The John R. Goldsborough papers contain 26 letters from a Civil War officer to his wife and one document from his command of a freed-slave colony on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Goldsborough's letters range in length from 4 to30 pages and cover a wide range of topics (1861-1867). Goldsborough discussed news and politics of the day and described in great detail his Civil War activities, especially related to the blockade of South Carolina and Georgia, and his time in charge of St. Simons Island. He candidly offered his observations on military matters, his interactions with slaves and freed slaves, and his official and leisure activities. The 1866-1877 letters cover Goldsborough's travels with the Asiatic Squadron in Africa and Asia.
The collection contains 14 Civil War era letters spanning May 1861 to June 1862. These cover Goldsborough's departure from Delaware on board the Union and his service at Port Royal, South Carolina, and Wassaw Sound, Georgia. In his letter of May 19, 1861, he commented on the culture of the navy, writing that while his officers are all gentlemen, his crew needed to be instilled with Christian values. To achieve this, he mandated Sunday morning services and did not allow "swearing, drinking, or any other scandalous conduct." Goldsborough described outfitting the steamboat Florida as a war vessel and sitting for the photographer Matthew Brady (October 11, 1861). Goldsborough described the Union blockade of Savannah and the recent naval victories at Port Royal, St. Philips, and Hilton Head, where Sherman found fertile land, "fine crops of both corn & cotton, besides plenty of 'contrabands' which we set immediately to picking the later" (November 19, 1861). In that same letter, he described General Drayton's deserted mansion at Hilton Head, finding
"negroes plundering their masters houses & wearing their masters clothes, this we had to put a stop to and place sentinels to prevent further depredations." The April 16, 1862, regards his visit to Fort Pulaski shortly after its bombardment. In a 24-page letter from May 31, 1862, he discussed Commodore Du Pont at the battle at Port Royal, the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac , and anticipation of the Union attack on Charleston. He also praised President Lincoln for military successes at Norfolk and Richmond. He wrote with deep affection to his wife and gave her advice on financial matters.
On May 27, 1862, Goldsborough recalled the story of Robert Smalls, a former slave who worked as a pilot on the Confederate gunboat Planter until he commandeered the ship and escaped from Charleston with his family and 12 other slaves, passing a number of Confederate forts before reaching safety with the USS Onward . Smalls brought with him a Confederate codebook and other useful military information. Inspired by the story, Goldsborough wrote:
"I go for selecting the very best among them, like those that ran away with the Planter, put a pair of red breeches upon their legs, a zouve cap upon their head, and a musket in their hand and, with white officers send them forth to free the country of rebel traitors and tyrannical masters. They can do it, and it will not cost the government one half as much as our present army of white men."
The collection contains 4 letters (43 pages) and 1 document from Goldsborough's time in charge of the colony of newly liberated blacks on St. Simons Island, Georgia. He described daily life for the island's inhabitants including plantation work and mandatory church attendance, temperance, and education, as well as news and stories from the war. Goldsborough hoped that, someday, St. Simons would become a self sufficient and prosperous community. The document is an order from Goldsborough setting the "Prices to be charged for the following articles when sold to Officers Messes and sailors by the negroes on St. Simon's Island," issued from the USS Florida (July 1, 1862). Listed are prices for fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, liquor, and supplies.
One long letter, dated August 18-25, 1862, was written immediately after relinquishing his administrative authority of the island. He wrote that after "all the trouble and all the responsibility of managing and governing so extensive a settlement[,]" he was pleased to return to command at sea. He also described the ships under his command, interactions with news reporters, troops in Charleston, ideas on the arming of black troops, general laziness among African American soldiers, anti-abolitionist sentiments, the strength and condition of the Confederate Army, and the state of affairs on St. Simons Island. Despite his negative remarks on the Garrison, Beechy, Sumner and Furniss schools, Goldsborough spoke positively about several former slaves seeking protection by the Union Army, one of whom (Rosa) he directed to the Philadelphia home of his wife's mother for work as a housekeeper.
John R. Goldsborough's nine post-war letters (1866-1867) were originally sent in three bundles to his wife at home in Philadelphia. These provide Goldsborough's accounts of his service on the U.S. Steamer Shenandoah in the Asiatic Squadron, during expeditions to colonial Africa and Asia. They were written from the distant ports of the Cape of Good Hope (July 6, 1866), Mauritius (August 1 and August 6, 1866), Hong Kong (March 17, 20, and 25, 1867), and Yokohama, Japan (August 29 and 30, 1867). While he occasionally described his physical surroundings, Goldsborough spent more time writing about his social activities and other men in the squadron. He mentioned engagements with local aristocrats and leaders, English colonists, and Americans living abroad. Goldsborough also discussed local commerce. In Hong Kong, he noted the low prices of many goods and wrote about the significant purchases he wanted to make (or had already made), including a "Mandarin sable robe" he intended to buy for his wife (March 17, 1867). The post-war letters also contain details about the difficulty of the journeys, the stoutness of their ship, and potential missions on the Shenandoah .
The letter from May 18, 1961, is on red and blue letterhead that depicts a globe and flag floating in water labeled "Our Country."