I continue, when time allows, to search the many letters written to Austin Blair, Michigan’s wartime governor, which are held in the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Civilians, rather than soldiers, wrote some of the most intriguing letters in the collection. In many cases, the civilians, usually men with some standing within a community, wrote to Blair with the hope of advancing the career of a friend in the service and read almost as a matter of routine. But every now and then a letter turns up which tugs at one’s heart. I have included two letters below, one from the wife of a soldier and another from a soldier whose world has been turned upside down by the sudden death of his wife.
Mary Hughson, wife of Robert Hughson, 1st Michigan Cavalry, wrote one such letter to the governor in early 1863. Her husband, a 27-year-old farmer, who, along with his wife, had been born in Canada, enlisted from Trenton, just south of Detroit, in August 1861. In February 1863, his wife, who had been struggling to raise and support their two children for eighteen months wrote the following letter to Governor Blair.
“i now sit down to ask you if it a possible thing that you could give my husband his discharge he is a member of company K 1st Michigan Cavelry he enlisted one year ago the 10 of last august and when he enlisted he was to have 16 dollars a month and his family was to have 15 dollars a month to suport us but out of the 15 we only get nine and if you are any judge you must know that is a prety small sum to live on and cloth myself and two children i have everything to buy my wood i have to pay 14 shillings a cord and for to get it sawed i have to pay 1 dollar a cord and i live a quarter of a mile from the river and you must think I cant carry watter in the cold and wet weather and i have to pay 10 cents a bbl for to get it drawed all of these things I aught to have done but the supervisor is not allowed to give me enough to do with it so i have to saw my own wood and carry my own watter and everything els that i have to do let it be cold or warm wet or dry i have got to go and i have been exposed to the wet and cold so much that i am about down sick i am naturely sickly and my little children are small the oldest is only 4 years old and the youngest one year and six months and i have to leave them alone which you must know is not safe for i don’t get enough to keep any body with me and if we are sick and call the doctor they wont pay him and i have to rent a house to live in and i am in debt for rent and … my land lord says that i have got to get another house if i don’t pay up when god knows that i have got nothing to pay it with and my husband is not very healthy for he has been hurt and is now subgect to a lame back and has not had his pay since last July and you have no kind of an idea how hard it is for me to get along alone and the hard times i do see you cant imagine now Mr. Blair which i understand you are the Govenor i do sinserely hope that you can give my husband his discharge if you have any feellings for us i know you will i supose his country needs his service but i think his family needs him worse for to endure the hardships that I have it is allmost imposible now dear sir will you do me kindness if you get this to write and let me know if he can have his discharge or not god knows i hope he can for it is so hard for us to get along the way we have to now please do me the kindness to discharge him. This is from the lawfall wife of Robert W. Hughson.”
Robert Hughson re-enlisted in December 1863, possibly induced by the re-enlistment bounty of $100. When he returned from the war, Hughson suffered from several nagging ailments common to the soldiers, but he also suffered from very poor eyesight. Mary, who believed his poor vision had been aggravated by his service, described him as “nearly blind.” In 1877, Hughson died when a tree fell on him, an accident Mary believed resulted from his poor eyesight. Robert and Mary had eight children, six boys and two girls, though one of their girls died at about the age of three. When Robert died, Mary still had five children at home, 16 years of age or younger to raise and support.
One year after Robert Hughson entered the service with the 1st Michigan, James Gould, a 28-year-old farmer from Gratiot County, north of Lansing, enlisted in the 6th Michigan Cavalry. He left Sarah, his pregnant wife, and three small children at home.
In June 1863, Gould’s company, commanded by Capt. Charles Deane, belonged to a security force of infantry and cavalry stationed along the north side of the Potomac River. Deane and his troopers held the line near Seneca, Maryland and Rowser’s Ford. At daylight on June 11, John Mosby led his partisans across the river, struck the camp of the Michiganders and, after a brief skirmish, routed the Wolverine detachment. Mosby lost two men killed and at least two men wounded. Captain Deane lost four killed, two wounded and captured and twelve unwounded men captured. Gould had sustained a hernia two weeks earlier when his horse stumbled and fell. Hobbled by his injury and unable to escape Mosby’s sudden attack, Gould became a prisoner.
In the summer of 1863, both sides quickly paroled their prisoners, rather than hold them in prisoner of war camps for long periods of time. Their parole slip granted them safe passage to a holding point within their own lines where they waited for a formal exchange before returning to their unit. Upon being paroled, Gould first reported to a parole camp at Annapolis, Maryland, and then to Camp Chase, at Columbus, Ohio, to await his exchange. On September 1, while at Camp Chase, Gould learned that Sarah was dying. Granted a furlough by the camp’s commanding officer, Gould returned home the next day, only to learn that his wife had died two days earlier. Her friends buried her just hours before Gould reached home on September 2. Now the father of four small children, including a child he probably saw for the first time, Gould found himself a single parent, whose furlough expired in just a few days. Faced with few options, Gould sought to be discharged from the army. Governor Blair may have received the following three items as a package in late-September.
On September 21, James Joslyn, Gould’s former lieutenant, wrote a brief unaddressed note certifying “that James H. Gould of this company has been distinguished for gallantry and good conduct, and that from the time of his enlistment (August 25, 1863) has been constantly at his post until his capture June , 1863; and up to that time his duties as a soldier have been bravely and faithfully discharged.” Joslyn had resigned his commission earlier in the year and Gould probably spoke with him at his home in Holly, Michigan.
The following day, eleven men, including a colonel of a Michigan regiment recently discharged for wounds, as well as a former captain in another cavalry regiment, signed a petition to Blair on Gould’s behalf.
“We the undersigned friends and neighbors of James H. Gould of Co I, 6th Michigan Cavalry, would respectfully present the following statement of facts to your favorable consideration. Said facts are as follows to wit: James Gould enlisted in aforesaid regiment the 25th day of August 1862 as a private in Co. I and served faithfully in his company & Regt until he was taken prisoner on the 11th day of June 1863 and has not yet been exchanged. On the 31st day of August [her headstone mistakenly shows August 11] last past said Gould lost his wife who died with the [dysentery], and left four small children, the oldest 7 years and the youngest four months old. Now we would pray that some means be devised to procure his honorable discharge from the service…”
A few days later, Gould showed the petition to John Ingram, who may have been a friend, neighbor or a local man with political clout. Moved by Gould’s predicament, Ingram wrote his own appeal to Blair.
“Enclosed your Excellency will find the petition of James H. Gould of Co. I 6th Michigan Cavalry praying that some means be devised for his honorable discharge from the service. Mr. Gould has been for some years a citizen of this township. He is a man of irreproachable character a good and loyal citizen and enlisted from the purest motives, but in his absence, it pleased the almighty to take from him his companion which leaves him as his petition says with four small children upon his hands. Mr. Gould is poor & if he must go back to the army they will be left to the cold charity of strangers which to a high minded sensitive man is almost excruciating. But still if it must be so he will return and wait with anxiety the pleasure of your Excellency. Mr. Gould would through friends furnish a man in his place if nothing better could be [done]. Almost every man in the town would sign his petition but I thought it unnecessary but if any further information should be necessary I should be happy to give it…”
While in Michigan, Gould reported to the military barracks in Detroit, returning home as often as the commanding officer granted him a pass. Gould then mortgaged his home and hired an attorney to travel to Washington to plead his case. He also hired his sister to watch his children, as his other family members “were in no condition financially to support and maintain his children.” Traveling constantly between the barracks in Detroit, Utica, where his sister lived, and Pontiac, to see his attorney, Gould somehow lost the $300 he received for his house and then found himself arrested as a deserter. Shortly thereafter he enlisted in the 22nd Michigan Infantry. According to Gould, the arresting officer had persuaded him that if he enlisted for one year, he could select any regiment he desired and receive credit for his time in the 6th Michigan. With the 22nd Michigan still forming in the Detroit area, Gould accepted the offer, apparently as a means of staying close to his family. The War Department saw his decision as a blatant attempt to claim the state bounty money, however, and ordered him dishonorably discharged. But, as Michigan no longer offered bounty money to new recruits, Gould eventually succeeded in having the decision overturned. Gould married Harriett Ballard of Vermont in February 1866, and the union produced ten children over the next 18 years. He died in 1907.
Thousands of families, North and South, must have faced similar situations during the four years of conflict. One can only imagine how many politicians at every level received similar pleas from families torn asunder by the war or by the natural trials of life and death. Many such appeals may have been ploys designed to relieve a tired, home-sick soldier from his obligation, though these two cases appear genuine. Mary Hughson’s letter suggests a simple, hardworking mother too busy trying to overcome her daily burdens to contrive a fraudulent scheme, and Sarah Gould’s headstone, though apparently bearing an incorrect date of death, confirms the validity and motivation behind her husband’s petition. Regardless, neither Mary Hughson or James Gould achieved the desired outcome, as the state and the nation needed every available soldier. One doubts if Austin Blair ever expected to be faced with such decisions when he tossed his hat into the political arena.
With special thanks to my wife for her genealogical sleuthing.
Documents from the Austin Blair Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Documents from the National Archives
Documents from Ancestry.com
One thought on “Petitions from the Home Front”
Thanks, Bob. Good reminders about the extreme level of family sacrifice both at home and in the service.