A Letter Home

For some Union soldiers, their exposure to southern slavery profoundly altered their views on the institution, even before President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862.

One such soldier, John P. Jones, wrote to his wife of his increasing sympathy for abolitionism after seeing the inhumanity with which slaves could be treated. He rejoiced that military policy no longer forced soldiers to return escaped slaves, which had made him feel like a “slave catcher.”

John P. Jones to his wife, August 24, 1862, Donald Benham Civil War Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

A page from his letter, sent from Medon, Tenn., and dated August 24, 1862, is a featured item in the Library’s “The Civil War in America” exhibition, opening Nov. 12. The letter has never before been seen by the public.

I am getting to be more and more of an abolitionist. I believe that this accursed institution must go down. We can never have a permanent peace as long …  as this curse stains our otherwise fair insignia. The ruler of nations can never prosper these United States until it blots slavery from existence. He can no longer wink at such atrocities. This must be the grand, the final issue. I hope the powers that be will soon see it and act accordingly. It may be that we have not suffered enough yet, that the bones of a few more thousands of soldiers must bleach in the dismal swamps of the south, that a few more homes must be desolated, that suffering and desolation be more widely sown throughout the land, but come it must, postpone it as we may.

Thank God a few bright spots are luring up in the distant horizon, small it is true. But they will expand and grow brighter. We are to guard rebel property no more, and fugitives are no longer to be returned when they come within our lines. Thank God the American Soldier is no longer to be used as a slave catcher, no longer to drive helpless women around at the point of the bayonet, and be obliged to obey orders that makes him almost ashamed of being an American Soldier.”

Jones goes on to tell his “dear wife” of trips he’s made to the country since arriving in Tennessee.

The country looks wretched and forlorn. The soil is not very good, but it might be improved a great deal by good cultivation. But the people seem to have no idea of doing anything as it should be, their farming implements look as they were invented some four years before the flood. I have seen some of the most wretched looking families, some of the most abject scenes of poverty that I ever beheld.”

The identity of John P. Jones hasn’t been positively confirmed. There is a possibility that he is John P. Jones of the 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. According to historian Michelle Krowl of the Library’s Manuscript Division, the 45th Illinois did have a John P. Jones who enlisted in October 1861, and it also had a sergeant named Crittenden, who is mentioned in the letter. However, the description that accompanied the Library’s document suggested he was Capt. John P. Jones of Missouri, whose identity Library curators have been unable to confirm.

Jones closes his letter to his wife just as vehemently as he began:

Slavery is not only a curse to the nation but also a curse to the states, to the very plantations where it is in vogue, a curse to the owners themselves and some I have found candid enough to acknowledge it, were slavery abolished, free labor and Yankee enterprise encouraged, how soon would the south become more as the prosperous north.”

Make sure to check back next Wednesday for another spotlight on other items from “The Civil War in America.” Until then, you can read about them in previous blog posts here and here.

7 Comments

  1. Kathryn Hall
    October 10, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Thank you for this. As someone who has done genealogical research for many years I’m always amazed when letters “never seen by the public” that are as illuminating as the above letter emerge.

  2. Bob Bernard
    October 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    The letter states that Jones marched with a squad out of Jackson at the instance of Gen Logan. General John Alexander Logan was also from Illinois, and commanded in the Army of the Tennessee during that time period.

    If Capt. John P. Jones of Missouri had written this letter, the treatment of slaves would not have surprised him since Missouri was a slave state. Even Jesse James’ family had about 6 slaves.

  3. Bob Bernard
    October 10, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Info on the 45th Illinois: 45th Regiment, Illinois Infantry & John P Jones

    Organized at Galena, Ill., and mustered in at Camp Douglas, Ill., December 25, 1861. Moved to Cairo, Ill., January 12, 1862, and duty there till February 2. Attached to District of Cairo to February, 1862. 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, District of West Tennessee, and Army of the Tennessee, to March, 1862. 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, Army of the Tennessee, to July, 1862. 2nd Brigade, District of Jackson, to September, 1862. 3rd Brigade, District of Jackson, to November, 1862.

  4. Saundra
    October 11, 2012 at 7:05 am

    I am a decendent of slaves and I thank you for Capt. Jones letter. I will distribute it among my nieces and nephews.

  5. Rita
    October 11, 2012 at 9:55 am

    How was it the soldiers had to return the enemies’ “property” in the first place once the war began? I am confused.

  6. Erin Allen
    October 18, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Thanks Rita. According to a couple of our Civil War experts and exhibition curators, the returning of slaves could depend on a few factors,such as the sympathies of the local Union army commander and the slave owner.Especially during the period early in the war when Union policy with regard to escaped slaves was still fluid, army commanders who were either unsympathetic to the plight of escaped slaves or who did not want to deal with the imposition of having escaped slaves in and around his military camps might order escaped slaves out of the lines or do very little to protect them from being claimed by their owners. Some slave owners would go themselves or send representatives to Union installations to request the return of slaves known to be there.
    In addition, the consideration for Confederate property (including slaves) earlier in the war also ties into the inaccurate belief – which remained fairly strong in some Union circles for more than a year – that there was a lot of latent Unionist sentiment in the South and that demonstrating respect for Confederate property would encourage reconciliation (undoubtedly with slavery). By mid-war, most Union commanders were making – or had made – the transition to a “hard war” policy: every Southern resource that was useful to the Confederate war effort was to be confiscated (and not returned) or destroyed (as in the very tough 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley).

  7. Ed. McConnell
    February 28, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I had 2 ancestors that fought for the Union, Clark E. Dodge,1st Lt., Artillery Service and John McConnell, Brevet Brig. General, 5th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. I’m proud of these 2 men, and I’m glad slavery was removed from America.

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