Matlack family letters to Samuel J. Matlack

Biographical and Historical Notes

Samuel J. Matlack (1845-1898)

Philadelphian Samuel J. Matlack (1845-1898) served as a sailor aboard the USS Wissahickon during the American Civil War.

Family members in Philadelphia--including his father, mother, sisters, brothers, and a relative--sent letters to Samuel J. Matlack, who served on the Wissahickon for the duration of the war. His family's letters, which span the period 1862-1865, were delivered via the steamer supply ship USS Massachusetts and addressed to Matlack onboard the "US Gunboat Wissahickon, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron," frequently specifying "off the coast of South Carolina."

The Wissahickon was a Unadilla class screw steam gunboat, initially deployed to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. In 1862, the Wissahickon joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which covered over 500 miles of coastline from the northern border of South Carolina to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Established by the Union Navy in 1861, the squadron sought to control the coastline and capture key port cities held by the Confederacy. The Wissahickon fought in the bombardments of Fort McAllister, Georgia, in late 1862-early 1863, and of Forts Wagner and Sumter, off Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1863. The gunboat spent the remainder of the war patrolling the coast of South Carolina and its inland waters.

Samuel J. Matlack was employed as a manufacturer after the war. In 1867, he married Emma L. Everly (b. 1848). Records of his post-war activities are sparse, although his pension application indicates that he received treatment for mental illness in 1883, and that by 1885 his condition was severe enough to prevent him from working. In 1890, Samuel Matlack was admitted to the US National Homes for Disabled Veteran Soldiers for a "depression of skull" and in 1891, he successfully applied for a pension due to mental disorders resulting from his military service. In his pension application, Matlack was diagnosed with epilepsy and an unspecified "mental derangement." In 1892, Samuel Matlack was transferred to the Government Insane Asylum in Washington, D.C. (later known as St. Elizabeth's Hospital), where he remained until his death in 1898 of bronchial pneumonia.

Matlack family records are sparse. Samuel's parents were Mason Matlack (ca. 1824-1868) and Matilda E. Matlack (ca. 1808-1894). His brother, Lewis J. Matlack (1842-1909), was employed as a merchant and was married to Clemmie Matlack (b. 1844). As mentioned in letters in this collection, Lewis and Clemmie Matlack had two children: Laura (b. 1863, died in infancy) and an unidentified son (b. 1865). Samuel J. Matlack had four sisters: Mary, Mollie, Tillie, and Annie. A second brother, Harry Matlack, served in the Union Army and died while a prisoner of war, sometime prior to 1862. At the time of the Civil War, all of the surviving members of Samuel J. Matlack's immediate family were living in Philadelphia. Samuel Matlack's "nephyou" (probably his cousin), Mason M. Murray, served in the Union Army and was wounded in June 1864 in a campaign against Richmond. Mason Murray's leg was subsequently amputated and he remained hospitalized for the duration of the war. In December 1865, Murray wrote to Matlack from Tilton US General Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware.

Sources

"Approved pension applications of widows and other dependents of Civil War and later Navy veterans (Navy widows' certificates), 1861-1910." Matlack/Medlock/Matlack/Matlicks a guide to the 1790-1920 census and collective works.(Accessed 20 January 2012). http://www.ba044ancestry.com/MATLOCKMISC/WarRecords/NavyWidowPensions/SamuelJMatlackNavyWidowCertificates.html.

Browning, Robert M., Jr. Success is all that was expected: the South Atlantic blockading squadron during the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2002.

"Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, death certificates index, 1803-1915." Ancestry.com. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. (Accessed 20 January 2012). search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?db=FSPhilPADeath&h=1343214&indiv=try&o_vc=Record:OtherRecord&rhSource=1200

"U.S. national homes for disabled volunteer soldiers, 1866-1938." Ancestry.com. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. (Accessed 20 January 2012). http://search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?h=296162&db=NationalHomes&indiv=try

"USS Massachusetts (1861-1867)." Naval Historical Center. (Accessed 24 January 2012). http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-m/massach2.htm

"USS Wissahickon (1861-1865)." Naval Historical Center. (Accessed 20 January 2012). http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-w/wisahick.htm

Scope and Content Note

This collection consists of seventeen letters written by members of the Matlack family in Philadelphia to Samuel J. Matlack while he was serving in the Union Navy aboard the USS Wissahickon, a gunboat in the blockading squadron off the coast of South Carolina, during the American Civil War, from 1862-1865.

The letters document the Civil War era as experienced by civilians and depict the Matlack family's close relationship with their son and brother. Although the Matlacks described seeing wounded soldiers and supply ships coming and going through Philadelphia, their experience of the war was otherwise second-hand, mediated by newspapers and infrequent letters from their son and other first-hand witnesses to the combat zones. The Matlack correspondents wrote about family and neighbors: births, deaths, holiday celebrations, and day-to-day business and activities. They wrote about financial hardships caused by the war, especially the increased cost of goods. They commented on recent developments in the war effort and on political and current events, including the 1864 presidential election and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. Samuel's father and brother relayed news about a relative, Mason M. Murray, who served with the Union Army and lost a leg to amputation after he was wounded in battle. Family members occasionally referenced information from Samuel Matlack's letters (which are not present in this collection), providing a few details to an otherwise undocumented military experience. Family members almost always admonished Samuel for failing to write more regularly and expressed frequent concerns for his safety. Lewis Matlack cautioned his brother not to "touch one drop of spirited drink" and Matilda Matlack prayed for her youngest son, on the occasion of his twentieth birthday and after an absence of two years, that Samuel should grow "to be a virtuous upright man."

Though small, this group of one family's letters reflects the sweeping historical significance of the war and its impact on American families: the mother was deeply distressed with concern over two sons in service, one of whom died; another relative suffered an amputation after a war wound; and families endured economic hardships but supported soldiers and sailors with boxes of sundries from home. Above all, letters through the mail relayed personal news, with notes about war progress toward cessation of fighting and hopes of family reunions. The Matlacks shared political opinions of support for "the National Union ticket" of "Old Abe" and Andrew Johnson as opposed to the Copperhead candidate George B. McClellan. Samuel Matlack's brother wrote about "the foul murder of our dear president, o such a gloom" and the final letter in the collection, from amputee Mason Murray to Samuel, summed up an opinion of war: "when they get hit like I did it is not much sport in it."

The letters in this collection are organized chronologically. The principal correspondents are Samuel's father, Mason Matlack and his brother, Lewis J. Matlack. Other correspondents include his sisters, Mary, Tillie, and Mollie; his sister-in-law, Clemmie (married to Lewis J. Matlack); his mother, Matilda E. Matlack; and his "nephyou" (or more likely cousin) Mason M. Murray. With the exception of Mason Murray's letter, written from Tilton Military Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, all of the letters were mailed to Samuel from Philadelphia via the USS Massachusetts, an iron screw steamship that carried supplies from northern ports to the blockade.