Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
John R. Goldsborough Papers, 1861-1867

James S. Schoff Civil War Collection

Finding aid created by
Sally Vermaaten, July 2001; Cheney J. Schopieray, June 2009; and Philip Heslip, May 2011

Summary Information
Title: John R. Goldsborough papers
Creator: Goldsborough, Mary Pennington
Inclusive dates: 1861-1867
Extent: 27 items
The John R. Goldsborough papers contain 25 letters from a Civil War officer to his wife (1861-1867) and one document from his command of a freed-slave colony on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Goldsborough discussed news and politics of the day and described his Civil War activities, especially related to the Atlantic blockade of South Carolina and Georgia and his time in charge of St. Simons Island. The 1866-1877 letters cover Goldsborough's travels with the Asiatic Squadron in Africa and Asia.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1990-2014. M-2589.6, M-4314.1, M-4719.2, M-4738.2-.8, M-4781, M-4796.5, M-4862, M-5032.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

John R. Goldsborough Papers, James S. Schoff Civil War Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The collection is organized chronologically.


John R. Goldsborough

Rank : Captain

Regiment : United States. Navy.

John Rodgers Goldsborough was born in Washington, D.C., in 1808. His father was navy department official Charles Washington Goldsborough, and his brother was the famed Civil War Rear Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough who captured Roanoke Island in 1862. John Goldsborough received an appointment as midshipman on the sloop Warren , of the Mediterranean Squadron in 1824. He remained in this position until 1830. In September 1837, he was promoted to lieutenant, and between 1844 and 1850, he was attached to the Coast Survey charting the eastern seaboard of the United States.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Goldsborough commanded the U.S. Steamer Union and participated in the blockade of Savannah, Georgia. On October 5, 1861, Goldsborough was put in command of the newly commissioned sidewheel steamship, the Florida . He was appointed captain in 1862 and served as senior naval officer in the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. In the summer of 1862, he was placed in charge of a settlement of former slaves at St. Simons Island, Georgia. Next he commanded the blockade off Mobile, Alabama, from onboard the Colorado (March to September, 1863). From the last months of 1863 to the end of the war, he was an ordinance duty officer at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. From 1865 to 1868, John Goldsborough commanded the U.S. Steamer Shenandoah , a wooden hull sloop that was then part of the Asiatic Squadron that voyaged from South America, around Africa, to India, Siam (present-day Thailand), and Japan. During this mission, he was promoted to commodore.

Goldsborough married Mary Pennington around 1833; she lived in Philadelphia during his navy service. He died in Philadelphia in June 1877.

Collection Scope and Content Note

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."

Subject Terms

    • African Americans--Employment--Georgia--Saint Simons Island.
    • African Americans--Economic conditions--Georgia--Saint Simons Island.
    • Agriculture--Georgia--Saint Simon's (Island)
    • Brady, Mathew B., ca. 1823-1896.
    • Cape of Good Hope (South Africa)
    • Charleston (S.C.)--History--Siege, 1863.
    • Du Pont, Samuel Francis, 1803-1865.
    • Florida (Steamship)
    • Fort Pulaski (Ga.)--Siege, 1862.
    • Hong Kong (China)--Commerce.
    • International trade--History--19th Century.
    • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
    • Mauritius.
    • Merrimack (Frigate)
    • Monitor (Ironclad)
    • Plantations--Georgia--Saint Simons (Island)
    • Port Royal (S.C.)
    • Sailors--Religious life.
    • Saint Simons Island (Ga.)
    • Shenandoah (Screw sloop)
    • Slaves--Georgia--Saint Simons Island--19th century.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Blockades.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Economic aspects.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Naval operations.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Participation, African American.
    • United States. Navy--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States. Navy--Officers--Attitudes.
    • United States. Navy--Officers--Conduct of life.
    • United States. Navy--Procurement--Costs.
    • United States. Navy--Supplies and stores.
    • Virginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • Voyages and travels.
    • Wassaw Sound (Ga.)
    • Yokohama-shi (Japan)
    • Goldsborough, J. R. (John Rodgers), 1808-1877.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letters (correspondence)
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   93, Schoff Civil War Collection  
    John R. Goldsborough papers [series]
    Folder   1  
     May 19, 1861
     October 11, 1861
     November 18, 1861
     January 5, 1862
     February 12, 1862
     February 24, 1862
    Folder   2  
     April 16, 1862
     May 11-13, 1862
     May 27, 1862
     May 31, 1862
     May 31, 1862
    Folder   3  
     June 5-6, 1862
     July 1, 1862
     July 1, 1862
     July 2-10, 1862
     August 12-13, 1862
     August 18-25, 1862
    Folder   4  
     April 1863
     July 6-August 8, 1866
     March 17-26, 1867
     August 30, 1867
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    The Clements Library's Thomas J. Chew family papers contain a letter addressed to John R. Goldsborough from Amos Kendall (November 16, 1829).

    The John Rodgers papers contain letters written by Goldsborough's father, Charles Washington Goldsborough.

    The Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia has a 1862 letter from Goldsborough to his wife.


    Jones, Terry L. Historical dictionary of the Civil War. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2002.