My travels with John Hosford

Jun 26, 2019

Editor’s note: This post has nothing to do with Ecuador, Cuenca or expatriatism. It is about one writer’s obsession with the man who courted his great-great-grandmother during the U.S. Civil War. It appeared originally as a syndicated newspaper column about 20 years ago.

When I make the two-hour trip from my home in Tallahassee to the North Florida Gulf coast, I cannot escape the fact that I pass through a landscape that was once familiar to John W. Hosford.

The countryside, mostly state and national forest, probably looks much as it did to Hosford 160 years ago. From north to south it unfolds from rolling hills to flat coastal plain, from live oak and long-leaf pine to cabbage palm, slash pine and scrub oak. Even the small communities along the way, Sumatra, Magnolia Bluff and Smith Creek would have been familiar to him.

My fascination with Hosford began when I was in elementary school, when I first handled the bundle of Civil War letters, wrapped in faded blue ribbon, that he wrote to my great-grandmother Laura Rich.

John Hosford in 1862.

Over the years, I came to know the contents of the letters in intimate detail, using them as the source for high school and graduate school papers. It helped that the letters were published in a historical journal, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of my father for deciphering the faded brown script.

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They were eloquent letters of formal courtship written by a man in life’s most ghastly circumstances.

Although I have, through the years, found out much about Hosford, there remain glaring gaps in the record. Unlike my Northern ancestors, who have, in true Yankee fashion, maintained an amply annotated, multi-branched family tree dating to Maine in the 1680s, my southern forebearers lead me down blind alleys.

The facts about John Hosford, as I know them, are these. He was born in Georgia in 1832 and moved to Gadsden County (present day Liberty County), Florida prior to the Civil War.

He signed on with Company H, Fifth Florida Infantry, and was mustered in at Ricco’s Bluff, just north of Apalachicola in March 1862. The Florida Fifth was assigned to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and, over the next three years, took part in some of the most grisly fighting of the war.

Hosford’s letters describe the horrors of the battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor, among others.

In April 1865, after Lee’s surrender, he was mustered out of service at Appomattox.

Using a barrelhead for a table, sometimes one covering 150 pounds of gunpowder, Hosford wrote letters that tell a terrible but very personal story. The real enemy is always his separation from home and the butchery of the war. He knows “the pain of the families of both Yankees and Confederates whose boys have fallen.” He despairs at the blighted landscape. “Cornfields are laid waste, houses are empty, fences are burnt, whole towns barren and vacated.”

He writes of burying the dead near Rappahannock. “Sometimes there is only a part of a foot, sometimes a whole arm or half of a head.” He describes the privation of southern soldiers as the war dragged on. “We are all nearly bare of decent clothes, some of the boys are barefooted.” But he also describes brilliant January sunsets over the snow-crested Virginia Blue Ridge.

Most of all, he aches for home and Laura’s company, although, after so many months away, “those things seem like an old sweet dream.”

Several months before Appomattox, Hosford’s letters stop. Maybe there were more letters that didn’t make the bundle. Maybe Laura dispatched a “Dear John” letter announcing her engagement to my great-great grandfather.

I’ll never know, of course, why Laura Rich, apparently rejected John Hosford. Surely there’s more to the story. Laura did, after all, keep the letters.

Last year, scrolling through newly posted on-line marriage records, I discovered, to my amazement, that John Hosford did, in fact, join the family. He married the sister of my great-great grandfather, the one who married Laura Rich. This brings me some degree of comfort though I’m still in the hunt for later records.

I trust that John Hosford’s ghost will help me tie up loose ends in due course.

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