Monday, July 28, 2014

Dear diary

Many Civil War historians begin their journeys the way I did, thinking that getting their hands on soldiers’ diaries is the key to learning what the war was really like. With few exceptions in my experience, this proves to be a false notion. Most Civil War diarists wrote sparsely and sporadically. Some, especially those who had grown up on farms, simply recorded the weather. Others made regular entries consisting of observations like “On guard duty” or “Drill and dress parade.”

Rev. Elias Nason
The real grist of human history about the Civil War is to be found in soldiers’ letters home. These tend to be candid, personal and expansive. Before Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, for example, Union soldiers often rested after battle. They wanted their relatives and friends at home to know precisely what they had gone through, and their letters often show this in detail.

There are exceptions – diaries written during the war that add real flavor to the daily life of military service or record the experiences, opinions, reflections and impressions of their keepers. For this blog I have condensed two such diaries into multi-part series that are among the most frequently read posts on In case you’ve missed them, here are brief introductions to them with links.

The first is a home-front diary, written by the Rev. Elias Nason of Exeter, a highly political southern New Hampshire private-school town of 3,000 at the time of the war.  This diary is interesting in its own right, but it has anothe distinction: It was published during the war. Nason, who turned 50 years old in 1861, had each year’s work bound and issued shortly after he finished it. The first volume was titled Brief Record of Events on Exeter, N.H., during the Year 1861 Together with the Names of the Soldiers of this Town in the War.

Nason introduced the diary by writing that the year would always be remembered for the “most stupendous and wickedest rebellion the world has ever known; and as every correct history of the country must devise its sources in a measure from the current events of the individual towns which make up its sovereignty," he offered “this little brochure” – his first volume – “as a New Year’s Offering to our patriotic and worthy citizens.”

Here are links to the posts from Nason’s diary: 1861, 1862 and 1863.


The diary of Capt. Robert Emory Park of the 12th Alabama Infantry is different from Nason’s but equally rich. What I have condensed in three parts is the portion of the diary covering Park’s time in captivity after his capture at the third battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864. I added a fourth post giving his account of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of of Gettysburg.

Only 17 when the war broke out, Park remained a Confederate diehard till the war’s end. In his diary he was candid and expansive about his views of slavery, the American flag, the nation’s history, the 1864 election, Sherman’s March, the taking of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, the Lincoln assassination and the capture of Jefferson Davis. He also records his uneasiness at having to take the oath of allegiance to the United States required of prisoners for a ticket home.

The three posts on Park’s diary are here, here and here. His Gettysburg experience is chronicled here.

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