The suspension of Habeas Corpus by the Lincoln administration, which allowed military authorities to arrest civilians suspected of supporting the Confederacy and imprison them indefinitely, was a highly controversial issue during the Civil War and remains a topic of debate to this day. The letters of Josiah H. Gordon offer a compelling account of the life and times of a Maryland politician who was incarcerated by Federal officials during the first months of the war.
Josiah H. Gordon was born in Pennsylvania in 1816, but by the early 1840s he was living in Cumberland, Md., where he married Katherine Umbaugh in 1849 and began practicing law. During the early 1850s Gordon served as an attorney for Allegany County, and in 1859 he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. After war broke out in 1861, Maryland, a crucial border state, teetered on the brink of secession and Federal officials suspected Gordon and other Democratic members of the Legislature of having Confederate sympathies. These suspicions were heightened when the House of Delegates passed a series of provocative resolutions during the summer of 1861, including one that demanded the “immediate recognition and independence of the Confederate states.” On August 30, officers of the 3rd Pennsylvania Volunteers detained Gordon for six days in Washington hoping to find evidence of treason, but he was released after taking an oath of allegiance. On September 17 Union soldiers recaptured Gordon and over a dozen other members of the Legislature, meeting in Frederick, who were believed to be plotting to pass an act of secession.
Gordon was destined not to see his home again for several months. The Maryland prisoners were initially held at Fort Lafayette in New York, but on November 1, 1861, they were transferred to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. The letters Gordon wrote to his wife Kate and their children during the winter of 1861- 62 reveal that life for political prisoners at Fort Warren was a world apart from the horrific conditions in most Civil War prisons. Gordon and his companions were permitted to read daily newspapers, take exercise on the parade ground and ramparts, and on New Year’s Eve even dine on mutton and punch. But his letters are also filled with vivid descriptions of his severe anxiety at being separated from his family and not knowing his own fate.
Gordon was also an eyewitness to the Trent Affair, one of the greatest political calamities to confront the Lincoln administration during the war. This infamous episode began when two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, were traveling to Europe on Trent, a British vessel, and were captured by Union sailors of USS San Jacinto. Mason and Slidell were detained at Fort Warren until January 1, 1862, when threats of war from Great Britain forced President Lincoln to release them to ease the explosive situation. While Gordon expressed sympathy for Mason and Slidell and the belief that European powers would recognize the Confederacy, those hopes were never realized.
In February 1862, President Lincoln established a commission headed by General John Dix and Edwards Pierrepont to examine the cases of all political prisoners in Federal custody. In April, Gordon sent an impassioned plea for his freedom directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and on May 7, 1862, he was unconditionally released after being imprisoned for eight months without a trial or even hearing the charges against him. After the war, Gordon became president of the C&O Canal in 1869, and in 1883 became an associate judge in Allegany County until his death in 1887. Today, Gordon’s home serves as the headquarters of the Allegany County Historical Society in Cumberland, Md., and Fort Warren has been preserved as a part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area. The following excerpts, edited for content, were selected from letters in the Gordon Family Papers at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan.
January 1, 1862
I wrote to you a letter last night giving an account of the manner in which we were spending New Years Eve in prison but as I had to close my letter and brew a pitcher of punch, I did not get through the performances of the evening. I will therefore try to close up the account of the old year while the new one is still young and the events of the old still fresh upon my memory.
Well the punch was prepared in good order and pronounced fine and as it was all drunk up very soon I think that was the best compliment to the mutton. Mr. Alvey proposed to make a pitcher and after drinking that I had to try my hand again. But my dear you must not think we are indulging too much for a pitcher of punch don’t go very far among forty or fifty persons. It only serves to keep a remembrance of the season.
This morning about 9 o’clock we were all aroused by the announcement that a messenger had arrived from Washington for the purpose of delivering Mason & Slidell and their secretaries over to the British authorities. And consequently they were ordered to pack up and go. The morning was cloudy and everything about the fort was somber here except the faces of those whose sympathies [were] with the departing captives and nothing but the bayonets of the garrison prevented the outburst of applause as they passed through the sally port on their way to the vessel that was to receive them.
January 25, 1862
We have had another disagreeably wet and rainy day. The severest storm we have yet had in this land of storms, where the sea soars and howls around our island home until the lashing waves can be heard for miles at the distance of several miles foaming and breaking against the walls of the fortress with a noise almost equal to the roar of Niagara. You would be suspicious I know to see how well we succeed in getting along penned up as we are the greater part of time with seven persons in one room, all differing as we necessarily do in tastes and habits of life….
I have been associated with my present roommates for five weeks, in such a manner as too see everything done and hear everything said by them and I assure you I have not heard one vulgar anecdote or one obscene from one of them.
February 3, 1862
This has been quite an exciting day with us here in the fort. Four hundred prisoners left here this evening for Fortress Monroe where they will be exchanged and then return home to Dixie. It was a quite interesting and affecting sight. The warm grasp of the hand and hearty God bless you that were sounds as these stalwart, manly, and brave soldiers, with whom we have been as intimate as brothers for three months bade us farewell probably for the last time, with tears streaming from their eyes.
I presume you have seen by the papers how decidedly the English and French papers denounce the system of sinking vessels loaded with stone in the harbors of the South. And how strongly they recommend the prompt and immediate recognition of the Confederates and the opening of ports for commerce. I was a little amused and a good deal disgusted with the attempt by the Boston and New York papers to suppress…this information….
March 1, 1862
When I think of home and the dear ones who are far from me time drags like an immense chain, its very weight wearing the flesh from bones and ready to crush me. But when I think of the matters and things passing around me, and the occupation of its hours and days here with my kind and agreeable companions and the little that I get done even when I try to accomplish something, it appears to pass away with great rapidity.
We generally wake about 7 in the morning when our servant comes into the room to make the fire. After the room gets warm enough we rise, dress and get ready for breakfast which is ready at half past eight. After breakfast we promenade in front of our quarters about an hour then retire to our rooms and read till twelve, when the boat arrives with our mail. We then read the news and letters and converse on them till dinner which is ready at 3. After dinner we read a while again then take exercise again till sundown at which time the drum beats retreat and we retire to our rooms for the night. About 7 o’clock we have a cup of tea in our rooms and our neighbors call in and enjoy the tea with us and then we talk for an hour or so. Then we write our letters and sometimes play a game of whist…till 11 o’clock, when we have to put our lights out and go to bed in accordance with the rules with the regulations of the garrison. This is the routine to which I have been subjugated day after day and night after night for four long months. While Fort Lafayette it was still worse for our quarters there were like a pig sty compared with those we have here.
March 13, 1862
A very sad case occurred with the wife of Major Granberry, one of the officers captured at Donelson. She is quite young, only nineteen and very delicate. She followed her husband through the campaign in Kentucky and Tennessee and when he was taken prisoner she came on to Boston expecting that he would be paroled and that she could be with him. On arriving there however he was refused a parole and sent to a fort where she was not permitted to visit him. Without friends or even an acquaintance in all the North to whom she could go to pour out her grief and receive a word of sympathy, she was left alone at a Public Hotel to do the best she could among strangers and enemies. Dr. Magill hearing of her case kindly invited her to go to Hagerstown and make her home with his family unit her husband is exchanged….
You ask me to describe my appearance but I have put it off so late I must not commence now on so small a piece of paper for my beard has grown so large that it would take nearly a sheet of paper to describe that alone and as my weight is about the same as when you saw me. I will leave you to imagine the rest for the present, so good night and God bless you all is the prayer of your ever devoted husband….
April 27, 1862
It is now eight months since I saw you and although autumn and winter have passed away there is still no end of this worrisome mode of existence….
It is three weeks today since my letter was sent to the Sec. of War and to the present I have had no reply. I presume though he has referred it to Dix though, as they are coming here as the papers tell as to examine…our cases. When that examination will be made though no one has been able to tell and it appears they are taking there leisure…Genl. Dix has a multiplicity of business on hand just now that he will hardly be able to attend to all. I hope he will soon be able to devote a few days to prisoners at this fort.
I have just finished walking on the ramparts and enjoying a distant view of Boston and all the other towns situated along the shore, with the bay studded with islands and covered with shipping of all sizes and every kind from the large three-masted ship to the skiff rowed by a single sailor. When I look back at all these things and think of the dear ones from whom I am separated…I can hardly realize it. But Providence has ordered it all for our benefit no doubt and I hope we will be able to improve the hard lessons and be made better by their fruits than we have heretofore been.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.