John Wheeler Myers was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1847. He grew up in St. Augustine, Florida, where his mother, Ellen, would die in 1854. The Reverend Joseph Myers then spent some time pastoring a church in New Jersey, where he married a young woman in her twenties. Elizabeth "Bessie" Hopkins was the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Hopkins, not to be confused with the Colonial Era Congregationalist of the same name. Bessie was also first cousin to John's deceased mother. As will be seen, the Hopkins family included some prominent abolitionists. Yet, according to the 1860 census, the Reverend Myers was worth $38,000, difficult to account for if he owned no slaves. By the time the Civil War broke out, the Myers family had lived so long in the South that their oldest son regarded himself as a Southerner. John never wavered from that loyalty, taking it with him to his grave. It speaks well of his extended family that they apparently didn't disown the boy for his Rebel stand.
The Rev. Myers described himself as an O.S. Presbyterian Minister on the 1860 census. "Old School" meant that his theology was conservative, rather than liberal or modernist. Schisms over slavery didn't affect this wing of the Presbyterian denomination as deeply as they did other Protestants, making it possible for clergymen like Myers to remain in the South after the war broke out.
No doubt the rest of John's relatives on both sides of the family lived in the North, thus any men of military age would have served in the Union armies or navies. In fact, at least one relative did. In 1860, George W. Hopkins, Bessie's younger brother, was living with them in St. Augustine. He later joined the US Navy as an acting assistant surgeon, serving until after the end of the war. Other members of the Hopkins family probably enlisted as well.
Bessie had an uncle, Erastus, who had been active in the Underground Railroad. Long before the war, Erastus Hopkins had lived some years in Charleston, South Carolina, and had even written tracts on the subject of colonization of free blacks to Africa. At the Republican national convention in 1856, Hopkins had called for bullets, if ballots failed to win emancipation of the slave population. It must, therefore, have come as a great shock to the Myers-Hopkins extended family, not to mention Joseph and Bessie, when sixteen-year-old Johnny joined the Confederate Navy at Charleston in December 1863. They may have found out after the fact, since John was in Monticello, Florida, at the time he decided to enlist. Whether the family was living in Savannah by then is not known, but John's route, if he traveled by land, would have taken him through there.
Few records of John's service exist. He would long afterward claim to have been wounded in the leg in December 1863 on Morris Island, site of the legendary Fort Wagner, featured in the movie "Glory." He would also claim to have been wounded while trying to escape from his captors in February 1865, but we have no official records of either instance. What little do we know comes mostly from his Florida Confederate pension application.
John's capture was the result of an unfortunate series of circumstances. His military files give few details, listing his unit as "SC Marines," a confusing way to classify a sailor. John would write that he had been on furlough when he was captured near Orangeburg, South Carolina, on February 11, 1865. Being that far in the interior probably means he was en route to Savannah through that part of South Carolina under Confederate control. However, Sherman's army was moving through the area at the time, slowed down by boggy swamps, flooded rice paddies, and stubborn Confederate resistance. Casualties piled up in a series of small actions at every bridge and ford along the Edisto River. John's records, such as they are, state that he was captured at a place called "Penn's Bridge." This seems likely to have been Horse Pen Bridge, on the Edisto near Branchville. John was taken to New Bern, North Carolina, then shipped to Point Lookout Prison, Maryland, where he arrived on April 3, 1865. At the same time, Robert E. Lee was evacuating Petersburg and Richmond, amidst chaos, fire and unmitigated disaster. Lee would surrender his army on April 9, the day before our story picks up. Tantalizing details of John's circumstances are contained in provocative letters written to him by his step-mother.
John's experience as a prisoner of war lasted a little over three months. He may have been recovering from a wound, and he was almost certainly despondent. His cause was lost, along with his liberty, and he might well have owned no more than the clothes on his back. It must have been a tremendous relief to hear from his step-mother, but that consolation came with a price. Lee had surrendered his army, and Bessie was insistent that John take the loyalty oath to the United Sates and come North, the sooner the better. In the meantime, she had sent him a carpet bag loaded with an odd assortment of things, some very necessary, others small luxuries. The rules of the POW camp no doubt required a list of contents for incoming packages, or we would never know what Bessie sent her captive Johnny Reb. Life at Point Lookout in 1864 was captured forever in a series of watercolors, captioned like newspaper cartoons, by a prisoner named Omenhausser. One of them shows a ragged group of Confederates, attired in gray, blue, red and brown, waiting for their mail at the camp post office, actually a large tent. Another shows men in similar garb lining up to take the oath the the United States, something John would have to do before he could hope to be released.
To date, no copy of John's oath, urged on him by his step-mother, has been found. We do have a copy of an order for his release dated May 2, 1865, stating that he is to report to the provost marshal at Baltimore, before being allowed to travel to New York. Supposedly, John took the oath on the same day. Yet when he filed for a pension in Florida in 1910, the War Department wrote his pension board that he had signed the oath on March 2, obviously a clerical error. That slight error held up John's pension for some time. Southern states were very averse to granting pensions to any ex-Confederate who had deserted, been AWOL for a long period of time, or who had taken the oath to the US prior to Lee's surrender. Another problem was John's claim to have been a resident of Florida since 1851, something his occupation as a master mariner made difficult to prove. He had certainly lived in Florida since 1882, but somewhere during that time he had lost all his papers in a fire. Eventually, the bureaucrats got it all straightened out and John received his pension. An old sailor who had been known to run guns, dynamite, and rebels to Cuban insurrectionists in the years leading up to the Spanish-American War, Captain John Myers must have led a very interesting life.
After John died in St Agustine in 1913, his widow then filed a pension claim, which was accepted. Florida "Florence" Myers lived until 1917, survived by at least two adopted daughters. During all this time, John had been an active member of the United Confederate Veterans organization in Florida. Partly due to their help, and partly due to a willingness on the part of the War Department to set the record straight, the old couple had been spared the grinding poverty many elderly people suffered during those times. All that being said, the real drama of John W. Myers and his family had occurred almost fifty years earlier, a drama only hinted at in the letters John received during his captivity.
What strikes this blogger as odd about those letters written by John's step-mother is her unfeigned and somewhat disturbing affection for him. She was thirty-one at the time of his capture, while he was not yet eighteen. The soap opera elements are all there--a family of clergymen in mid-Victorian New England-- a family with a black sheep in the Confederate Navy, wounded and a prisoner of war, while all hell is raining down on the defeated South. Then we have this, perhaps enamored, young step-mother, whose considerably older husband had remained at his teaching post in Savannah. All the while, Sherman was investing the city, burning, consuming, or carrying off so much that lay in his path. However, the only melodrama hinted at in the letters centers on Bessie's fear that her Dear Johhny might not want to take the oath and come North, and how his relatives might react to him if he did. Nonetheless, the real high point of the drama comes right at the beginning of the letters. After having had no word from him for four months, she and the family finally learned in April that John was alive and a prisoner of war. The rest of the story takes place offstage. What did happen to John after his release? Did he indeed go to Northampton and take his chances on a chilly reception in the wake of the Lincoln Assassination?
Northampton was home to two different schools of abolitionists, one pacifistic, the other militant. As mentioned above, Erastus Hopkins was an outspoken Republican who wasn't above using violent means to end slavery. One would expect John's step-mother to at least mention the emancipation issue, but instead, her clarion call is that the war is all but over. If John were to be exchanged and sent back to the Confederacy, "... by your lone self you would be very desolate..." Meanwhile, everybody else in the South was sure to take the oath to the U.S. "Peace will very soon be restored under the old order of things..." seems to imply she looked for a status quo ante, with no punishment meted out to the conquered South. Surely Johnny must see the light and come North, rather than fight to the death. Four days before Lincoln was assassinated, it seemed reasonable for her to believe that life could now go on as before, almost as if nothing had ever happened. She even advises her Johnny to be careful how he speaks to his Northern relatives, saying that he should try to act "... as if nothing particular had happened..." and to "be very reserved in speaking of our experience during these last four years." Toward the end of her letter of April 12th, she confides that she has reasons that she can't state openly in a letter. She also repeats her belief that the peace will return things to the way they were before the war. The greater national issues would take care of themselves; what this young woman wanted was something far more immediate and tangible. "I want you."
Bessie sounds very much like a woman in love when she writes "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... now I want you to promise me one thing, 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 I love you best and hope you love me best, and aside from this, I understand your thoughts and feelings, and can sympathize with you and explain things to you better than anyone else." On the surface, she seems to be saying, "I can understand why you took a Rebel stand, but I can talk you out of that, knowing you as well as I do." Perhaps nothing deeper is meant, yet it would be a stretch to presume that a teenage boy, even in that era, would feel comfortable being on the receiving end of such purple prose.
As to the question of how the letters survived, or why John left them in Federal hands, could it be that John simply never even bothered to open them? All soldiers pine with eager anticipation for letters from home, making us wonder what makes these letters any different. Other letters are alluded to in them, making it tempting to conclude that John took the ones he wanted to keep and left the rest behind. Consider this, however; the envelope dated April 13th has "Too long" written on it. Also note that "Too long by far ACP" is written on page 3 of the letter dated April 12th. "ACP" can be understood (from John's release order) as Assistant Commissary of Prisoners. These comments could easily have been written by an officer at the POW camp, stating his reason for not allowing the letters to be given to John. The young parolee might well have "taken the cars" to New York, never knowing about the letters. If so, did he ever receive the carpet bag full of needful things, sent with so much love?
What awaited John in Northampton is anyone's guess, given Bessie's strong admonition to keep his lips buttoned while there. Reminding the family of his wartime experiences would only cause trouble. Yet Bessie's advice to be circumspect, wise though it may have been, was only as good as John's ability to follow through. If he did visit Northampton, he probably didn't stay long, nor did Bessie, apparently. The 1870 census shows Joseph, Elizabeth, and nine year-old Peter living in Ulster County, New York, while John was no doubt already somewhere out to sea. Yet he obviously kept in touch, for his pension claim states that he married Florence in Ulster County, New York, in 1874. By 1882 he was back in St. Augustine.
John managed to get his name in the papers a few times in 1896-97 for his alleged involvement in running guns to Cuban rebels. This was called filibustering, and it violated US neutrality laws. The one time he was caught, John had paperwork to show that he had actually gone out to rescue the passengers and crew of one of the ships that had been impounded. In all likelihood, he was actually transferring cargo and Cuban rebels from one ship to another. Somehow, his story was accepted and he was released. Still, the upshot of all the newspaper articles mentioning filibustering is that John was involved in it up to his neck. He captained two ships during this time, a tug named Dauntless and a light draft schooner named Tortugas. Dauntless, judging by the publicity she generated, was the most famous ship involved in the gun-running. At this point, we lose track of John, but for his pension claim and his tombstone, neither of which even vaguely hints at our drama of a house divided.
The Civil War did indeed divide families. It made enemies out of friends and lovers out of enemies. All civil wars do so, and this story has no shortage of that same high drama. And, as if that weren't enough, it also has a hint of William Faulkner and Eugene O'Neill. Though Bessie's letters may betray no more than a step-mother's longing to be reunited with a boy who fought on the "wrong" side in a war often characterized as "brother against brother," it seems far more natural to suppose that the love she professed was born out of a romanticism that did not quite die for good in April 1865.
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Transcription of old letters from scans is a tedious process. However, this should help readers unfamiliar with things Civil War, as well as the penmanship of the times.
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.
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
A note in the margin states Direct care of Reverend Samuel Hopkins, Northampton, Mass.
The letter dated April 12th begins at the right of the page, moves down and to the left, then to the right, and ends on the left side of the first page. It should be referred to as #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.
|Prisoner Post Office, Point Lookout|
John Jacob Omenhausser Collection, Library of Congress
|Going Out to Swallow the Oath|
John Jacob Omenhausser Collection, Library of Congress
For more Omenhausser watercolors that can be zoomed, click on the link.