A.C. Oaks. What I found reveals a man with a varied and interesting service record who survived the war and built a life in Berks Country, Pennsylvania and beyond. Oaks was born in the Keystone State in February 1835. He joined Company C of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves (36th Pennsylvania Infantry) in August 1861. The unit, raised in Lebanon Country, Pennsylvania, was known as the "Iron Artillery" or "Iron Artillerists." (I am unsure why an infantry company carried this nickname.)

Oaks soon joined his regiment in front of Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomac. The 7th Pennsylvania Reserves marched to Langley at the start of October 1861 and remained at Camp Pierpont until the following March. The regiment was sent to fight with the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula in June 1862. Oaks, as a part of the 7th Reserves, likely saw intense action during the Seven Days Battles and at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. In December 1862, Oaks was dismissed on a surgeon's certificate. Conflicting dates are provided in various military records, and no medical reason is given, so it is unclear whether Oaks participated in Fredericksburg on December 13, and whether he was wounded there.

Even a medical discharge could not keep Oaks from volunteering again. When Robert E. Lee's Confederates threatened Pennsylvania, Oaks enlisted with Co. H of the 31st Pennsylvania Militia. He served as both a First Lieutenant and Captain before being mustered out in August 1863. The 31st Pennsylvania Militia, like nearly all such militia units, never saw any action. Not one to remain away from military life for very long, Oaks was back again in February 1864, as a First Sergeant with Co. E of the 186th Pennsylvania. This regiment mainly performed provost duty in Philadelphia.

Oaks was motivated to seek even greater opportunities with the Union Army. In January 1865 he passed the examination in Washington to become an officer of African-American troops and was recommended for a captaincy. A commission did not come until after the war had ended. In June 1865, Oaks was finally appointed as a Second Lieutenant of the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored). He met his new regiment in City Point, Virginia and set sail for Texas on June 10, 1865.  Arriving at Brazos de Santiago on July 3,  the 29th Connecticut (Colored) marched to Brownsville and remained there until ordered to report back to Connecticut in October 1865. Oaks was mustered out and returned to civilian life in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Flag of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves (courtesy of Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee)

In 1869, Oaks married Sarah Deysher, a widow from Reading who already had a couple children of her own. The 1870 Census listed Oaks as a machinist. It appears that two young children, ages 10 and 5, lived with William, Sarah, and her two children in Reading. (An 1880 Census returns indicates that Oaks was their father, which means that he may have been married before Sarah. Subsequent records confirm this likelihood of a prior marriage, which means that Oaks had a family when he left for war.) Oaks even dabbled in local politics. From 1873-75 he served as a councilman for Reading's First Ward.

By 1880, Oaks had moved his family to Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he worked as a foundry man. William and Sarah had two children of their own. The family experienced tragedy in 1882, when Sarah passed away. At some point in the 1880s, Oaks took a job as a mechanic in Antrim, New Hampshire. Here he met Margaret H. "Maggie" Kane, a young Irish immigrant. Oaks married her in 1887, and the couple had a son in 1890.

Oaks eventually returned to Reading. In his later years, the old veteran secured a patent for an apple-paring machine. He died in May 1917 at the age of 82 and was buried at Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading. In 1922 Maggie donated her husband's iron leg brace to the Historical Society of Berks County. According to an article in the Reading Eagle:
The leg-brace, worn by Capt. Oaks in the Civil War [after he had been wounded], enabled him to continue in command of his company. Gov. [Andrew] Curtin declined at first to commission him, but Capt. Oaks proved that with his leg and knee-cap supported by this peculiar device of the blacksmith's art, he could proceed along as well and as rapidly as most men.
In 1930, Congress awarded Maggie an increase in her widow's pension to $40 per month.


I count Oaks' book among my most cherished possessions. Over 150 years after being taken from a "Rebel house," this small volume found its way back to Lewinsville through pure happenstance. Holding the book, I wonder whether Oaks carried this with him during the bloody battles of 1862. Did he derive some degree of spiritual comfort from this Christian publication? Or was it simply a reminder of far easier days at Camp Pierpont?  This book is a gateway to the past, and ties together my strong interest in the Pennsylvania Reserves and local Civil War history in a way that no other object could. I am thankful to Susan for entrusting me with this relic and am happy to share it with my readers, who are equally as passionate about our nation's most trying ordeal.


An Act Granting pensions and increase of pensions to certain soldiers and sailors of the Civil War and certain widows and dependent children of soldiers, 71st Cong. (1930); Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. 1 (1869); Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. 5 (1871); Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the U.S. Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 26th Through 30th, Including 29th Conn., available at; "Martin Deysher (1833-1860)," Find-a-Grave (website); Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Pennsylvania, available at; C.M. Ingersoll, Catalogue of Connecticut Volunteer Organizations, (Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery,) in the Service of the United States, 1861-1865 (1869); Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, "Our History" (website); Ellen Little, Elizabeth Nesbitt Room: American Sunday School Union Resource (website of Univ. of Pittsburgh); Morton L. Montgomery, Political Hand-Book of Berks Country, Pennsylvania, 1752-1883 (1883); National Park Service, Soldiers and Sailors Database (website); New Hampshire, Marriage Records Index, 1637-1947, available at; New Hampshire, Marriage and Divorce Records, 1659-1947, available at ancestry.comOfficial Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 183 (1912); Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, available at; Pennsylvania Church and Town Records, 1708-1985, available at ancestry.comPennsylvania, Veterans Burial Cards, 1777-1999, available at; Phila. Press, Jan. 30, 1865; P.R.V.C. Hist. Soc., Co. C, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves Muster Roll; Reading Eagle, July 2, 1922; U.S. Census Bureau, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1910 Federal Census Returns for the States of Indiana and Pennsylvania, available at


Keith Yoder said...

What a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing your experience and research.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Keith. I am happy to share and glad to see that you enjoyed the post. This is certainly one of the more interesting things that has happened to me since I started blogging! I love how technology can help bring people together--without the Internet and blogging, I am not sure if I ever would have talked with Susan and discovered this book! And without on-line resources, Oaks' story would have remained a mystery until I could have gotten to the Archives!

Anonymous said...

Ron, it was good of you to dig into Oaks and uncover a bit of his history. Have you ever had contact with Lewinsville Presbyterian Church? I wonder what sort of archives it might have that might shed further light into its possible/likely usage of this book? Seems like a history of the church in the run-up to, during, and right after the Civil War might be an interesting post. Ken.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Ken. I was thinking the same thing about the church. I will have to contact them at some point and show the book to their resident "historian." In addition, I'd like to write more about the place during the war, but so far my problem has been finding enough information to do a full-blown post beyond the factoid about it being used as a stable by Union troops. I think I also read once about artillery shells falling into the graveyard there during the second engagement at Lewinsville.