Letters from Ashland pioneer detail Civil War battle

Letters from Ashland pioneer detail Civil War battle

ASHLAND — A ghost has been said to haunt the city's Black Swan Inn, but owner Tracy Egan says she's has had no problems with the spirit world since she brought the old house back to its historic beauty and paid $1,000 for six letters written by the man who built it, Col. William H. Silsby, during the Civil War.

The touching letters from Silsby to his wife, Helen, and two small sons describe the decisive Battle of Vicksburg and ponder the fate of freed slaves.

The letters will be on display at 6:30 p.m., tonight at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, 258 A St., Suite 7. Ashland actor David Gabri el will read from the letters and historian Jay Mullen will talk about Vicksburg and its significance in the war.

Egan says she bought the letters from a Civil War buff in Mississippi who needed the money to fix his pickup. He tracked her down on the Internet, hoping to sell the letters to someone who would appreciate their connection to Silsby, an early Ashland fruit grower.

He built the Queen Anne-style house at 111 N. Third St., in 1896. It was formerly called Colonel Silsby's Bed & Breakfast and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It has also earned "haunted hotel" status on some Web sites. One guest wrote that showers turned on and off and doors opened and closed during a visit.

Egan bought the inn after she left a corporate career, and she learned about the supposed ghost during an innkeeper's Christmas party. One day when she was working on restoring the building, she was about to climb a ladder when she decided to "have a little talk" with the spirit. She explained that she had a 3-year-old daughter and didn't need anyone tumbling off ladders.

"I would talk to the ghost," she says. "I told (Silsby's wife) Helen that I'd decorated the house nicely and brought the colonel's letters home and had been to pay my respects at their graves at Ashland Cemetery. I'd put the house at ease, and she hasn't bothered me."

Egan took the letters to the Southern Oregon Historical Society, whose staff literally gave them the white-glove treatment while verifying their authenticity. They were transcribed by Joe Peterson, author of a recent book on Ashland history.

The letters were written during the siege of Vicksburg, when Union armies surrounded the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River and slowly starved their opponents into surrender.

"The letters have a personal touch," Egan says. "He talks about starving out a Confederate regiment at Vicksburg, then about the beauty of the land and the wonderful blackberries they picked for cobbler. They usually didn't have fresh food. He worried about who would take care of the slaves when they were freed."

One letter was written on July, 4, 1863, the day the Confederates capitulated.

"Vicksburg is ours," Silsby wrote. "The rebels surrendered and our troops marched into the city this morning. Gen. Pemberton, the rebel General proposed terms of capitulation yesterday. The terms offered by Grant were accepted and we have the place. This is a glorious affair for our army. We are all in good spirits about it."

The Union victory at Vicksburg was a turning point in the Civil War. It gave momentum to the Union armies in the West and secured control of the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two. Coupled with the Union victory at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863, it effectively marked the beginning of the end of the war, although the conflict would drag on for nearly two more years and tens of thousands of soldiers would die.

Another describes the looting of plantations by Union troops.

"These plantations were"¦deserted"¦alas, the rapacity of some of our soldiery has stripped some of these fine residences and broken up almost everything valuable in them," he wrote. "Costly mirrors were broken and other furniture of fine quality was destroyed. This useless destruction is against orders and is"¦perpetrated by stragglers, but too often winked at by generals."

Silsby hailed from Newton, Iowa, where he was a furniture merchant and postmaster. He suffered severe chest wounds in a battle at Cox's Bridge, N.C., and was discharged from the army.

The Silsby house has seen many uses over its nearly 12 decades. It has served as an entomology station for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a wellness center, and it has been a bed and breakfast inn for the past 18 years.

Egan says almost every year someone comes to the door to tell her about ghosts shaking the bed in past years. She says Silsby's letters have shown her "what a warm, intelligent, kind and compassionate man he was, and put this home on a personal level for me."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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