Sunday, August 18, 2013

Civil War Sunday - The Diaries of War

Were you of the generation that wrote a diary during our childhood, and perhaps kept it up as adults?

I wasn't one of them (which was strange, considering that I started to write stories at an early age) but many of my contemporaries did.

We (I am 60 years old) may well be the last of the handwritten diary/journal generation.  I fear it is a dying practice, although I could be wrong.  I don't count digital diaries or blogs because if the technology that allows them to exist disappears - or changes - future people will have limited or no access to them.

What a shame if that had happened to all those Civil War diaries?

But it didn't.

The other day, a New York Times blog devoted to the Civil War wrote a fascinating pot on the role of diaries in the Civil War.


For many soldiers, their diary was a link to sanity.  They were portable, and in their down time (sometimes there was a lot of down time in the life of a Civil War soldier - it wasn't all forced marches and battles) out would come the diary to record the day's events, frustrations, or grievances.

These diaries were almost like a modern day planner, with the date and a few lines for writing - the soldier, by writing the diary in the space provided, could track the passage of the days.

There was just enough space for a short entry - perfect for the soldier who might be barely literate, or writing in the light of a fire, or writing in the rain.

Some of these Civil War diaries have been published as books, some are even available online.  They offer a fascinating glance into the daily life of a soldier, and - yes, the battles they were in, from their viewpoint.

For our local infantry where I live in New York (the 137th Regiment, NY Volunteers), there is at least one published diary available in book form.  Our 137th was mustered in right after Antietam in September of 1862, and fought in many famous battles including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, plus they participated in Sherman's March to the Sea.

Not only soldiers wrote diaries - civilians did.  Ken Burns, in his famous Civil War series, depended on one of the most famous, the diary of Mary Chesnut.  Chesnut was, in many ways, "in the right place at the right time." 

Her diary has been in print continuously since 1905.

Online, I even found portions of a diary of a Civil War nurse.

There are also many collections of letters, a related topic.

To me, the diaries of women are the most interesting, as this example shows.  Perhaps, when I retire, I will be able to spend more time with this source material and enter the world of those who lived during the Civil War in a way I haven't been able to before.  My family didn't immigrate to the United States until the early 20th century so I have no family connection with the Civil War.  Perhaps that fact is is part of my fascination with the subject as a person who was born in, and grew up in, New York City.

If you are interested, here are several Civil War diaries and collections of letters that are online. The first two are Union and the last two Confederate:
Henry Tisdale (Massachusetts)
Frank Eldredge  (Ohio)
The Hackworth Collection (letters written by an Alabama family before, during, and after the war)
Richard Adams (Alabama), a POW for some two years and one of the Immortal 600.

Does your family own any Civil War diaries or letters of ancestors?

15 comments:

  1. I had never thought about the technology evaporating, but you are absolutely right. No one would have access to what I have created or put out onto the internet.

    Thanks for the thought.

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    1. I've seen too many examples of "evaporating technology" - from the reel to reel tape recorder I owned as a college student, through 8 track tapes, cassettes, floppy disks, and who knows what else in the future.

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  2. It seems a shame that hand-written diaries are no longer fashionable. I've heard of several websites that convert your blog into book form, which would be the way to go if you want to keep a record. It's always interesting to read about past lives.

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    1. I may want to look into one of those websites that convert blogs to book form - except I would probably blanch at the cost!

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  3. Diaries are such a great source of history. I look forward, later this year, to reading Civil War diaries with my son as we study that era. Great post, thanks!

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    1. Have fun in your studies. It is a wonderful thing to educate using source material.

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  4. This is such a wonderful look at history! I enjoyed learning how for many soldiers, keeping a diary helped them to hold on to sanity.

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    1. Thank you - it is an interesting topic.

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  5. Even though I am younger, I remember seeing these types of diaries -- that have just a small space for each day. I think they are an interesting look into the past.

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    1. Yes, it is - and we may (I fear) miss having these diaries in studies of our history, years from now.

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  6. I started writing a 5 year diary a few years back, but gave up after about 18 months! I wish that I had kept it now, as you forget so much!

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    1. It's not too late, Sophie. I'm sorry, in a way, that I didn't keep journals. Memory is fleeting and you can't always trust it.

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  7. I kept a diary when I was much younger and I'm sure I threw it out in later years. I don't know if I have any connection to the Civil War, but it would be interesting to find out. I also worry about the fact that script handwriting is already being phased out in grade schools so that people in the future will need to be specially trained to read any documents written in this form.

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    1. My son, who is in his early 20's, never learned cursive. He can't even sign his name. I never thought about the "reading cursive" aspect but you are absolutely correct.

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  8. I had missed this post. Grateful for those that are published because I think I'd go blind and mad trying to read the handwriting. Great links as always.

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