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Introduction to the James Jordan Letter
By George Rugg
James B. Jordan (8 June 1836-27 April 1899) was born in Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina. In business in Tennessee at the outbreak of war, he returned to his home state and enlisted in the Confederate service on 29 May 1861. He was subsequently elected 1st lieutenant in Company D of the 26th North Carolina Infantry, and at organization was appointed regimental adjutant. Jordan was wounded in the hip at Gettysburg on 3 July 1863, as the regiment suffered severe losses in the failed assault on Cemetery Ridge. He was captured two days later on the retreat south and, after time in a Federal hospital, was sent to the prison camp at Johnson's Island, Ohio, where he was confined for the duration of the war.
Jordan's letter was written on 5 February 1865 to a young woman in Milton, Kentucky named Martha ("Mattie") Fearn, whom he addresses as his cousin. Confederate pension records indicate that after the war, Jordan and Mattie Fearn were married. Since the letter states that the two had not met since Mattie was a "little girl", and since Jordan's prose bespeaks fondness but no real intimacy, we are left to assume that Mattie's kindnesses to her imprisoned cousin did indeed prove to be "bread cast upon the waters". Soldiers, especially prisoners, found it expedient to solicit aid from whoever would supply it. That such relationships might provide the foundation for a greater intimacy after the war is scarcely surprising, and was not in fact uncommon.
Jordan's place of internment was an officers' prison located on a 300-acre island off the south shore of Lake Erie, in Sandusky Bay. By the often horrifying standards of Civil War prisons Johnson's Island was benign, with a probable mortality rate of under two per cent. A report dated 5 February 1865 the day of Jordan's letter observes that 3014 prisoners were on the island, of whom only 55 were in hospital (Official Records, Series II, Volume 8, p. 183). Circumstances at the prison became more difficult from the spring of 1864, when the Federal government cut rations and other privileges in response to public outcry about the Confederate treatment of Northern prisoners. At the time of Jordan's letter many prisoners at Johnson's Island were suffering from lack of food, due to inadequate rations and restrictions on gifts and prisoner purchases.
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). Hence Jordan's statement in concluding his letter that "I have just so many lines." More stringent restrictions were imposed at other Union prisons, but it is not apparent that they applied to Johnson's Island.
Following the war James and Mattie Jordan moved to Volusia County, Florida, where in 1888 James Jordan became clerk of the circuit court.
Bibliographic note: The regimental history of the 26th North Carolina, written by George C. Underwood, first appeared in Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861-'65, Raleigh, 1901, vol. 2, p. 302 ff. A portrait of Jordan is included in the collage of photographs on p. 302; a brief profile appears on p. 415. For Johnson's Island, see Edward T. Downer, "Johnson's Island", in William B. Hesseltine, ed., Civil War Prisons, Kent OH, 1962, 98-113, and Charles E. Frohman, Rebels on Lake Erie, Columbus OH, 1975.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5000-1||Letter||Februrary 5, 1865||Johnson's Island, Ohio||James B. Jordan|