A Bullet Through This Pretty Head

The History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1881 gives a detailed account of this young man’s devotion to the Union. 

Private Isaac Wayne Van Leer, Co. B, 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry. (D. Scott Hartzell collection, via USAMHI)

Fighting with coolness bravery,” is how Captain C.M.G. Eicholtz of Co, B, 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteers described 15 -year-old Isaac Van Leer during the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia. Eicholtz reported that Van Leer’s voice could be heard ringing out, “shrill and clear” above all others as he cried, “Steady, boys, steady.” Isaac Wayne Van Leer was born on June 15, 1846 not far from Elverson, Pennsylvania. Growing up, he was characterized by his family and friends as loyal and high-spirited. Not much is known about his antebellum life, but when southern cannon fired across the harbor on Fort Sumter, Isaac was barely fifteen years old. Though young, he could not stand around while others were enlisting, so Isaac left home without his father’s knowledge or permission. Knowing he was too young, Van Leer told the enlisting officer in Harrisburg that he was 18 years of age and even assumed a fictitious name. Once his father discovered that his son joined the army, he determined to bring him back home. He asked a relative, Captain John Potts, to watch for his son and persuade him to return home. However when Potts confronted the youth, Van Leer replied, “I cannot go home; I feel it my duty to go to war.” Potts promised his father that he would watch over him and keep Van Leer in his company. While the 53rd Pennsylvania trained and did provost guard duty at Camp Curtin, Van Leer caught typhoid fever. His sister Ellen Francis came to Harrisburg and nursed him. Finally, after nursing him back to health and after many attempts to persuade him to return home, his sister left him with these words, “Dear brother, if the rebels should put a bullet through this pretty head, how it would spoil it.” He replied, “Not more than any other man’s; and somebody’s must be spoiled.” The 53rd was part of the reserve division during the siege of Yorktown. Late in May, the 53rd assisted in building a grapevine bridge across the Chickahominy River. Shooting began around 5 a.m. on the morning of June 1 in the woods around Fair Oaks and shortly afterwards, the green regiment, which was attached to Sumner’s division, would see its first action of the war. At some point during the fiercest of the day’s fighting, an order was given in the regiment adjacent to the 53rd to retreat, and the troops in the 53rd started to retreat as well. Captain Eicholtz of Co. B realized that this order was a mistake and ordered his company forward, the rest of the regiment soon following. Eicholtz noted that Van Leer was one of the first men to step forward when the order was given and that he fought gallantly. Van Leer soon was wounded severely in the ankle and fell to his knees being unable to stand because of the intense pain. Even so he managed to load and fire his Springfield a few more times after being wounded until a bullet hit him in the head, knocking him unconscious. To make matters worse, as the Confederates advanced towards the end of the day, Van Leer also received a serious bayonet wound to the side. It would be two days before his comrades would be able to remove him from the field. When they finally reached him, the muscles in his mouth were so paralyzed that he could not even form a single utterance. Van Leer was removed to a hospital at Fortress Monroe, and according to Captain Eicholtz, it was nine days before the balls that struck him were removed. He was next taken to a New York hospital where Ellen Francis came to nurse him. His wounds finally took their toll and Isaac Van Leer succumbed on June 19th, 1862, just four days after his sixteenth birthday

Written by Joel Peterson from Military Images Magazine

Military Images, Vol. 24, No. 3 (November/December 2002), p. 29

Source can also be found at jstor.org