There were many moments in winter 1864 when a Maine doctor stationed on the Texas Gulf Coast would have welcomed a “Dear John” letter — or any printed material to disrupt the mind-numbing ennui affecting his morale.
But a letter from home was the best morale-boosting elixir of all.
In transferring from the 15th Maine Infantry Regiment to the 96th United States Colored Troops. Dr. (and Capt.) John Butler Wilson of Dexter had gained the opportunity for his wife, Samantha, and young son, Charley, to join him on Matagorda Island in late 1863. Instead he had shipped his family home to central Maine — and within weeks he had regretted his decision, especially because he was suddenly quite lonely.
And almost cut off from the outside world.
By January 1864, most troops assigned to Matagorda Island had crossed Espiritu Santo Bay to the mainland, leaving the 2nd Brigade Corps d’Afrique Engineers “here as garrison to build and hold the forts on this island,” Wilson informed Samantha on January 28. The 96th USCT was part of the 2nd Brigade.
Primarily (and probably deliberately) involving white regiments, the move left mostly black troops to garrison Matagorda Island — and transferred the Army’s munitions depot to the mainland. Supply ships that had formerly docked at Matagorda bypassed the island; the black soldiers and their white officers quickly sensed the isolation.
“We have no communications with the outer world unless we cross three miles in a boat,” Wilson explained to Samantha. He had last received a letter from her on Dec. 17, 1863; no mail had arrived since then.
For an educated man like Wilson, the lack of new reading material was mentally deadening — and he at least could read “my Medical Works which I purchased in New Orleans.” Composing a bit of a sob story, he asked Samantha to “just imagine yourself confined for a month without a chance to read a newspaper or any new work[,] with no chance to learn any news of more importance than that a horse was sick or somebody caught a [rac]coon[,] and you will feel how I am situated.”
Ironically, the only recent disruption in the mundane garrison life around Fort Esperanza had been caused by 15th Maine Infantry soldiers sweeping “down the island without having discovered any rebels,” Wilson noted.
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, some 15th Maine boys had driven in “over 100 beef cattle so that we are having plenty of beef and veal,” he commented.
That was all he mentioned about the incident. Bored almost to distraction, Wilson had complained about the lack of reading material, yet when Maine lads drove bawling wild cattle into the camp, he paid attention only to the resulting dietary improvement.
A few weeks passed, and nothing but some dirt flew on Matagorda Island. The black soldiers had “orders to construct fortifications here for an entrenched camp of six thousand men,” Wilson wrote Samantha on Feb. 6.
The fort building was essentially undertaken to keep the black soldiers busy. With probably not much more than 6,000 Confederates under arms in all of Texas, no existential threat existed to the Union posts on Matagorda.
Soldiers stood on the Fort Esperanza parapet to watch the ships sail by on Cavallo Pass and then dock on the mainland. Referring to Matagorda as “this prison house,” Wilson groused to Samantha on Feb. 19 that “the living here would be pleasant enough if were we not so completely isolated.
“So cut off from news of every kind,” he sighed.
“The mail days are the holidays[,] the pleasant hours from which we reckon,” Wilson explained.
“The hours pass wearily while the mail comes not – that bringeth me your cheering, loving letters,” he wrote on Feb. 28. “Transport and transport comes here without any mail and such time our hopes end in disappointment.”
The months-long lack of mail was affecting soldiers’ morale, physician Wilson noticed. “I have seen men droop and die in a hospital in spite of the best care of the surgeon because they heard no cheering words from home,” he explained to Samantha. “Tis the best tonic in the world for the sick soldier[,] for it persuades his whole being – he becomes a new man after some draught of this life giving cordial.
“So[,] darling[,] recollect that you in common with the mothers and wives of all our soldiers are an in corporal part of the most powerful sanitary commission that ever existed,” Wilson encouraged his wife to write often and frequently. “See to it that the medicine that giveth life and is sweet to the taste fails not.”
Then a steamer docked at Matagorda Island, and Wilson received several Samantha-penned letters. One bore news that Charlie was sick, possibly with diphtheria. His frantic dad prescribed on paper “the treatment for diphtheria which I consider the best.”
Charlie did not have diphtheria, fortunately; his father would not learn that fact for several weeks. Meanwhile, even the bad-news letter was better than no letter at all.
“Many thanks to you dear wife for your express from the Pine Tree State,” Wilson referred to all of Samantha’s recent letters on March 5. He was happy to read all the family news.
Wilson enclosed some small Matagorda flowers — “the first harbingers of Spring” — with his March 5 letter. “They have no fragrance[,] no beauty[,] yet make speak of the coming summertime all laden with beauty and fragrance when[,] God willing[,] I shall clasp to my bosom my treasures in my far Northern home.”
Wilson would see Samantha and Charlie in about 10 months.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.