When I saw Robin Richardson Gilbert reach into that beaten steamer trunk, it felt like she was opening an ancient family tomb. It contained the priceless bequest she had received from her mother in 1993 – a tangible legacy that defined 180 years of family history. On the occasion of her son’s 4th grade show-and-tell she was persuaded to display a few choice items. Otherwise, she has kept its contents securely stored away in that old wooden trunk, patiently waiting to pass it on to the next generation.
But on that warm September afternoon in 2012 Robin was ready: it was high time for an airing out. With her British expat husband providing humorous commentary, and their enthusiastic son helping his mother display the items on the dining room table, the venerable family pageant began. Her ancestors had emigrated 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 had come across the ocean with those hardy pioneers, and each succeeding generation had made their own unique contribution to the whole. It was jammed to the brim without a square to spare.
Out came the Victorian Era jackets, ancient scrapbooks, photographic tintypes, graduation robes, gold-rimmed glasses, property deeds, multiple diaries dating back to that first trip across the Atlantic, the worn family Bible, newspaper clippings of national triumphs and tragedies. The trunk seemed bottomless. And then I saw the letters.
When she brought forth the notebook containing the Civil War correspondence that her Great Uncle John H. Mathews (and his brother Thomas) had faithfully written to their younger brother William Watson Mathews (her great-grandfather), I was mightily impressed. Those carefully preserved letters began with Mathews’ first-hand account of the bloody Siege of Vicksburg, fought with the 77th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Her uncle John had been badly wounded during the assault on May 22, 1863, but he survived.
The letters traced the entirety of Mathews’ Civil War journey, from his long and difficult medical recovery to his service with the Volunteer Reserve Corps as a provost guard at the Point Lookout Prison in Maryland. The letters from Point Lookout include his powerful testimony about the difficult conditions at the notorious prison, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and his first-hand account of the subsequent search for John Wilkes Booth along the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. I asked Robin for her permission to post the letters here, and she agreed. Thank you, Robin.
— Clifford B. Davids