Jump directly to Index of Letters
Introduction to the Taylor Family Correspondence
By Jeremy A. Kiene
The five letters in this group, all dating from the summer and fall of 1864, were written from separate Northern prisoner of war camps by Jonathan Gibson "Gip" Taylor (1839-1864) and his brother Robert Walker Taylor (1840-1902). Both were Confederate cavalrymen; both ultimately served in units attached to commands of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Gibson appears to have enlisted in 1861, in Co. D, 1st Kentucky (Helm's) Cavalry. Robert enlisted in 1862, in Co. E, 10th Kentucky (Johnson's) Partisan Rangers. The two were sons of Jonathan G. and Susan Hawes Taylor of Yelvington, Daviess County, Kentucky. According to the 1860 Federal census, Jonathan Taylor, Sr. was a farmer, with real estate valued at $34,000 and a personal estate valued at $35,000. The 1860 Slave Schedule indicates that he held 50 slaves. In 1860 both Gibson (or "Gipson") and Robert were living and working on their father's farm; the enumerator identified them as "farm hands." Of six other Taylor sons and daughters, five were in residence. The Taylors' eldest son, Richard H., was an attorney living in nearby Owensboro, Kentucky.
The 1st Kentucky Cavalry was mustered into service in October 1861, under the command of Col. Benjamin H. Helm. By the summer of 1862 its numbers were so depleted that it was reorganized and parceled out to other Kentucky regiments. At this time, Gibson Taylor--a 3rd lieutenant in the 1st Kentucky--was transferred into the command of John Hunt Morgan, under whom he was "noted for gallant and meritorious conduct" (Thompson, Orphan Brigade, p. 996). He was captured on 12 June 1864 at Cynthiana, Kentucky, where Morgan's command was surprised and routed by Union reinforcements sent to relieve the garrison the Confederates had captured the day before. Gibson's 19 June 1864 letter to his cousin Mollie Davis, the earliest in the group, was written from the military prison at Louisville, Kentucky only a week after his capture. In it, he requests assorted clothing and provisions, and asks her to assure his father that he is uninjured and in relatively good health. The prison in Louisville was a collection and distribution center for prisons further north (see Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 563-65). From Louisville, Gibson was transferred to the Federal military prison at Rock Island, Illinois. His 27 June 1864 letter to his father indicates that he was housed at Rock Island's prison barracks No. 75.
Prison correspondence was, of course, subject to censorship. Article XVII of a 20 April 1864 Federal circular specifies that outgoing and incoming letters are to be examined by non-commissioned officers, and must be no more than one page in length (Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 75). Prisoners typically used the space at their disposal to reassure family members of their safety and to solicit aid that might enhance their standard of living. Gibson's 27 June 1864 letter, possibly his first as a prisoner at Rock Island, informs his father of his whereabouts and requests clothing and money to purchase "some delicacies to eat and paper stamps." On 22 August 1864, in a letter to his sister Clara, he reports that "the health of the Prison is not very good though we have no fatal diseases among us. The most prevalent is something similar to flux." According to Robert's letter of 28 October 1864, an acquaintance had informed him that "dear brother Gip" died in the camp of pneumonia on 15 October 1864. Military records indicate that he actually died the day before. The earlier date is corroborated by two Rock Island prison letters now in the possession of James Poe of Miami, Florida. These letters, both dated 16 October 1864, were written by Patrick Coyle (Co. K, 4th Kentucky Mounted Infantry) and J. H. Vencill (Co. E, 10th Kentucky Partisan Rangers), Daviess County soldiers who were at Rock Island when Gibson died. The history of the all-Kentucky "Orphan Brigade" contains a brief (and probably embroidered) account of his death:
In prison he became so seriously ill that the only chance for recovery seemed to be release and the special nursing of friends. The only chance to be released was to take the oath of allegiance to the power he had volunteered to fight — in other words, to desert his flag. The alternative was offered him, but he spurned it and died there — true to himself and to his principles. (Thompson, Orphan Brigade, p. 949)
Neither Vencill nor Coyle mentions this principled stand in their letters to Gibson's father, and Coyle assures Taylor, Sr. that prison officials gave his son all possible care. Coyle reports that Taylor fell ill on or around 1 October, and that he was hospitalized after his condition worsened on 7 October. In a letter dated 4 October 1864 (James Poe Collection), Gibson himself reports that he has "taken cold & had a chill." The period from June to November 1864 was marked by severe hunger at Rock Island, the result of reduced rations and restrictions on sutlers, affected partly in retaliation for conditions in Southern camps. Curiously, during these same months the mortality rate at Rock Island decreased by half. Inspection reports from the camp for the first half of October 1864 mention "extreme wet weather" (Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 918).
Robert W. Taylor was mustered in to the 10th Kentucky on 23 July 1862, eventually reaching the grade of 1st sergeant. Though originally intended as a partisan ranger outfit, the regiment was soon attached to Morgan's cavalry brigade in the Army of Tennessee. In June-July 1863 it participated in Morgan's "Great Raid" into southern Indiana and Ohio, during which most of the regiment was captured. Enlisted men were sent to Camp Douglas, in Chicago, where they remained for the duration of the war. Robert probably arrived at the camp around this time. This was apparently Robert's second experience as a prisoner of war. His 15 October 1864 letter from Camp Douglas to an unnamed sister concerns a former fiancée's recent wedding. Robert's own prior misgivings about the engagement, which he confesses in this letter, temper his shock at the news. "When I was captured the second time," he writes, "I found I had become quite indifferent & my first letter should have been a request to be released from the engagement." Another of his prison letters, dated 14 January 1864 and now in the possession of Taylor family descendants, puts Robert and his cousin, Pvt. Richard Hawes, at Camp Douglas by December 1863 at the latest. Military records indicate that Hawes, who also served under Morgan, was captured on 1 August 1863. In his 28 October 1864 letter to his sister, Robert enumerates the articles of clothing and bedclothes he has recently received from home. Among these, one pair of socks and a quantity of tobacco have been confiscated as contraband. Regulations governing prisoners' receipt of packages from beyond the lines varied from camp to camp, and changed over the course of the war. A Federal circular dated 10 August 1864 stipulates that supplies such as paper, stamps, and tobacco were to be purchased from the camp sutler and were not to be received by mail (Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 574). Though Robert Taylor seems relatively well-provisioned, the same restrictions on rations and purchases in effect at Rock Island also obtained at Camp Douglas, where overcrowding and Chicago's fouled water supply contributed to a quadrupling of the mortality rate during the same period.
Bibliographic Note: No regimental histories of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry or the 10th Kentucky Partisan Rangers have been published, but see the memoir authored by the 10th's original colonel: William J. Davis, ed., The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army: memoirs of Adam R. Johnson, Austin TX, 1995. For basic information on these regiments, see Joseph H. Crute, Jr., Units of the Confederate States Army, Midlothian VA, 1987, pp. 128-135, and the Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II, Vol. 23, pp. 18-22, 118-127. The career of John Hunt Morgan is treated by James A. Ramage, Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan, Lexington KY, 1986. The references to Lt. Taylor's service with Morgan and his death in prison appear in Edwin Porter Thompson, History of the Orphan Brigade, Louisville, 1898. The version of the oath of allegiance required for early release from prison was established in Lincoln's 8 December 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. See Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, Vol. 13, Boston, 1866, pp. 737-39. According to T. R. Walker, the proportion of prisoners who petitioned to take the oath at Rock Island was quite high. See his "Rock Island Prison Barracks," in Civil War Prisons, ed. William B. Hesseltine, Kent, OH, 1962, esp. p. 55. See also Benton McAdams, Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison, Dekalb IL, 2000. On Camp Douglas, see George Levy, To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas, 1862-65, Evanston, IL, 1994. Civil War prison life is treated more generally in William B. Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, New York, 1930. For a comprehensive account of the administration of Union and Confederate military prisons, see Charles W. Sanders, Jr., While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War, Baton Rouge, 2005. Thanks to Virginia Haase-McCreary of San Jose CA for providing a scan of a Robert W. Taylor prison letter in her possession. This letter, written on 14 January 1864 from Camp Douglas, was preserved by Virginia's father, Richard J. Haase, grandson of Robert W. Taylor. Its contents shed further light on the rules governing prisoner correspondence at Camp Douglas:
We now write by "squad" of which there are 13 in the prison and one letter on
Each day that the squad writes is allowed to each prisoner in it; so you see we are allowed to write one letter every 13 days.
Undoubtedly, this system was adopted to reduce the workload of prison officials charged with censoring outgoing mail. Ms. Haase-McCreary also provided a scan of a photograph of Robert W. Taylor in Confederate uniform. Eight additional prison letters relating to the Taylors are in the possession of James Poe, of Miami FL: five by J. Gibson Taylor, dated 2 July 1864; 26 July 1864; 5 September 1864; 20 September 1864; and 4 October 1864; one by Robert W. Taylor, dated 22 October 1864; and one each by Patrick Coyle and J. H. Vencill, both dated 16 October 1864. Mr. Poe has generously provided scans of these items; copies are on file in the Department of Special Collections.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5033-01||Letter||June 19, 1864||Louisville, Kentucky||J. Gibson Taylor|
|MSN/CW 5033-02||Letter||June 27, 1864||Military Prison, Rock Island, Illinois||J. Gibson Taylor|
|MSN/CW 5033-03||Letter||August 22, 1864||Military Prison, Rock Island, Illinois||J. Gibson Taylor|
|MSN/CW 5033-04||Letter||October 15, 1864||Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois||Robert W. Taylor|
|MSN/CW 5033-05||Letter||October 28, 1864||Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois||Robert W. Taylor|