(BEDFORD) - A one-of-a-kind collection of Civil War letters will be the featured attraction of an exhibit at the Lawrence County Museum, 929 15th St., that will open Friday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
Bill Schrader reports that the hundreds of letters, one of the largest collections known to exist, were written by Silas Henry Harrison Mathes, a Lawrence County resident, during the three years he served in the 15th Indiana Volunteer Regiment and in the Signal Corps.
The letters were written to Hester Ann Rogers, a Bedford friend who would later become Mathes' wife.
The letters remained in the Mathes family for four generations until they were donated to the Lawrence County Museum by step great-great-granddaughter, Susan McCoyd of Elmhurst, Ill. Two other Mathes descendants currently live in Spencer, great-grandson William Henry Mathes and great-great-grandson Robert (Bob) Harold Mathes.
After receiving the letters, museum staff members Greg Nikirk and Glenda Reynolds and volunteers Annette Seib and Reba Butler transcribed the hand-written documents into digital form.
In the next step, museum volunteers, headed by exhibit coordinator Becky Buher, spent four months developing a book on the letters and putting together the exhibit that includes excerpts from the book, Civil War artifacts, a mock Civil War-era living room, a mock Civil War battle scene and authentic Union and Confederate Civil War flags. A copy of the book will be available for reading at the museum and the book will be on sale in the gift shop.
Vectren is the corporate sponsor of the exhibit. Providing special assistance to Buher in developing the exhibit were Reba Butler, who did background research in gathering material for the book, and Erica Ewen, an Indiana University student intern from Salem, who worked on developing the exhibit. Many of the pictures for the book came from the Library of Congress and the Indiana Historical Society.
Henry Mathes moved to Lawrence County in 1854, at age 16, to improve his education. He worked in Medora as a druggist until April 1861 when he joined the 15th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. He was assigned to Company F along with some 50 other volunteers from Lawrence County.
Henry's letters to Annie are foremost messages of affection. But they are also filled with details of the war and the living conditions endured in the Union camps in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. He wrote about the terrible diseases that took almost as heavy a toll as Confederate bullets. The 15th Regiment lost 76 enlisted men to disease. The combat death toll in the Regiment was four officers and 105 enlisted men.
Henry's letters began shortly after his April 1861 enlistment. The 15th Regiment's action began at Cheat Mountain in West Virginia in September 1861 and included the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, the siege of Corinth in Mississippi, Buell's Campaign in Alabama, the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky, the Battle of Stone's River in Tennessee, the Tullahoma Campaign in Tennessee, the Chickamauga Campaign in Georgia and the Siege of Chattanooga in Tennessee.
Also included in the letters is early information about the Signal Corps where Mathes was transferred early in 1863. There he learned to operate a new technology, the Beardslee Magneto Electric Telegraph.
Mathes was mustered out of the service on June 4, 1864, and returned to Bedford where he married Annie, his faithful correspondent, on Aug. 28. They had two children live to adulthood, a daughter, Kitty Florence, born in 1865, and a son, Ulysses Sidney, born in 1869.
After returning to Bedford, Mathes began a new career as a printer in the shop an uncle, James Madison Mathes, had opened in Bedford. James had begun his publishing career in Bloomington after graduating from State University in 1843. His first publication was the highly successful Christian Record. His other publishing ventures included the Bloomington Herald, the Indiana Tribune, the White River Standard in Bedford and the Bedford Sun.
Henry spent three years learning the trade at his uncle's Bedford shop before launching his own publishing career, starting the Owen County Union in Spencer. Over the years he earned a reputation as a noted writer and as a "Red Hot Republican." His subsequent publishing ventures included the Gosport Independent, the Owen County Journal and a printing business in Martinsville until his death on Jan. 19, 1906. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Spencer.
The Civil War letters were kept by Annie until her death. when they were handed down to daughter Kitty Florence Mathes Asher, who lived in Spencer, then to granddaughter Edith Asher Aldridge, next to great-grandson James Aldridge, and then to step-great-great-granddaughter Susan McCoyd, who donated the letters to the museum.
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