“The Disorder on the Border” – Letters Home from Inside the Military Hospital at Jefferson Barrracks, St. Louis, Missouri

Nurse Ann Belle in a Union Hospital

Nurse Ann Belle at work in a Union Hospital

John H. Mathews was slow to recover from the grievous wounds he received during the second assault at the Siege of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. By the middle of November he had finally been transferred from the Jackson Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee to the military hospital located on the grounds of the historic Jefferson Barracks, located ten miles south of that strategically vital river city of St. Louis, Missouri.

Established in 1826, Jefferson Barracks was the army’s first basic infantry training center. It was also the staging area for troops assigned to protect settlers from Indian attacks along the Missouri-Mississippi River basin. By 1833, the western frontier had expanded beyond the reach of the infantry, and additional protection was required for the settlers. To meet that need, the barracks became the headquarters for the U.S. Regiment of Dragoons (later known as the 1st U.S. Calvary). It was from here that the 1st Calvary brought a semblance of order to the wild west. By the 1840’s, the barracks had become the largest military outpost within in the United States.

Five months after the Civil War began, Congress voted to move the U. S. arsenal in St. Louis to the safety of the Jefferson Barracks. Throughout the war, the barracks remained a stronghold in the divided and chaotic border state of Missouri. By 1862, it also served as a comprehensive medical treatment facility for sick and wounded soldiers, many of them transported from the numerous battle areas along the Mississippi River aboard the hospital ship USS Red Rover, shown above.

John Mathews convalesced at Jefferson Barracks (and later at the Alexander Barracks) for approximately four months. In March of 1864 his new regiment, the Veteran Reserve Corps, was reassigned to Alexandria, VA. The four letters here, written during his recovery in St. Louis, portray a restless young man anxious to recover his strength. His observations to his brother back on the farm in Illinois offer a sharp and often humorous take on everything from military strategy to marriageable women.

–Clifford B. Davids


Sick Ward of the Ship Red Rover--the "Floating Hospital of the Mississippi"

Sick Ward on the USS Red Rover–the “Floating Hospital of the Mississippi”


Jefferson Barracks, Missouri

Friday 18th December /1863

Dear Brother

I received yours of the 14th yesterday written from “Y” Elmwood. I don’t know what you mean by the “Y” but was glad to hear from you that you are enjoying yourself so well and have started school again. They are no time when we enjoy ourselves so well as when we are going to school. I did wonder for a while where your rooms were, but now I know quite well.

I remember the house and the singing at the window as if it were yesterday, and so do you. Do you remember the time when we got our reaper, and you and I had to go back from New Burg to Elmwood after the jug of molasses that we forgot. The Miss was singing that evening. I wish I was there now, carrying a jug of ‘lasses again.

I pity the old maids, but it is not their fault that they are maids. I was not surprised to hear how the girls flocked around you at recess. Well this Ophie is a dangerous female, and the best way is to touch-not-taste-not-handle-not. They are very hard sometimes to keep clear of, but they are dangerous persons and are not to be trifled with. You know her well enough to know how to take her on.

William Watson Mathews

William Watson Mathews

They are always coming around, you know. It is kind of funny to see how the girls hang around with the whiskers. Miss Chapman is another of them “soft to go off the handle” girls to get married. Darn the girls that are so anxious, although she is very different from the others. If she knew what T.C. and many others think of her, she would not be so keen.

I got a hold of Colburn’s Arithmetics Third Lesson yesterday which I am doing in my spare time now, and I read nearly all the newspapers each day.

The Ward Masters and Doctors are making out their yearly returns for the end of 1863, and a man that isn’t very bad off they don’t hurry his case very fast–I can’t tell you anything more in regard to my discharge. The Doctor doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to have me examined. A man has to be here or in some hospital a good while before he can get discharged. I think maybe this is the reason, but I can’t tell. I am going to speak to him again the first chance I get.

Well it is pretty cold and frosty here at the present, but I guess you see colder weather in Illinois than we do here. Yesterday the papers said that there was nearly a foot of snow in Peoria, and that makes it cold in Illinois. They are a great deal of broken ice in the river now, but it doesn’t do any harm to navigation–it only takes a little more steam.

Taking all things into consideration, I content myself pretty well. I am going to put a good deal of my time in on arithmetic and wait as patiently as I can till God ordains it that I shall come home, and he certainly will before long. I more then wish I was with you in Elmwood.

They are another thing and sort to living in a hospital. I merely write because I know you are very anxious to know how I am getting along. I don’t feel any particular better now then when I came here six week ago.

I guess I must write a short letter home this evening, so I will close for this time. If anyone asks for me, I am tolerably well and wish I was with them.

Your Brother

John H. Mathews


Embarkation of troops at St. Louis, Missouri

Embarkation of troops at St. Louis, Missouri


Friday January 29th /1864

St. Louis, Missouri

Brother Watson

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosencrans

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosencrans

U. S. Grant is in St. Louis. They are to be a very fine dinner given to him by his friends in St. Louis and also a large meeting to regulate the way that veterans can be welcomed and received by the people of this city. Also Major General Rosencrans was to arrive today and was to be received with the highest military honors upon his arrival.

They are a guard being raised for General Rosencrans consisting of 200 mounted men and their uniform is to be red scarlet trimmed with gold leaf braid. The people are so much pleased to get this Officer in this Department that I think they are making fools of themselves.

The boats have commenced to run today. I think they will be so many soldiers get home on furlough this winter that they will dry up all the copperheads if they are not dried up before this, and for this I am very glad.

Your Brother in Respect

John H. Mathews


Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri

Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri


Jefferson Barracks

February 20th /1864

Brother Watson

Yours of the 15th came safely in hand and it is the only letter that I have got from home this week. This is Saturday afternoon and I thought I would commence writing a letter to you and finish it tomorrow.

Well all I hear of the news here is the boys getting married. They have been half a dozen weddings here since I have been back. You remember the Ward Master’s girl that I told you about, that I called good looking? She got married the day before I got back and took a trip home back to Iowa. She is in the kitchen two or three times every day. She is pretty, sociable, and lively and this helps to make things go off.  The other cook in this kitchen got married on the 6th of this month. His name is Will Topping and he married one of the widows that we talk about so much. Some soldiers sell themselves cheaper then I would, but if they are suited, I need not grumble.

I was quite sorry to hear that the mare had got hurt and gone blind. Our horses are getting pretty well used up I think, and you will have a busy time in the spring breaking so many colts. I got a letter this week from Ferguson. He wanted me to let him know if I could tell him the reason why Maggie did not write to him, but I could not give him any comfort on this subject. He told me he had not gotten a letter from her since he has been home.

Sunday 21st

Well I will try to finish this today. All that has transpired since I commenced to write is that we got a boatload of 230 sick. They are from Vicksburgh and Memphis. Ward “E” got 18 of which are diarrhea cases. I went down to see the boat unload, and I think they are as bad worn and used up a set of men as I have ever seen. A good many of them are old, and some of them are wounded from Chattanooga. I did not find one that I knew.

The army is again in motion, but this you know as well as I can tell. I think that they will be more moves before long, and I look for and hope for very important results from these movements. And I for one look for a smashing campaign (as the old saying goes) if the rebs intend to fight us another summer as I expect they will, or part of one at least. Where can their hope of fight come from that drives them on? But pluck and determination will wear out when our overwhelming multitudes are in pursuit of them in every corner and on every road.

I would not be surprised to hear of the eastern part of the Confederacy cut in two any day. All things are working together to forever squash and smash out this war during the coming year or summer, if the rebs don’t surrender before that time rolls around.

This is all and I hope to hear from you soon.

Your Brother

John H. Mathews


The U.S. Civil War gunboat Cairo, part of the Mississippi Fleet

The Civil War gunboat USS Cairo, part of the Mississippi Fleet


Alexander Barracks, St. Louis

March 27th /1864

Brother Watson

Sunday, 2 o’clock P.M. I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines this afternoon. I went to church this morning and heard a good sermon, and then I took a walk uptown to see the Lindell Hotel which is called a large building, and I guess that it right. It is six stories high with a basement and a garret and it seems to be built out of grey and yellow granite. It extends the whole length of a square in front and half a square in back so you can see that it is a good size. It is so large that it don’t look like a hotel to me.

I got two more pictures, one of them I call very nice, but the picture of the surrender of Vicksburg I don’t call very good, but it is the best that I could get. They cost 10 and 15 cents each.

It is a little kind of spiteful for me to see how these rebs that are prisoners here are treated in return for the way they use our men at Richmond. They get good rations and I guess plenty of them by their looks. They get bread as good as you ever saw at our table at home. This is something new for Mr. Reb, who when they were in the field fighting against us had nothing but cornbread, and sometimes not very plenty of that, and now they are prisoners and get bakers bread. Our government always has been too good to these rebs.

John H. Mathews

John H. Mathews

Well I am fitted out with all the necessities of a soldier. And we have got orders to report to Washington, D.C. and expect to leave Monday at noon. This seems like something new to be sending us to the east and the boys would sooner go to any other place in the U.S. They can’t bear the idea of the east, and for a chance I would like to be sent some other place, but we may not stay any length of time in Washington. The boys make lots of sport about going to see “Old Abe” and going to the Capital. They write to their folks at home that their next letter will be from Washington.

We have a captain by the name of Church who is going to take charge of us till we get there. We can’t tell whether he will be our future Officer or not as he is from the Army of the Potomac. I would be satisfied to take him and risk it. We will go by way of Baltimore on the cars. You will hear from me as soon as I get to my destination if nothing happens. They say we will probably be on the road several days.

I got one letter from Mother and W.B. since I have been here. I look for some tomorrow for I would like to hear how you are getting along with everything in general. I am not homesick for letters, I only feel anxious to know how things are.

The boys are very well pleased at the new name that our Corps has got, and so am I–we are the Veteran Reserves now, not Invalid Corps.

I feel as well as I ever did, and in dry clear weather I feel pretty stout and can rock around smart as they say, but of course it don’t take very much to make me tired. I am beginning to be a little encouraged again and hope that I will get pretty strong during this coming summer. I am not so white and pale as when I was home. I am more fleshy, fresh, and redder in the face.

The boys of the Company have much fun with me about my blacking my boots, and shaving and combing my hair—they said I must be looking to be promoted. I tell them it never hurts anyone to keep clean. I think keeping clean and taking care of ones health more beneficial to a man and an army then all the doctors, and I mean to do so as long as I can and am able.

It has been warm and pleasant for two or three days, and I think that spring has come at last. I close hoping to hear from you before long and all the rest of the family.

Your Brother Very Respectful

J.H. Mathews


Trinity Church with the U. S. Capital Building Dome under construction during the Civil War.

Trinity Church with the U. S. Capital Building Dome under construction during the Civil War.


Monday March 28th 9 A.M.

Well Brother, we got orders last night to march at 12 noon for Washington with four days cooked rations and two days uncooked rations, making six days in all. We have our knapsacks packed and are all ready for the trip.

This mornings paper gives the account of rebs getting whipped at Paducah, Kentucky. I expect the rebs will make some desperate raids this spring and I hope that they will meet with warm receptions. I feel well and think I will enjoy this trip. I mean to keep a diary on the way.

I am not so very much opposed to going east as some others, for I think I may get to see some of our friends down there that you know. If I get near Havre de Grace I mean to go see Maggie Coral, if they are any such things in the book.

I may drop you a few lines by the way if I get a chance.

Your Brother Truly

J.H. Mathews

(Address: John H. Mathews, 32nd Co. 1st Battalion, U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps)


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3 Responses to “The Disorder on the Border” – Letters Home from Inside the Military Hospital at Jefferson Barrracks, St. Louis, Missouri

  1. Amelie von Fluegge says:

    I’m really enjoying Mathews’ observant and articulate recounting of the events taking place around him.

  2. Robin Richardson Gilbert says:

    I truly appreciate reading the letters written by my Great Uncle John Mathews. His description of events as seen from the perspective of a common soldier are reflective of his times. He is recovering from his wounds, yet also notices the condition of newly wounded entering the hospital. As a young man he is interested in women, events at home, taking care of himself and looking to the future–not so different from young men today. These letters are interesting on their own, but really more meaningful when combined with Mr. David’s research. Outlined against documented events, John Mathews’ experiences and words give life to history.

  3. maye45@att.net says:

    I agree with the introduction. The war almost comes alive while reading the letters-keep them coming. It is also amazing about the hospital ship back then. Go figure. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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