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Gordon family papers, 1853-1883 (majority within 1861-1862)

504 items

The Gordon family papers document the life of a Maryland family with Confederate sympathies. The collection particularly focuses on the correspondence between Josiah H. Gordon and his wife Kate during Josiah's political imprisonment during the Civil War.

The Gordon family papers contain 504 letters written or received by Josiah H. Gordon, his wife Kate, and their son Robert ("Bobby") between 1853 and 1883. The largest part of the correspondence consists of 359 letters between Josiah H. Gordon and his wife Kate, with an additional 43 letters written by their son "Bobby" to his father. Another 66 letters are from friends and relatives to Josiah or Kate, and 36 are business letters to Josiah. Kate's letters were written from their home in Cumberland, Md. Josiah's earlier letters, prior to his arrest, were written while he was away from home on business in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Frederick, Md. His prison letters came from Fort Lafayette, New York [12 letters] and from Fort Warren, Massachusetts [108 letters]. Immediately after his release he wrote from Bedford and Huntington, Pennsylvania, then from Jessup's Cut and Pierce Land, Maryland. In the early 1870s, he wrote from his home in Cumberland to his son "Bobby" at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and later to his daughter Helen who was away at school (1882).

Although the correspondence covers 30 years, all but approximately thirty of the letters date from a single 15-month period, between April 1861 and June of 1862, during which time Josiah was in prison for 8 months. Maryland was a state of divided loyalties, with the town of Cumberland sharply divided, but it remained in Union hands for most of the War. The Gordons were clearly Southern sympathizers, and with Josiah a Delegate in the Maryland House, his opinions were well known. From the time of his first arrest on Aug. 30, 1861, until two months after his release on May 7, 1862, he was separated from his wife and three small children. The Gordon Family Papers are especially interesting because they give both sides of this correspondence between a husband, held as a political prisoner in a "Northern" fort, and his wife and young son at home in Maryland, where they have been classified as "the enemy." They wrote to each other 3-5 times a week during the year they were apart. The letters provide a clear picture of the quiet, secure, daily life in prison, and its turbulent counterpart back home in Maryland in the early days of the Civil War. Both Gordons felt the Confederacy would prevail, and despite censorship of all their letters, expressed strong political sentiments -- so strong that both were warned to tone down their letters. One of Josiah's letters in early March of 1862 was returned to him as unsendable. Kate's April 3, 1862 letter to him was delivered with the following warning from Col. Dimick [the commander of Fort Warren], "Please request Mrs. Gordon to avoid military and other matters relating to our national affairs."

Kate Gordon's 88 letters to her husband during the time of his arrest and imprisonment in the "North" portray a woman forced to assume her husband's normal role at a very difficult time. Her letters are filled with questions, such as how much meat to order for the winter, whether to keep or sell their horse which the Union troops keep "borrowing," what direction their nine-year-old son's education should take, what their slave Wesley should be doing. Kate, on her own for the first time with two young children, had to make decisions in a hostile environment. Cumberland had many volatile Union supporters, and was occupied by Federal forces for most of 1861 and 1862. She had to cope with the anger people felt toward her imprisoned husband. In August 1861 the Gordon's house was attacked by a mob, who broke most of the downstairs windows and almost kicked in the front door. In early 1862 some young rowdies "were stoning Wesley in the most furious manner." In his 39 letters, nine-year-old Bobby wrote his own observations of local events. On Aug. 18, 1861, he wrote, "the people put Cow manure on the Carriage and wrote traitor on the back and cut the tassels off and Stole the colored mans coat."

Josiah's 108 letters to Kate from Fort Warren describe what can only be called a very comfortable prison experience: Friends sent him food packages with pickled oysters, hams, turkeys, fine teas, and whiskey; he received newspapers and letters once or twice a day; and prisoners visited freely from room to room. Josiah found in his companions some of the "most respectable, intelligent, and influential gentlemen in the country." One lucky prisoner was even sent "a most elegant set of rose wood furniture" for his room by an anonymous female admirer in Boston. Josiah had a lot of time to write and to think about his family, who were living without his support and in constant threat of violence. He was anxious to learn how the war was going; he believed that the battle reports in northern newspapers were exaggerated or erroneous.

Josiah Gordon's Fort Warren letters give detailed descriptions of daily routines, as well as Christmas and New Year's celebrations. A map is enclosed in his Feb. 4, 1862 letter, showing the locations of windows, fireplace, and the beds of his five roommates. Food played a big part in the prison world, and in addition to the food packages sent to them, he wrote detailed descriptions of their "mess." Prison expenses came to $5.00 a week - $3.00 for board and washing, and $2.00 for clothes and "room expenses." Of course board would have been provided free had they chosen to eat prison rations. Fellow prisoners included Generals Simon Buckner and Lloyd Tilghman (both held in solitary confinement), and prisoners of war taken at Forts Hatteras and Donaldson. The most unusual prisoner was Hatteras Turk, "a large white dog captured by Gen'l Butler on the sandy beach of North Carolina, and now here with his master. This noble animal was at fort Hatteras during the bombbardment and ran after the shells as they fell trying to pick them up in his mouth just as he ran after the foot ball here to day." Although the "political prisoners" and "prisoners of war" were treated differently in some ways (prisoners of war had more freedom to roam the island than political prisoners did), the two groups interacted freely. The political prisoners tended to be from a higher social class. Gordon writes that "we 'prisoners of state' have the Hatteras boys employed to cook for us and wait upon our rooms." The Hatteras prisoners also crafted "rings" which were much admired and purchased by Gordon and his friends as gifts to send home to their families. "They are made out of gutta percha buttons inlaid with mother of pearl, silver and gold with no tools but a pocket knife, a brick and a file."

Although most of the Gordon family papers contain letters written by family members, three letters from friends are of particular interest. These were written by fellow Fort Warren prisoners E.G. Kibourn and William G. Harrison. Kilbourn's letter was written after he had been released in 1862, to the still imprisoned Gordon. Harrison's two letters were written to a recently freed Gordon from a still-imprisoned Harrison. These letters convey the intimacy of friends who shared the same prison experience and had grown very close.

Also of interest is a single undated letter from H. D. Downey, probably a nephew of Gordon's, describing the laying of the corner stone at Marshall College in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, c. 1837. The letter also noted, at some length, the rivalry between textbook agents in the area, who sold the Emerson Series or the Cobb's Series.