Soon after private Benjamin Vann of the 24th USCI enlisted in Allegheny City in February 1864, the provost marshal of Harrisburg detailed the private to serve as a cook. Vann first worked at Pennsylvania’s Twenty-third Congressional District headquarters, then at Camp Reynolds near Pittsburgh. Almost eleven months later, Vann joined his regiment at Camp William Penn as a member of Company B. At some point that summer, he discovered that the time he labored before January 5, 1865, had not been counted towards his three-year military enlistment period.
In early April, 1865, Vann sought assistance from James W. Kirker, the provost marshal of the Twenty-third Congressional District. Kirker had been the district attorney of Butler County before his wartime appointment. He served diligently, from arresting deserters and bounty jumpers, to signing complaints against citizens who cheated recruits out of their bounties. He also aided soldiers with their enlistment, pay, and bounty problems. Only a month earlier he had helped George Smith of Company D, 24th USCI to obtain the $450 local bounty that had not been forwarded from Camp Reynolds to Camp William Penn as Smith had been promised.
On April 11, Kirker acted upon the letter he received from Benjamin Vann (see transcription below). He wrote to Col. Louis Wagner at Camp William Penn, just as he had done for George Smith. Kirker explained that Vann had received no pay prior to joining his regiment and that “he is a very worthy & reliable man you will do him justice and me a favor by having the error he complains of within corrected so that he can draw his pay from date of enlistment and be required to serve only during the period he was mustered for.”
Vann served the rest of war with no incidence. The volunteer obtained over $340 in bounties, purchased his Springfield musket, and returned to Allegheny City after mustering out of service on October 1, 1865. In 1891 he began receiving a veteran’s pension, and on July 30, 1901, the widower entered the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers in Dayton, Ohio. Benjamin Vann died of chronic cystitis on September 7 that same year.
While it is possible that Vann wrote this letter himself, it is more probable that he had someone write for him as was common for many African American soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. Vann did not sign his enlistment papers in 1864, and in 1865 when the letter was composed, he had an injured hand. Furthermore, years later the military history registers from the Dayton home noted that he could not read or write.
But there is no doubt that the words are his claims to what he was owed. For Benjamin Vann, service to the United States also meant fair and equitable recognition and compensation. As a veteran he continued to pursue the benefits due to him, and in death he earned a final acknowledgement of his role as a man who contributed to the preservation of the Union as a United States soldier. Vann was laid to rest with a federal military veteran’s headstone in the Dayton National Cemetery.
April 6th 1865
theire is ea mistake here With my papers eye listed in the year 1864 of Febury 26 they have got Me on the list 1865 fore three yearse they have thres an Me back one yeare if you plese have that corected fore me sose that eye Wont hafe to serve fore yearse please have it corected sose eye can get my pay
if you plese Derect youre lettr to Carnel Weagner Camp William pen Shelton hill Co B 24 T
And also rite ea lettr To Me Ben J Vaughn Tell the Doctor That eye have lost the use of my rist
give my respects To all in the office
eye have only got one hand that eye Can use no
Kirker J W