Magazine article — 'Life on the front line'
holding the diary.
This article originally appeared in 'Discover' magazine, issue 28 (PDF) (3.2 MB; 36 pages).
Curator's choice — Dora Petherbridge, United States and Commonwealth Curator
From the Virginia swamplands to the National Library, this pocket diary offers a glimpse into the life of an American Civil War soldier.
The unknown author of this tiny, fragile diary was a Union private fighting in Confederate Virginia in 1862, the second year of the American Civil War. Irrepressible tensions between the industrial North and agrarian, slave-holding South had escalated and war broke out at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
An unknown soldier
The diary, donated to the National Library in the 1970s, fits into the palm of a hand. It is a treasured relic from the 'War of Northern Aggression' or of 'Rebellion', as the conflict is variously known. Its diminutive size is striking, but its imaginative possibilities are compelling — how old was the solider; what was his background; did he tuck this little book into the pocket of his blue uniform?
From deciphering the now faded handwriting on the worn, grubby pages of the diary, it's clear the soldier was in camp and battle between the James and Chickahominy rivers on the Virginia Peninsula. The brief entries, running from early May until 8 September 1862, record the soldier's duties and the highlights of his days: 'inspection of arms'; 'on the march'; 'got Payed [sic]'; 'posted a Letter home'; 'got new pants and new Boots'.
Union campaigns and battles
We believe the soldier was involved in the Union's Peninsula campaign, particularly its culmination — the Seven Days' Battles. Noting where he was 'on picket', scouting and fighting, the soldier maps his march toward Richmond, and then retreat to Yorktown as the 'Rebels' drove back Union regiments.
Richmond, the Confederate States' capital, was hugely significant for both the North and South. Hampered by stormy weather, difficult terrain, and the need for more troops, General George McClellan's effort to seize the South's seat of power failed. General Robert E Lee and his Confederate Army held the city.
On 30 June 1862, towards the end of the Confederate counter-offensive ending the Peninsula campaign, our soldier writes, 'very hard fiting [sic] we fall back weak'. And again the next day, 'very Hard Fiting [sic] we fall Back in the night'. Eventually, after further fighting in early July, the soldier states 'all Quiett [sic]'.
A soldier's hard life
For troops on both sides conditions were punishing. Scant rations, exhaustion, and the spread of disease took their toll. It is against the background of daily hardship that this soldier writes, and it is the weather, the marching, issuing of whisky, and the arrival of letters from home that he finds noteworthy. He neither mentions secession nor states' rights, or the issue of slavery.
Thinking of this soldier as one of thousands who were at the mercy of political and military decisions, his entry for Thursday 17 July 1862 is particularly touching: 'One Tear in my nice Quilt'. An acutely personal experience noted between battles which would shape the fate of the United States of America.
A fragile relic
In transcribing this diary, I am indebted to the help of Christopher Minty, who carried out research for his PhD in history at the Library. Chris, who I have worked with on many fascinating items in our American collections, described the 'visceral charge' of the item, and how it gives a sense of immediacy to a war which ended 150 years ago.
The fragility of the diary conveys the vulnerability of the private in the midst of a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers. It is extraordinary that this soldier's quiet, battle-worn voice has survived.