The identity of these correspondents — known only as “Matt” and “Jane” — has not yet been learned. We know they were cousins and that Matt resided in a Chicago boarding house somewhere in the vicinity of South Halsted Street in what is now Bridgeport.
Matt tells his cousin that “considerable excitement” has been experienced by the residents on the south side of Chicago occasioned by the arrival of rebel prisoners at Camp Douglas. This camp was located at what is now 31st Street on the north, 33rd Place on the south, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the west and Cottage Grove Avenue on the east.
A Camp history states that “about 1,500 poorly clothed and generally physically unfit Confederate prisoners arrived at the camp on January 26, 1863. About 1,300 other prisoners arrived the next day and 1,500 more arrived on January 30, 1863 after the Union Army captured Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post). During February 1863, 387 of 3,884 prisoners housed at Camp Douglas died. This was the highest mortality rate in any Civil War prison camp for any month of the war.
Archived in the Special Collections Library at Auburn University is the diary of George W. Bisnee, Co. C, 9th Vermont. From late September of 1862 until early April of 1863, the 9th Vermont guarded Confederate prison camps at Camp Douglas, near Chicago, Illinois. His diary records the following:
Tuesday, January 27, 1863.
In Barracks in Camp Douglas. 1500 Rebbels, Prisoners brought here from Ark-Post.
Wednesday, January 28, 1863.
In Barracks in Camp Douglas.
Thursday, January 29, 1863.
In Barracks in Camp Douglas. 400 Rebels came in the evening.
Friday, January 30, 1863.
In Barracks in Camp Douglas. 1500 more Rebbels came to day.
Matt’s letter reveals that there were several southerners and southern-sympathizers residing in the boarding house, and he shares a first-hand observation of the rebel prisoners with his cousin Jane.
January 27, 1863
Dear Cousin Jane,
I received your letter addressed me on Thursday last. On Monday received your other & one from sister Sarah. You may tell Sarah I will answer hers in due time. But Oh! what sad news that letter of Sarah’s brought — the death of cousin Quincy. How very true it is that we know not what a day will bring forth. I am quite anxious to hear the particulars relative to his sickness & death.
You spoke as if you thought cousin Harry would move out to E. It matters not who the farm is carried on by — it will need the very best of management to support the family. Monday I saw J. Mattocks [Maddox?]. He said Mr. Kingsland was gaining quite fast but has been very sick. I should think by the appearance of J. Mattocks he enjoyed very good health.
There has been a considerable excitement in this part of the city today caused by the arrival of 800 rebel prisoners — (Today’s paper stated there was 4,000 coming today & tomorrow. Probably the rest will arrive tomorrow) — bound for Camp Douglas. They left the cars nearly in front of the packing house (by the way, the house fronts Camp Douglas — it is one mile or a little over east of us). They arrived at noon. Of course Mr. H and myself were at the boarding house at bed. They were all well shod & had good blankets, but looked careworn & blue with the cold. They were taken at Arkansas Post. There was a great deal of sympathy shown them. One of our men spent 10 dollars for them.
There is a few men connected with this house that have been in the southern army & a great many from the State of Kentucky & a few from Virginia, so you see we are a mixed company. I think there are 8 or 10 states represented in this house. So you see it needs some peacemakers like Mr. H & me.
Sarah said she thought by my last letter we were getting homesick. She is very much mistaken. We have not thought of such a thing yet. When we get that disease, we will let you know it. We have a couple of new boarders — young married people from Michigan. They add greatly to the house, quite agreeable — especially the lady.
Mr. H was very glad to receive such nice letters from the children & hopes Cyrus was not guilty of the charges against him at school & sincerely hopes he will continue to be a good boy.
We are as well as usual & hope this will find you all the same. Mr. H sends a large quantity of love to all of you.
Please give my regards to all enquiring friends. From your affectionate cousin, — Matt