Historic letter returns to Owenton more than 150 years after its departure

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By Molly Haines

In November 1929, dozens of newspapers across Ohio carried an unusual headline, “Mystery Letters of Camp Chase Are Being Delivered.”
The number of the so-called mystery letters exceeded 200, many of them written on Easter Day, 1862. The letters were written to and for Confederate prisoners lodged at Camp Chase, a Union military staging and training camp established in Columbus, Ohio during the Civil War. It also included a Union-operated prison camp.
For reasons unknown, the letters were never delivered. A story in the Mansfield, Ohio, “News-Journal,” dated Nov. 1, 1929, offers little insight.
“The ‘mystery letters’ are so-called because although most of them were posted in April 1862, none was ever delivered to the addressee and no satisfactory explanation has been given as to why they were not,” the newspaper reported. “They were properly posted, and according to historians, complied with all federal restrictions as to both length and content. They bore the ‘okay’ of federal war-time censorship authorities, but still, they never reached their destinations.”
Some 40 years after the Civil War’s end, the letters were discovered by Ohio State Librarian C.B. Galbreath in a mailbag in a seldom-used storage area in the Ohio state capitol building in Columbus, Ohio, and remained in the custody of the library for the next 25 years.
In 1929, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) took responsibility for trying to locate surviving descendants of the writers and addressees of the letters.
One such letter, dated “Owenton May 30th 1862,” and written by Mariam “Mollie” Lusby Sidebottom, details the uncertainty of the times.
Sidebottom wrote the letter to her husband — Owen County Sheriff Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Sidebottom — who became incarcerated as a political prisoner at Camp Chase for a brief time in the spring of 1862.
While it is unknown if B.F. Sidebottom sympathized with the Confederacy, John Forsee noted in his “History of Owen County,” “Owen (was) perhaps the best-known county in Kentucky, producing during our civil conflict more rebels to the square yard, and always more Democrats to the square inch, than any county from Big Sandy to the Tennessee line.”
When the UDC began its process of returning the letters to descendants, several members of the Sidebottom family claimed Mollie Sidebottom’s letter, which was eventually given to Mary S. Cobb, Mollie and B.F.’s daughter in the fall of 1929.
Following Cobb’s death in 1937, the letter was passed down to her daughter, Inez Cobb Hutcherson, who specified that after her death it should be given to Mariam Sidebottom Houchens, the granddaughter of Mollie and B.F., known for authoring the “History of Owen County, Ky.,” published in 1976.
Following Houchens’ death in 1986, the letter was given to her son, David Houchens, and on Thursday, March 28, David Houchens, along with his wife, Kathie, returned the letter to Owen County, donating it to the Owen County Historical Society Museum, just in time for the county’s bicentennial celebrations.
The letter reads:
“My dear husband,
“I received your kind letter and knowing you are as anxious to hear from home as I was from you, I hasten to answer it. I should have written before, only I expected you home every day, being assured by the Union men of Owenton that you would be released, and not dreaming that you had gone farther from me. When, oh when will I see you? It appears like two months instead of two weeks had gone. I was so glad to hear you were well. The children are all well. Minnie says tell her Papa she wants him to come home. Frank was asleep when you left and slept until next morning. When he awoke and found you had gone, the tears rolled down his cheeks, which made me feel more than ever I had lost my best friend on earth, but only for a little while, I hope. It will surely be the happiest day of my life when we meet again. God grant it may not be long.
“You were uneasy when you left for fear the children would catch the sore throat from Mrs. Foster’s, but they have had no sign of it as yet. Mollie Foster died the same evening you left. They carried her on Sunday to Greenup and none of the family have as yet returned, owing to several of the other children having taken the same disease. Minnie and Willie have been to school every day. Minnie is delighted. I had to make her go the first day, but she is up and ready long before Willie. Mr. Swope has been here and looked over your executions and says he will see them returned and all fixed up right. I have not seen Mr. Murdoff but once a few minutes. Your notes and papers of all kinds I will take good care of.
“Daisy was here yesterday and I sent your horse to fathers, by her. Father has been here once and stayed all night. He wanted me to go home with him but I thought I had better stay at home and send the children to school every day and attend to my garden which looks very well. My cabbage, I set out the first rain are looking very well and I will have peas in a few days. If you were only here, everything would look bright and beautiful. Everybody around me have been kind and good to me since you left, as they could be. Baby is running around me now laughing and trying his best to talk. Ben, you must send a name for him, and write me what to do and how to manage to get along for I don’t know where to begin first. I will try and do the best I can for the children and still hope it will not be long before I see you. If you need any money, or anything else let me know and I will find a way to get it to you. It is not necessary for me to write anything of your friends families as I believe they are all writing to you. Ben, I wish I could find a way to get you out of that dangerous place. Your friends say they have done everything they could for you, for which I thank them from my heart, but if they could only have brought you back with them.
“Ben take care of yourself and don’t forget your Mollie.”
Following his return to Owenton, B.F. Sidebottom — who was 34 at the time of his imprisonment — resigned his position as sheriff sometime before the Civil War’s end, according to Forsee’s history. He died in 1870 at the age of 42 and was buried in the Lusby Cemetery in Owen County.
Mollie Sidebottom died at age 85 in 1919. She is buried in the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Owenton.
The only remaining part of the Camp Chase prison, according to David Houchens, is the cemetery, which has 2,260 Confederate soldiers buried there.
Along with the framed letter, David Houchens also donated several other items, including a large photo of B.F. Sidebottom. The items may be found at the Owen County Historical Society Museum, located at 206 N. Main St., Owenton.