(AOHP Note:) When I saw Robin Richardson Gilbert carefully reach into that abused and beaten-up steamer trunk, it felt like she was disturbing an ancient family burial site. That old flat-top contained the priceless bequest she had received from her mother in 1993–a tangible legacy that defines and details over one hundred and eighty years of family narrative. Although she had once given her son a few choice items to take to school for his fourth grade show and tell, the contents have otherwise remained safely and securely hidden away, for seemingly endless decades, in that timeworn but sturdy container.
But on that warm winter afternoon in 2012, Robin was ready–it was high time for an airing out. With her husband Adam, a British expat providing wry commentary and perspective, and their young son dependably helping his mother transfer the precious cargo from trunk to table back to trunk, the venerable family pageant began. Her people had come over to America in 1831 from County Tyrone during the Irish Diaspora, and they had put down roots as farmers in Salem Township, Knox County, Illinois. The oldest contents in that trunk had come across the ocean with those early Irish pioneers–and each succeeding generation had added their own valuable piece to the whole.
There wasn’t square to spare; out came the Victorian Era jackets, ancient scrapbooks, photographic tintypes, graduation robes, gold-rimmed glasses, property deeds, multiple diaries and personal items, the worn family Bible, newspaper clippings of national triumphs and tragedies—the trunk seemed to be bottomless. And then…the letters.
When she finally showed me the Civil War correspondence that her Great-Uncle John H. Mathews had written to his younger brother William Watson Mathews (her great-grandfather), I was mightily impressed. And when I saw that those carefully preserved letters included Uncle John’s powerful testimony on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, as well as his first hand account of the subsequent search on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay for John Wilkes Booth, I simply couldn’t resist. I asked her to let me post his war correspondence on my blog, and she agreed–to her knowledge, none of the letters included in these portraits have ever before been made public.
Briefly told, John H. Mathews enlisted with the 77th Illinois Regiment Infantry when the war began, and fought in numerous battles both before and during the bloody Vicksburg Campaign. He was grievously wounded on May 22, 1863 during the second major assault at the Siege of Vicksburg–but he survived. Following his convalescence and recovery he transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps, a unit that allowed partially disabled soldiers to perform light military duty. By July of 1864 he was stationed at the Point Lookout Prison in St. Mary’s County, Maryland as a Provost Guard, and served there through the end of the war.
Located on the barren and sandy peninsula where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, Point Lookout Prison was isolated by water on three sides and easily guarded by the gunboats anchored nearby on the river. Established in August of 1863 as a Prisoner of War Camp after the Battle of Gettysburg, it boasted a large military hospital complex which served the injured from both sides of the conflict. An extensive wharf on the river handled the delivery of supplies as well as the wounded as they arrived for medical treatment from battlefields all over the eastern seaboard.
The 40 acre prison camp was situated just north of the hospital on the bay side of the peninsula. The main prison complex was surrounded by a 15 foot tall heavy plank security fence, with a bridgework along the top for the patrol guards. Conditions were extreme and overcrowded, with the inmates living in tents, vulnerable to the elements. The weather could be harsh, with severe heat in the summer and vicious cold in the winter. The facilities and sanitary conditions were inadequate–food and potable water were scarce, the guards could be merciless, and flooding was frequent all along its desolate shoreline.
Over 50,000 prisoners passed through The Point before it was finally shut down for good in June of 1865. Generally considered to be one of the worst of the Union POW camps, between three and four thousand inmates are estimated to have died there from a combination of exposure, disease, mistreatment, and malnutrition during its twenty-two months of operation–perhaps more, depending on the source of information.
It was from this vantage point that 24-year-old John H. Mathews wrote the following letters home to his brother Watson during the final months of the Civil War.
This is the 7th in a series of 8 portraits based on letters written during the Civil War.
Point Lookout, Maryland
Sunday July 9th /1864
I am well and enjoy the privilege of writing to you. The Regt. left Alexandria on the first of July at 5 o’clock P.M. on the steamer Cosac for this place. The first place of any note that I saw was Ft. Washington in Maryland 7 miles from Alexandria and is by three times the stronger Fort then I have seen in all of my service east or west. It is very high with thick walls with two rows of portholes and a row of 24 pound guns planted on top of the Fort. I would guess the whole number of guns about 100.
And five miles below this is Mt. Vernon, the birth and burial place of General Washington–it is on a pretty hill with a green grove all over the hill. I saw but little of it, but can now say that I have seen Mt. Vernon.
The river commenced to get wide soon after we left Alexandria and kept getting wider till its mouth. It is six or seven miles wide here, and on the east side is the Chesapeake Bay–so wide that you can’t see to the other side. We have the blue salt water on both sides of us, and the salt sea breeze. This Point is almost an island, it being surrounded by water with all but one road. It is not marked on my map, but it is six or eight miles below Leonard and is used for keeping rebel prisoners.
They are four Regiments here doing the guarding–the 11th and 21st Veteran Reserve Corps, One Regt. of 100 men from Ohio and one a Darkee Regt. I am acquainted with Co. E of the 20th and one of the Sargt. has charge of part of the prisoners of war. They are sending them off every few days. They were 100 of my Regt. detailed this morning to take 500 of them to Elmira N.Y. This is what we were sent here for–to guard these prisoners and to take them North. I expect likely that I will get to make one of these trips to N.Y. State before all of the prisoners are gone, as that is the place they take them to.
It is hot enough just now that it makes the sap run quite nice off a fellows nose, and one of the boys has just brought in two dozen fresh oysters that he caught himself.
I was much pleased to hear that you had joined the Elmwood Church. We had to leave our pleasant little prayer meeting but I thank God for what we did enjoy while there.
Your Brother Truly
John H. Mathews
Point Lookout, Maryland
Sunday, July 24 /1864
I have again seated myself to write to you but have no letter to answer. This is one of those beautiful smoky sabbaths with the sun glimmering through the clouds, but we hear no church bell nor have we any place of worship to spend an hour in prayer. We are deprived of all these privileges, but God is here not withstanding all these things.
My health still remains good for all but one thing and that is my legs–to speak in the common term, they are most played out. They have troubled me ever since I came to this Point. I mean to see the Dr. in the morning and take a rest to see what effect that will have on them.
News are like hang teeth, very scarce. We heard it reported that all of the Reserve Corps is ordered to Washington, but I don’t think so myself. Well vegetables have come into the market. The store has nice onions at $.25 per pound, pickles two for 5 cents. We can get pears here now as large as Illinois crab apples for $.15 per quart, so you can tell how things sell here. I have seen what the peddlers call cabbage–they were some larger then cabbage plants that you would plant out in the spring. The cheapest thing we can get to buy is blackberries. I have had two or three quarts at 10 or 15 cents, and with plenty of sugar they are very good.
They are one thing that I don’t like which has been done lately and that is cutting down our rations of bread. We get enough for one ration to make two meals. I don’t see why this has been done for except to make us buy a third of our bread as go without. If the rations had to be cut down, why did they not take it off the salt beef or pork? Then we would not have missed it.
We have glorious news from Sherman at Atlanta–that he has defeated the rebels and with great loss taken many prisoners with the capture of the city. I suppose that you have heard of the new call for 500,000 more troops for one, two, and three years. They will have to the 2nd of September to make up the number, at which time if not raised they will be a draft to raise the same.
I don’t know whether you or any of my friends have any notion of enlisting or not, but I don’t advise you as any of my friends to enlist this army now as a private soldier. And for you, you have no more business to be in the army then I have. I will leave upon you to judge whether I ought to know as not.
Well part of our boys have got back from Elmira and tell us of the railroad accident of the 15th of this month with the prisoners and our guard. My Company was lucky enough to not have one man hurt, they being relieved about 10 minutes before the accident. They tell of some horrible sights after the accident–that some men were crushed most like a fly squashed between the finger and thumb. They were 16 killed on the spot and 17 wounded and more likely to die.
They were 75 of our Dept. left this morning with about 500 prisoners who have taken the Oath of allegiance, but I don’t know where they were taken to.
I expect you are most through with your harvest by this time and I hope that you got through well. I close for this time and hope to get a letter soon.
I still remain Your True Brother
J. H. Mathews
Point Lookout, Maryland
Provost Guards, January 23rd /1865
I am seated this afternoon to write you a few lines and I am still thankful that I enjoy my usual health. We are having pretty near such weather and duty as we used to have at Young’s Point. It has rained some for three days, and wherever the ground is bare of gravel, it is very muddy.
I was out most of all day yesterday (Sunday) getting 527 Prisoners off the boat that come up from Fort Fisher. We had a disagreeable day of it. The most of them were N.C. troops, and we are looking for one thousand more every hour. These Rebs say they were 2500 taken in Ft. Fisher and about 800 more in another little Fort some distance from the former place.
They had more clothes, and I think they were better equipped then any lot of Rebs that I have ever saw. They were a good many of them that seemed sullen, and rather refused to hold any conversation save when they had no blankets. Then they would talk and ask for them very quick. I expect that our duty will be pretty often and very unregular till these prisoners all get here from Ft. Fisher and all them that will be exchanged from this Point. I don’t know how many yet, but I expect a good many likely.
This late dividing up of the Regiment has broke up my grammar studying and interfered a great deal with my other studys, but I think I will be able to take them up again and with more success then before. They are eight of us in a tent. They are very large and that makes too much merriment for me or for reading for very much advantage.
Well the largest part of winter is past and we have not had any very cold weather yet but a good deal of unpleasant weather. The ground has not been froze more then two inches this winter.
They have built a new church on the Point since I have been back. It is for the use of all of those that see fit to attend, and it was dedicated yesterday but I was not present. I don’t expect to have many privileges of that kind while we stay on this guard, as we are apt to be called on for duty at all hours of the day or night.
Well, what do you think of the winter campaign of our Army that by this time was thought to have been gone into winter quarters more then two months ago? I think that our Army has done more in the same length of time so far this winter then they have ever done before in the winter season of the year.
And I think that the rebellion is wearing out about as fast as it can, but how long it will last no one knows. I am sure I don’t care how quick the end comes, as I think that peace would be appreciated by many that never knew how to estimate it.
Our mail has not been coming very regular and I did not get yours of the 15th until a few minutes ago. I will close these few lines and then I will read the same which I know will give me pleasure as I have been looking for a long letter for a long time.
John H. Mathews
Point Lookout, Maryland
Co. “B” Provost Guards, February 10th /1865
Dear Brother Watson
I received your kind and very interesting letter of the 15th of last month with much pleasure. I am well and in good health, but we are disappointed this morning by not getting any mail, but it may come before I finish this.
Well, for news I hardly know what to say. I have been to Washington, and I saw but little change since I was there last. Our peace commishioners have met and that is all that it amounted to, just as I expected. And they have had another fight close to Petersburgh with but little advantage gained on either side.
There is talk of exchanging about 3000 prisoners. Their residence is within our lines. They are 1600 of them that have been selected out and are awaiting transportation to be exchanged.
Clothing has taken another raise this year. Jackets $4.75, Pants $3.10, Shirts $1.50, Shoes $2.20, Drawers $1.00, Overcoats $8.50, Blankets $2.60, and Socks the dearest of all at .39 cts. And I guess that Mr. Paymaster has made up his mind to let us do without pay for six months of a year so that he will not be troubled very often to pay us off.
I am a little surprised to learn how things are running in Elmwood and around home this winter with donations and meetings of different kinds to help and aid the soldiers. It was quite a big thing for Mr. Rev. Smith, such a donation as was made to him in Elmwood last Jan. I expect that you and the Rev. Smith are having a gay time this winter with the females of Elmwood. I think that I would like to be in the back room peeping around the curtain.
February 11th /1865
Yesterday, while I was quietly writing you the first part of this letter, the Orderly Sgt. came into my tent and detailed me for duty at the Wharf. It is the duty belonging to the Signal Corps to watch for signals at night off the Gunboats out in the river. They are three of us in all. I have nothing to do in the daytime. I have all day to myself and at night we have to watch four hours, but we sit by the stove to do it and watch out of the window. It is called pretty nice duty and I think I will find it so when I get a little used to it.
Our Quarters are the best kind. They are two rooms. One is ten feet by ten with a stove in the middle of it and the second one is eight feet by ten. This is the bedroom. I will use it to write and study in. I am writing in it at present and enjoy it well it is so still and pleasant.
Each of us has a little book with signs marked the same as the Signal Corps use. These signs are numbered 1,2,3,4, and 5 and when we see a signal we take the number of it down on paper and report it to the Officer of the Signal Corps. He has the signal book and chart and he can tell just what the signal is and what it is for.
But I must come back to your letter again. Well Watson, I was somewhat surprised to hear of the plan devised by the Copperheads of Salem to keep out of the Army. Those that go last I guess will be best off. It shows a good part for those that are exempt to do a thing of this kind, but it don’t look well for Cops to do so to me. But they value their lives as real as anyone else.
I suppose that fools aid, as you seem determined to call it, must rule most everything around in that part of the country. How much I wish I could have the privilege of attending some society of that kind. But here when a man just gets fixed so that he can do a little so first himself he is changed again.
They were a boatload of prisoners left here last night to be exchanged and a hospital boat come in this morning from close to Petersburgh, Va. with sick and wounded from the late battle that has been fought.
I got five or six letters last week and I will have a good many to write and answer them next week. Maggie told me that Mother had been sick but I hope that she may be well again before you get this. I close by wishing all good health and strength.
Your Brother Truly,
Point Lookout, Maryland
March 24th /1865
Dear Brother Watson
It was with pleasure yesterday morning after cutting some wood that I received your kind letter of the 13th. I was much pleased to get a letter from you as it always does me so much good to hear from home and how things and times are as I have a great interest there. And you give me more news about home and the neighborhood then anyone else does.
I was at church last night and heard a real good sermon. The protracted meeting is still going on at the church. The Minister is a Methodist, the house is almost always full and he seems to meet with pretty good success for his labor.
It has been real March weather here for a week past, so windy that it would almost blow the hair off a “Brass Monkey.” Part of the time we did not get any mail.
We got the news here last night that Abraham Lincoln was coming to this Point inside of 24 hours. This you may know made some stir among the boys. They were a Guard of 30 men detailed at once to escort the President up to General Barnes’ Headquarters. It is not because they were any fears entertained in regard to his safety, but to escort him to General Barnes and as the boys say “To Pile on Style.”
He has not come yet so the password last night and today has been to annoy the boys “Uncle Abraham and his Daughter are coming to see us.” This Guard of 30 men and one Captain kept watching for him all night, but I have not seen the “Old Gentleman” yet.
They have been about 1000 prisoners passed here in the last six or seven days. They were 34 Rebel Officers from Johnson’s Island Ohio. They was one a General who had last left his Army fighting against his country upholding “Treason & Rebellion.” The rest were from Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ills. They are about 5000 Rebs here yet. Orders are to take them to Aikens Landing, Va where they are exchanged.
I was much surprised when I heard of the death of the late Mrs. Wilkinson, and so much more when I heard the sad news that Capt. O’Donald fills a soldier’s grave with so many other sons of the Prairie State. But I have thought of him several times lately and wondered if he was not sick or discharged and gone home.
That never to be forgotten 22nd of May /1863 “by all those that was present” was the fatal day for him and many others as he never has been well or strong since. That old Mississippi River is rotten from St. Louis to its mouth. If a man gets down there he is gone any place up along it.
I expect to send home $50 after a while. I mean to make what I have over that amount last me until my time is out. I hope less. I am well and enjoying myself well.
I remain your affectionate and well wishing Brother,
John H. Mathews
Point Lookout, Maryland
April 24th /1865
Yours of the 16th was duly received with much pleasure yesterday morning. The sun shines bright this morning with a cool north wind. And it was as cold here last night as ought to be here in February. But notwithstanding the coolness of the weather, the fish are commencing to bite about right. We fish mostly at night and with much better luck then we did in French Creek the night that T. C. and W. B. and you and me went down there to catch a mess of fresh fish after plowing corn all day. Fish bite here without coaxing very much as I guess that they are glad to get something to eat.
My health is as good as usual and I felt very happy and cheerful over the many late victories which our Army has achieved in the last month and the brightening and promising appearance of our country in the future.
But this state of things was changed on Saturday morning on the 15th of April when electric wires brought us the sad and to be lamented news of the murder of President Lincoln, and that he was publicly assassinated in a theater in the very Capital of the United States. They have been a great many salutes fired in honor of the death of Mr. Lincoln. All the Officers in the Army and Navy are wearing black crepe on their left arms and on their swords.
The Post Quarter Master has furnished black crepe to hang in front of all the offices and Public Headquarters on the Point. And as to the door fronts on the side of the Wharf where all the passengers come and go, we were furnished with the same to hang on each side of our door and under the eve of the roof in front of the house.
It was like you did not believe that it could be possible that Mr. Lincoln could be shot until I saw the flags hoisted at half-mast, and we soon got a second dispatch that satisfied us to our regret that it was true.
The 19th of April, the day on which Mr. Lincoln’s funeral service took place at Washington was the stillest day that I have witnessed on Point Lookout. All business was stopped, and scarcely a man was to be seen anywhere from his private abode except that his duties were such that it could not be suspended.
But not withstanding the loss of Lincoln, I think the War very near to an end. I learned today that they are to be no more fighting, with an agreement to a cessation of hostilities. And I understand from this that the War is about to be over. That the South is whipped and must submit, and if this is true that our authorities will begin to make peace with the Rebs and devise a plan on how to dispose of the Rebel Army and its Officers, and on what terms we will allow them to come back to that Union that they have so long tried to destroy, but have failed.
We are beginning to hear anything and everything in regard to the mustering out of the troops, and their term of service expiring. Some say that the Veteran Reserve Corps will be kept till each man serves out his full three years. Then others say that all that have less then one year to serve will be mustered out within a month. Of course I come under this head, but the only sure way I know to do is to wait and see what the authorities will do.
They have been the greatest diligence here on the Potomac and in the Chesapeake Bay since the murder of President Lincoln in searching all the boats on the river and in the bay. Every boat that comes down from the north is overhauled and searched before they can pass this Point, all to try to detect and arrest the murderer John Wilkes Booth or any of the conspirators concerned in the assassination.
The murder of Lincoln will cause many persons guilty of treason and many other crimes to be caught and brought to justice that otherwise would not have been. They are lots of men arrested and brought in here most every day. Every man that does not get proper passes to get back and forward or can’t prove himself an innocent and loyal man is taken up and put in safe keeping.
They were an Engineer tried to help one of our Reb prisoners off yesterday when he was caught and handcuffed and a ball and chain put on him. I guess he won’t help any other Reb during this War (but the Reb did not make good his escape).
I have been printing some moss pictures (or cards). The moss we gather out on the river and bay and put them in a dish filled with water. Then we turn the moss on top of the water and put a photograph card under the moss, and then raise the card and the moss carefully out of the water, lay them on a fine piece of cloth and put them on a press to dry. I will send you a sample of the first I ever made.
With these remarks I will close and wait for the changes of war in the future.
Your Brother Sincerely,
John H. Mathews