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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dear Boy, Do You Long To See Me?

The American Civil War has sometimes been called a war that pitted "brother against brother." Yet in recent times, revisionist historians have called this aspect of our worst national tragedy a myth. The following story, highly illustrative of how the war divided families, encompasses all the elements, both of great fiction and of the truth that is always out of step with how we prefer to view our past. We pick up the story when all the main characters are in place-- the fall of Savannah to Sherman's army, just before Christmas in 1864.

When the city fell, the Reverend Joseph H. Meyers, an "Old School" Presbyterian minister who taught school and owned property, opted to stay behind, though not a Southerner either by birth or inclination. His thirty-one year-old wife, Elizabeth, known as "Bessie," immediately packed her belongings and took their four year-old son, Peter, home to Northhampton, Massachusetts. Bessie was the forty-two year-old clergyman's second wife, his first having died in St. Augustine in 1854. Myers had a son, John, by that first marriage. Now serving in the Confederate navy, stationed at Charleston, John would soon become the focus of far more family drama than merely his siding with the South might have caused.

John's willingness to join the Rebels might best be explained by theological differences in the Myers family. The niece of Erastus Hopkins, Bessie came from a family of well-known abolitionists. However, her husband's Old School Presbyterians had not strongly opposed slavery before the war, and had even adopted something of a comfortable accommodation with the South.

In fact, the Myers family had lived in the South for most of John's life. Born in Knoxville in 1846, the boy spent much of his youth in St. Augustine. How the family came to be living in Savannah in 1864 is not known. However, in their 1860 household in Florida lived Bessie's younger brother, George, who had recently graduated from medical school. George would join the Union navy as an assistant surgeon, serving throughout the war. While this does not exactly constitute brother against brother, it nevertheless comes close enough.

Only sixteen when the war broke out, John remained in Florida for two years, finally traveling to South Carolina in December 1863 to join the Rebels. His experience at sea allowed him to enlist as an ordinary seaman, a rating above landsman, the normal recruit. This nautical know-how of John's leads to some interesting speculation about his family.

According to the 1860 census, the Reverend Myers was worth $38,000, quite a hefty sum for a man who presumably owned no slaves. By contrast, the Myers family listed a net worth of a comfortable, though hardly wealthy, $8,000 on the 1870 census. One fact that stands out about Bessie's family was their support for recolonization of freed slaves to Africa. Was the money her husband claimed in 1860 being used for that purpose, and did John participate in voyages from Charleston to Africa in the prewar years? Charleston had been home to Bessie's uncle in the 1830s, the Reverend Erastus Hopkins mentioned above. All this sounds as if the Hopkins-Meyers family was making use of pooled resources to promote recolonization. Yet, as a Massachusetts delegate to the 1856 Republican Convention, Erastus Hopkins stated in a speech that he favored bullets, if ballots proved ineffective to put an end to slavery. Recolonization clearly had failed.

Less illustrious than her uncle, Bessie's father, the Reverend Samuel Hopkins, was pastor of a church in Saco, Maine, for the greater part of his career. He had published a few monographs, but otherwise was not as well-known as other men named Hopkins, whether related or not. Though the Hopkins-Wheeler-Meyers genealogy has been published, it would be of little interest to the general reader of this essay. Suffice it to say that Bessie's father was not the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, Hyde professor of church history at Theological Seminary, Auburn, New York.

Once back in Northhampton, home to quite a community of abolitionists, Bessie received word through a relative that her stepson was a prisoner of war at City Point, Maryland. Neither she nor her husband had heard anything from John since before the fall of Savannah. Enough documentation exists to allow us to confirm that John was captured at a place called Penn's Bridge, South Carolina, on February 11, 1865. By John's own account, but not confirmed by any records, he was wounded while attempting to escape. He also wrote that he had been wounded in the leg at Morris Island, one of the forts defending Charleston, in December 1863, the very month and year he enlisted. (An attack on Morris Island's Fort Wagner figures prominently in the 1989 movie "Glory." However, the battle shown in the film took place several months before John enlisted.)

To put John's capture in perspective, it must have been a harrowing experience. Charleston would be evacuated on February 15, three days after John was taken prisoner. Union forces occupied it on the 18th. John's route from Charleston would take him toward Columbia, which fell to Sherman's forces on the 17th and 18th. The city went up in smoke and flames, by some accounts, the fires having been set by Wheeler's Cavalry. John's pension claim states he was captured near Orangeburg (though he wrote Columbia on another page of the forms). Sherman's forces left that place a smoldering ruin on the 13th. Yet another barrier lay in John's path. The Edisto River runs in a southeasterly direction a few miles below Orangeburg. At various points between Aiken, Blackville and Branchville, due south of the city, the Confederates had been burning bridges and fighting rearguard skirmishes, one or two on the day John was captured. Had he been captured in one of these fights after passing through Orangeburg on his way to Savannah?

According to John, his attempted escape earned him a bullet in the side. After capture he was transported to New Bern, North Carolina, not arriving at Point Lookout, Maryland, until April 3rd. That two-month lag time would be consistent with John having been wounded, though not seriously. By the time the Myers family knew of John's circumstances, Lee had surrendered.

Bessie, maternal, literate, and methodical, sent a package to John, along with a list of its contents. Whether he ever received the package or not, we do have the list. The J.K.M. she mentions was her husband's brother, John K. Myers. 

List of contents of carpet bag I sent J.K.M. to be forwarded to you.

Coat, pants- vest- 4 pr socks- 2 pr drawers 2 flannel shirts- 2 white cotton shirts- 1 pr shoes, 1 hat- 1 box paper collars- 1 necktie to wear with them- 2 pocket hdkfs [handkerchiefs]. comb, toothbrush, nail brush- Castile soap- pumice soap for the hands- 2 towels. Needle book containing knife.- scissors in coat pocket. 1 testament, Harper's Monthly for Apr, 1 novel, Life for a life- Letter paper and envelopes- pen holder and 2 pens- pins- thread- needles- two or three postage stamps (all I had in the house). I believe this is all and I hope you will get it soon. E.H.M. 

John's voucher to take the oath  Click on any image to enlarge it.
List of items Bessie sent
Document ordering John to report to Baltimore
Envelope addressed to John at Point Lookout. On the reverse side Bessie gave permission for it to be opened and read, begging that it then be sent on to him.
Bessie's note to the officer who might read the contents

 The following are transcripts of two letters Bessie wrote to John, urging him to take the oath to the United States and come to her at Northhampton. The most plausible explanation for why the letters were included with John's prisoner records is that the officer whose task it was to read the letters before allowing John to have them thought they were too long. Someone whose initials, ACP, could be understood to mean "Acting Commander of Prison" or "Acting Commissary of Prison(ers)" wrote in very large letters in the margin of one of the letters "Too long by far." "Too long" was also written on the outside of the one surviving envelope, leading us to believe that John never got his letters.
Letter #1:

Bessie H. Myers to John W. Myers

Northampton, April 10th, 1865

My Dear Dear Johnny,

How can I express to you my state of feeling, on hearing this from your Uncle John K. Myers, that you were a prisoner of war, my excitement and my joy at learning that you were safe somewhere. How many anxious thoughts your father and I have had about you, not knowing where you might be, how many letters he has sent you, how he has thought of going out in search of you, how we have all prayed for you, even little Peter, every night that "God would take care of brother Johnny and bring him safely back to us"! and now our prayers are to be answered very soon, I trust, and we shall see your face. Dear boy, do you long to see me as I do to see you, I wonder, and will you come to me soon? I felt today as if I must fly to you as soon as I heard the news, but perhaps I had better wait till I hear from you. How I shall rejoice to see your hand-writing once more after these four long months. I sent Uncle John K. $20 for you today wh I asked him to forward to you, and tomorrow I shall send you some clothes. And now I want you to promise me something, which is, that as soon as you are released, you will come to me here first. I have many very good reasons for this request, the first of which is that I understand your thoughts and feelings and can sympathize with you and explain things to you better than anyone else. Your friends will all want to see you and will be pulling you this way and that, I doubt not, but no one can blame you for wanting to come first to Mother. My father and mother will welcome you most affectionately, for your dear, departed mother's sake, for my sake, and for your own. Uncle Erastus ditto. He is rejoiced to hear that you are safe and will write to you, and see what he can do for your release.

I arrived here Jan. 21st, and have been here since, except about four weeks when I was visiting Grandma Myers, Uncle John K., and Aunt Lucy Shedd. We remained quietly in Savannah through all the siege and capture, and your father is there still, teaching, but in another house, as the one we were in is used for a hospital. He was well when I heard last. Let me know if you want anything else than what I send. I shall try to think of everything necessary to your comfort, do you want blankets? Dear boy, how much you must have gone through these four months, and we too a little.

About your release, Johnny. I am very anxious for it, but don't feel sure that it can be attained at present, unless you are willing to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government. I wish you would and come to me speedily; all will soon take that ground probably. I suppose you know that Richmond is taken, Lee and his whole army captured and paroled, and there will be little, if any, fighting, the end is plainly before us. Come to me, dear boy. You shall stay just as long as you like, then go to see Grandma Myers and your Aunt Lucia, if you will, and then I know your father will not object to your going to sea if you choose, or something else you may prefer. How can I wait for the answer to this letter. God Bless you.

Your loving mother,

Bessie H. Myers

Letter # 2: 
Northampton, April 12th, 1865

    My Dearest Johnny,

    I cannot rest tonight without writing you a few lines. I have already sent you two letters, dated 10th and 11th, but as I had not then your full address, I fear they may not reach you; perhaps if you enquired for them you may get them. They were directed simply to J.W. Myers, a prisoner of war, Pt. Lookout, Md. I sent yesterday to your uncle J.K. to be forwarded to you, a comfortable outfit of clothes, which I hope he will send on to you immediately. I will enclose a list of what the carpet bag contained. If you want anything else, let me know immediately and I will send it on. I enclosed $20.00 to your uncle John K. as soon as I heard from him of your whereabouts, but he returned it today, saying he had already sent you money. He is very kind. If you want more, let me know dear boy, and as soon as I know that letters reach you safely, I can enclose some. I hope you will soon join me here, but I want you to have things comfortable while you remain where you are, and to be able to feel at your ease when you first present yourself to Northern friends. The coat I have sent you will, I fear, be rather short in the sleeves, but don't mind that just now, it is the fashion I believe in N.Y., and you shall have a better one when you get here. If the shirt-sleeves are too short, let me know at once, and I will contrive a remedy. I did not like to send you many or very nice things in this way, lest they might never reach you, which you can understand and appreciate, I doubt not.

    I have told you in a previous letter how rejoiced I was to hear that you were safe somewhere, and now I do so long to see you, to embrace you, to comfort you, and make you comfortable, and to be comforted by you.

    Will you not consent to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government at once and come North as soon as you can arrange to do so? This is your mother's strong desire and will be your father's I think, as soon as he hears from you. If you hesitate about this, as I hope you may not, let me suggest as reasons for it, these; your relatives are now all on this side of the lines, and shd you be exchanged and sent back, (of which there is no present probability, I think) by your lone self you would be very desolate; then the whole country will very soon return to its old allegiance since as Richmond is taken and Lee and his army surrendered, peace must very soon be restored under the old order of things. I sd in my first letter that if you take this course I doubt not your father would consent to your going to sea if you wish it, or anything else you may prefer. I hope you will ever be very courteous to those in authority over you. I know you will cheerfully accept this and a little more advice from one who loves you so truly and tenderly, and who understands you and your peculiar mind traits, (let alone the outer ones) better than anyone except your father.

    If you are released and meet with the relatives before I see you, meet them in an affectionate, unconstrained manner, as if nothing particular had happened, but I would be very reserved in speaking of our experience during these last four years. I want you to come to me as straight as you can when you are at liberty to do so, and don't let anyone stop you on any pretext; some may wish to do so, though they wd not say so openly. Let this be hint enough to you dear boy (I cannot explain my special reasons in a letter, aside from the first of all that I want you, I want to see you and talk with you). I do not demand it of you dear Johnny (to come to me), of course, but I most earnestly request it and feel sure that your heart wd prompt you to it. My father and mother are most anxious to welcome you here, and in this house, you can stay and rest as long as you wish, and then go see your Grandma Myers and your Burlington friends, all of whom are ready to welcome you with open-arms. My father has written to you under cover to the commander of the post where you are, wh letter I hope you will receive.

    Write me as many particulars of your health, present condition, past experiences, etc., as you can, and to your father also. Box 483 Savannah Ga. (he has changed his box). Can I send sealed letters to you as often as I wish? I sent you but two hdkfs in the bag as no more were hemmed, but I have others to send by mail as soon as I hear they will reach you. I have here for you 1/2 doz fine white shirts, a nice overcoat, a pr of boots, some nice Summer drawers I got. I didn't think it best to send you, but they are waiting for you. Peter and I are well. Your fond, loving mother

    How long have you been at Point L? Address me care Rev. Saml Hopkins, Northampton, Mass.

John's records show that he was ordered to report to the provost marshal at Baltimore, where he would be allowed to travel to New York. We then lose track of him until the 1870s. The 1870 census shows his family living in Ulster County, New York, but not him. He must have been at sea, as implied in the letters. Ulster County records do show he married Florence "Florida" Foreman there in 1874. Other records show that in subsequent years John became a master mariner, meaning he would most likely have been the captain of whatever vessel he sailed aboard. Captain Myers' Civil War experience may have been the reason he became involved a very intriguing business in the late 1890s. 
Newspaper accounts from the period leading up to the Spanish-American war show that John W. Myers was the captain of two ships engaged in "filibustering," that is, the running of guns, ammunition, supplies and even recruits to Cuban rebels. The name of the ship most often engaged in this illegal business was Dauntless, often chased and sometimes boarded by United States revenue cutters. Oddly enough, the papers often printed the suspected routes and destinations of the filibusters almost before they left port. We can be sure this is our John Myers because his Confederate Pension application gives his address. He had come home to St. Augustine in the 1880s and had joined the local Confederate veterans organization. Without that pension claim, which included letters of endorsement by his fellow veterans, we would not have such a clear picture of John's activities during his later years. 
Whether John retired after his filibuster days or continued to sail the seas, we have no inkling. He and Florida appear to have had no children of their own, but census records show they had two adopted daughters. Bessie's "Dear Boy" died in 1913 and is buried in St. Augustine, while his widow lived another four years. 

The story of  John Wheeler Myers has all the elements of good drama and illustrates as well how the Civil War did indeed divide families. Already divided by religion, at least as it touched on the issue of slavery, the Myers-Hopkins clan endured the whole spectrum of war-- captivity, siege, separation, and finally, reunion, both national and familial. 

Lastly, we leave it to the reader to infer whether the unfeigned affection gushing forth in purple prose from Bessie's letters to John betrays anything deserving of a Eugene O'Neill in their interpretation. Whatever Bessie's intent, she left us a window on a part of the Civil War not often dealt with in dry history books. A story worth telling, revealed in letters that may never have reached their intended recipient, this one also illustrates the difficulty we as moderns have in reading our own social mores and attitudes into the lives of those now long dead. 

Since the story has been told largely from Bessie's letters and John's Florida Confederate veteran pension claim, we know little of John's feelings for his stepmother. Yet, seemingly acting on her advice, he took the oath to the United States and was released from Point Lookout, no doubt making his way to New York via Baltimore. We know nothing of his reception in Northhampton, and only that he married in the same county where where his parents were living in the 1870s. Thus, the novelist who might take on this story would have plenty of empty space on the page to fill in using his or her imagination. While some speculation is necessary in order to make sense of this family's peculiar circumstances, none of it in this essay goes beyond what is known from the historical record. That having been said, this story would make an excellent subject for a novel.