1862: John Mathews to his Sister

Assistant Surgeon John Mathews

This letter was written by John Mathews (1821-1875), the son of Abiezer Mathews (1788-1856) and Ruth Eastman Page (1791-1861) of Bath, Lincoln county, Maine. John was an 1845 graduate of the Medical College at Bowdoin and practicing medicine in Bath at the time of the 1850 US Census where he was enumerated in his parents household along with two younger sisters, Martha and Mary, and two younger brothers, Philip and Emory. His father’s occupation was given as “Writing Master” at the time though an obituary claims he was a “prominent merchant.” An advertisement for John’s medical practice in Bath informs us that his office was located in the Granite Block on Front Street in Bath.

In the late 1850s, John relocated to New Orleans with his brother-in-law, sister Martha L. Carter, and mother and established an apothecary. When the Civil War began not long after, he was “requested by the Confederate government to enter the army as a physician,” but his “loyal spirit” would not allow him to do so and he decided to return to New York though his “records and effects were seized and burned.” As if this weren’t enough, his mother and brother-in-law died on the trip back to New York, leaving only his sister and himself to settle in Brooklyn.

John enlisted in the U. S. Navy in 1861. He reported to the USS E.B. Hale as Assistant Surgeon. He was transferred to the US Bark Gem of the Sea in October 1861, and joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the South Carolina coast. She ran British blockade runner Prince of Wales aground off Georgetown 24 December. She captured blockade runner Fair Play 12 March 1862, schooner Dixie 15 April 1862, and schooner Mary Stewart 3 June. Nine days later she took schooner Seabrook off Alligator Creek. On 1 July she took possession of four rice-laden lighters up the Waccamaw River. Mathews was discharged on 18 September 1863 due to rheumatism. After hhe war, Mathews settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he practiced medicine. His residence was at 239 Fifth Avenue at the corner of Carroll Street. He died in 1875 and was buried in Bath, Maine.

Asst. Surgeon John Mathews posted this letter while serving aboard the Union bark Gem of the Sea—a “fast sailer” and a very prolific blockade vessel and raider during the Civil War. Writing to his sister, Mathews spends much of the letter recounting the terrible plight of ex-slaves who were abandoned by their owners on North Island at the mouth of Georgetown Bay in South Carolina. Mathews, at least from his perspective, had a prominent role in the salvation of these unfortunate individuals.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared 7 Shared by express consent.]

Bark Gem of the Sea being fitted out for naval service at New York Navy Yard in 1861


Gem of the Sea
Georgetown Entrance, South Carolina
August 1, 1862

Dear Sister,

Your letter with the “bon bons,” also Philip’s with papers, have all been received. I wrote Philip a few lines last week which I suppose he has received, though whether he has been able to find it out is a doubtful question. I had but a few moments and a great deal to do.

We are still inside Georgetown bar, and how long we shall remain here I cannot tell. I do not know which is worst—the flies, mosquitoes, fleas and heat, or rolling and pitching about outside. We have to suffer anyhow, but I believe it is pleasanter outside.

When we came in here, we found about six hundred negroes on North Island. 1 They were distributed about in and under 9 or 10 cottages, two or three families in a room—men, women, children and babies all huddled together. Such a sight I never saw and hope never to see again. The greater part of these negroes ran away from different plantations. A part were brought by one of the captains who was on the station from one of the plantations and then went off and left them here. That’s like the most of the abolitionists and I wish he and all others of the same stripe had to take care of every negro they helped steal.

Well, here were these poor negroes without anything to eat except rice, nut hulled. Many of them sick. No medicine or even proper shelter. A large number of them ran away from the plantation of a man named Blake who went home to England at the commencement of the war and left them in charge of an overseer who just let them die off without trying to do anything for them. Now it was right to take these poor creatures away, because they had no master to care for them, and the overseer was a cruel old scoundrel. 2

When I went on shore here I found a great number sick. Those from Blake’s plantation had the measles and being exposed afterward were all swelled up with dropsy which soon reached the heart and then killed them. Well, I went to work and done what I could for them considering the small assortment of medicines I had. At one time I prescribed for about 50 or 60 in a day and it was about the hardest work I ever did as you may suppose.

The fate of the negroes treated by Surgeon Mathews on North Island. Published in the Columbus, Ohio, “Crisis” on 20 August 1862.

The steamer Western World was here at the time but her surgeon could not take the trouble to help me. I could not lay about doing nothing and see the poor creatures suffer without making some effort to help them and I succeeded better than I expected. The steamer Pocahontas came from Port Royal, however, a few day since, also the Ben DeFord 3 with orders to take them to that place where they will be employed by Government. So we patched them up as well as possible and sent them off. About 500 of them including the men and children went on the Ben DeFord. I went on board to cheer them up as they thought a great deal of me. Such a scene I never expect to see again, and it would be of no use to attempt to describe it.

We have still some negroes here as they keep coming. Also four white families. We had eight white persons on the Bark for some days that came down from Georgetown and one of them who is still on board (a lady of course) was confined ten days since with a little girl. Of course I had to officiate on the occasion. If she is able, will let her be carried on shore in the morning as the accommodations are not exactly suitable for a lady though we did have four on board for about a week though it turned everything topsy-turvy and us officers almost out of house and home. They are all on shore now with the exception of the sick one and I hope she will be able to go tomorrow.

The surgeon of the Pocahontas and myself take turns in attending to the sick on shore and have fixed up a place for an office where we can deal out medicines. It is a nice cool place and is an agreeable change at least. It is awful hot on board the vessel and the flies—Oh Lord! I never had an idea of being really tormented by them before. Then we have any quantity of red ants, but the rats really have the possession. I have a list of 32 men who had had their fingers and feet eaten more or less by these nuisances. They are everywhere present and as bold as ever—bolder than those in New Orleans. I wish the Flag Officer had to stay on board this vessel about a week in this weather and just as she is now, she would go home about as fast as wind and water would carry her.

We shall be out of stores by the first of September at farthest—probably before—when I think we shall be sent home. 4 If not, I shall insist in leaving her at any rate. If Captain Baxter 5 goes on as he has done, he will get the Old Harry [devil] on the “double quick,” and if his wife knew of his capers, she would almost jump out of her skin. He does not want to go home though he pretends he does while he is saying every day that the vessel is not fit to sail and ought to go home, he is trying to prevent it. But I think his race is about run. The paymaster has preferred charges against him and I do not see how he can get around it. He is dreadful good to me all at once but he is afraid of me as he knows me evidence would be the death of him. I can see through him easily, and he will find in the end that I will not lie for him. I saved him from a court martial once, but I would not do it again, and all his soft soap and cringing now won’t help him.

But I must close this for tonight at least as it is too dark to see anything. I shall keep this open until something comes along when I may have a little something to add. We soon expect a dispatch vessel tomorrow and if she comes, we shall have some news. Capt. [Irvin B.] Baxter expects to go on an expedition tomorrow or next day on a little steamer. Hope we will stay a week. I think I shall go this time as we have uncomfortable quarters enough here but she is worse. I will close this as I want to write a few lines to Philip 6 to put in the same envelope. Yours affectionately, — J. Matthews

1 North Island is the northernmost sea island in a chain extending to the northern border of Florida. It’s approximately nine miles long and was by 1820 there were more than 100 beach houses on the island where wealthy plantation owners would try to escape the summer heat and mosquitoes. An article published by Jason Lesley in the Coastal Observer (16 May 2015) informs us that by the time of the Civil War, there were 18,000 slaves and only 2,000 whites in the Georgetown District. “Confederate troops abandoned the defense of North and South islands, and in May 1862 Union ships sailed up the Waccamaw River to rice plantations where they took 80 slaves on board as contraband and transported them to North Island. Hundreds of slaves were removed from plantations and quartered on North Island, but food was scarce and soldiers treated them little better than overseers in the rice fields. Most were transferred to the Union base at Port Royal where they joined the Union Army or were put to work in camps. The end of the rice economy left planters impoverished for decades. Summer houses blown away by hurricanes couldn’t be replaced. In 1884 because of unpaid taxes, North Island, South Island and part of Cat Island were sold to retired Civil War general E.P. Alexander, who had visited the island to hunt and fish in the early 1880s.”

2 These slaves came from the rice plantation of Arthur Middleton Blake. In 1860, there were as many as 538 slaves living on his plantation. The plantation bordered the Santee River near Cape Romain and was used as a Confederate regimental headquarters for protecting ships running the Union blockade. Navy steamers fired on the plantation in 1862, invaded and burned the buildings and about 100,000 bushels of rice. Nearly 400 slaves, it was said, boarded the Navy steamers, some of whom may have been dropped off on North Island. Blake purchased this plantation from his cousin in 1843 and returned to England in 1861 when the war began. The overseer described by Mathews as a “cruel old scoundrel” was a Scotchman named John McGinnis who worked for Mr. Blake some seven years before the war. [Official Records of the Union & Confederate Navies.]

3 The steamer Ben DeFord apparently made several trips to North Island to pickup slave refugees. In an articles published in the New York Semi-weekly Tribune on 30 December 1862, it was reported that the “steamer Ben DeFord left this pretty little town [Beaufort, D. C.] on a trip to North Island, S. C. about fifteen miles below Georgetown, S. C. for the purpose of gathering up the contrabands who were assembled there, and who managed to escape from the districts in the neighborhood of the Santee and Peedee Rivers…Several trips to North Island and Fernandina, Florida, has always succeeded in gathering up a large number of contrabands, and obtaining a large number of able-bodied recruits for the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.”

4 The Boston Semi-weekly Advertiser reported on 22 October 1862 that the “Barque Gem of the Sea, Lieut. Commanding J. B. Baxter, from Georgetown, S. C., Sept. 30, arrived at this port on Saturday. The following is a list of her officers. Lieut. Commanding J. B. Baxter; Executive Officer, Peter F. Coffin; Acting Master, H. B. Carter; Assistant Surgeon, John Matthews; Acting Paymaster, H. A. Strong; Masters’ Mates, Wm. C. Malley, Geo. H. White, and J. G. Crocker.”

5 The Barque “Gem of the Sea” was commanded by Acting Volunteer Lt. Irvin B. Baxter. Apparently his first initial was often mistaken for a “J.”

6 “Philip Mathews enlisted in the 14th Brooklyn on September 8th 1862 and was assigned as a Private in Co “D.” Falling ill in April 1863, Mathews was transferred to a hospital at Aquia Creek Virginia where he spent much of the spring. Back with the regiment in time to be listed as Missing in Action at Gettysburg on July 1st he did not rejoin his company until January of 1864. Mathews’ pre-war experience as a druggist’s apprentice finally caught the Army’s attention on his return and on January 22nd 1864 he was detached from his Regiment to serve as a Hospital Steward at the hospital of the 4th Division, 5th Corps Army of the Potomac. When the original 1861 enlistments of 14th Brooklyn men expired in May 1864, Mathews was formally transferred to Co “I” of the 5th New York Infantry but remained serving at the hospital. On August 2nd 1864 a medical board consisting of Army surgeons performed a formal examination of acting Hospital Steward Philip Mathews and he was found qualified to fill the position of Hospital Steward in the regular army. Determined competent, he was discharged from volunteer service and reenlisted in the Regular Army the following week where he would serve until August 1866. Following his military service, Philip Mathews returned to Brooklyn where 1870 found him working as a “drug clerk” and living with his physician brother in the home of a dentist. By 1875 brother John had his own home and their sister Martha had also moved in along with several boarders. Philip was drawn westward by the end of the decade and 1879 found him living in Los Banos California where he continued to work as druggist. The 1880 US Census found him in the hills of Sonora as a “miner.” Apparently, he did not find success in the gold fields as on March 22nd,1881 “A strange man” was found in Fallon’s Hotel in the town of Columbia California and “after several hours’ suffering died.” This unfortunate man was Philip Mathews and a Coroner’s inquest later determined the unhappy druggist has committed suicide by taking poison. In a hotel room on the opposite coast as his family, Mathews took his own life only a week short of his 53rd birthday, perhaps another victim of the Civil War.[Source: Faces of the Franklin Guard, Co. D, 14th Brooklyn]

The light house on North Island as it looked in 1893

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