Are soldier's letters and diaries worth studying?

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
I recently moved to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. I now live close to Clarke Library at Central Michigan University which is a good library for research. One of the things the Clarke Library has is letters and diaries from the Civil War. The letters and diaries I have read is on the dry side and to honest usually do not contain much new information. When I do research their would it be worth sending an hour or two reading these letters and diaries?
 
Joined
Mar 19, 2018
I have several letters and find that most are not very exciting as for battle content. I still find something interesting in each letter from camp news , fake news , sickness and disease, seeing someone famous and what they are eating etc. Considering they did not fight everyday where weeks or months would go before they saw any action they wrote whatever their love ones might want to hear . My favorite letter is a soldier asking his girl friend to Marry him if he survives the war. There are several books based on letters if that would help with your research. What are you looking for ? Good luck !
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
Yes, they are worth it, but only if it´s related to things you´re interested in. If your interest is soldier life, or the soldiers of a particular regiment or geographical area, or you´re looking for soldier perceptions of things that were happening at a given time, then, yes, they´re worth your time. If your interest is in the big movements of troops, or the naval war, or something more remote, then they aren´t really worth the time invested for you. Move on to something else.
 

Arioch

Sergeant
Annual Winner
Joined
Dec 24, 2010
I think it gets down to a personal level...'is it worth it to you?'

I can only speak from my own personal experience. A soldier's diary had come down through my family...It's a long story (I won't go into detail here, it's not the point of this thread).

I ended up with the item when I was about 15 yrs. old...and it launched me on my own ACW journey. It started out with the basic question "Is this thing for real?"...Yes, it is...but that was just the first question to be answered. Once I had gathered enough evidence to prove to myself (and interested others) that it was the real deal, I moved on to studying and corroborating it...a lifetime of fun ensued...What an adventure!

I may have been very lucky, as well, that I have a rather fun one to do this with...There is nothing earth shaking or new in the diary. However, the author name drops wonderfully...is surprisingly good at trying his best to document his units movements and brief descriptions of engagements. So,...as the onion gradually unpeeled, I began to realize what I had on my hands.

I'll leave it here, but just a brief listing of what is in it:

Of course camp life, mentions of family (very helpful in tracking down lineage and corroboration efforts)
A who's who of Union ACW personages he dealt with or met: Lincoln, McClellan, Meade, McCall, FJ Porter, King, Banks, Butterfield, Martindale, Seymour, Reynolds, etc...

Engagements personally involved in:

- 7 days (Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Glendale / Frayser's Farm/ Charles City Crossroads / White Oak Swamp, & Malvern Hill)
- 2nd Bull Run (and Groveton)
- South Mountain
- Antietam (both days)
- Fredericksburg (all 3 days)

...and the troops (his) movements for these engagements...this was good stuff!...Dig out the maps! (and I did).

There are other things I subsequently deciphered which was a lot of fun to discover...a turn of a phrase that you discover what he's talking about....etc...fun stuff!
 

29thWisCoG

Corporal
Joined
Apr 12, 2021
If it's personally relevant to you and what you are studying! A soldier from my ancestor's regiment published a diary and without it I could not have been able to learn details of his service. Also, one of my ancestor's brigadier general wrote letters to his wife that were later published and that has been extremely insightful as well.
 

drezac

Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
May 4, 2014
Location
Baltimore,Ohio
That can be very hard to determine. In doing research on the Ohio State House Guns, I had to decide not to read each page in the letterpress books due to the vast amount ( each book had 600-900 pages, and there were many books) - I finally decided to just look at the entries based on the index in the front and only read letters sent to individuals that I knew had contact with the guns. I know I have missed items, as I found some things in the letter press books by accident when going to a particular page number.
When I was working with the letters received by the Governor and Adjutant general, I had to read all of the letters since there were no indexes. I developed a quasi speed reading method, where I would quickly scan the page for specific key words. When I found one, then I would read the entire letter.
 

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
Joined
May 27, 2019
Location
Mississippi
There are different levels of perception and interpretation from each individual as they try to put into writing what they experienced or were experiencing. Some go into great depths of details, some are very generic. But all give a great insight into the experiences of soldiers during the war. All are certainly worth studying as we all try to make sense of the great American experience called The Civil War.
 

John Hartwell

Major
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Joined
Aug 27, 2011
Location
Central Massachusetts
Whatever your specific interest, some are valuable, many others aren't. But, you never know where you might find that gold nugget -- or maybe the mother-lode! -- unless you keep digging.

I've closely eye-scanned hundreds of letters/diaries, took notes on a quarter of them, and fully transcribed perhaps 5% of them.
 
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Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Member of the Month
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
These documents belong to Clarke Library, right? Then do what you would do with any primary or secondary document: skim over it to determine its usefulness to you. If you suspect that there may be a "gold nugget," don't just skim, but read. If you transcribe everything, you're apt to wind up with a lot of paper that you don't intend to use but which you may feel obligated to store (I'll bet that the library has more storage place than you do).

These documents are primary and of tremendous potential worth. But maybe not to you.
 

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Diaries are a rich source of information on the daily life of a soldier. Their brevity is a shortcoming, but the first-hand impressions of the author’s personal experiences over an extended period are very valuable. They often assist in understanding a particular unit’s role in a battle. Generally they are particularly helpful with understanding weather conditions, details of a march, casualties, various orders, the condition of the men, desertions, leadership appraisals, rations, mail delivered or sent, clothing issues, news about other fronts, and other information, especially from a soldier assigned as a musician or who served on a special duty detail.

Letters are similar, but offer more detail and offer rich insights on the home front, with more candor than ever appears in official correspondence.

Incidentally, if you find any diaries or letters pertaining to the Gettysburg campaign, I hope you will share them!
 
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major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
I just got home from the Clarke Library. They brought out three boxes of Civil War diaries, letters, and photo albums. I only had an extra half hour to thumb through them. I would have to prioritize them and concentrate on Michigan items. There are items from soldiers from other states who moved to Michigan post Civil War.
 

tony_gunter

Corporal
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
Mississippi
I recently moved to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. I now live close to Clarke Library at Central Michigan University which is a good library for research. One of the things the Clarke Library has is letters and diaries from the Civil War. The letters and diaries I have read is on the dry side and to honest usually do not contain much new information. When I do research their would it be worth sending an hour or two reading these letters and diaries?
You’ll find some that are nearly useless. One diary I found recorded nothing but the day’s weather.

Some of them give very detailed descriptions of events. It’s a grab bag 😃
 

John Hartwell

Major
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 27, 2011
Location
Central Massachusetts
I just got home from the Clarke Library. They brought out three boxes of Civil War diaries, letters, and photo albums. I only had an extra half hour to thumb through them. I would have to prioritize them and concentrate on Michigan items. There are items from soldiers from other states who moved to Michigan post Civil War.

Are they cataloged or calendared in any way? Or just unorganized in boxes?
 

Pete Longstreet

2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Location
Hartford, CT
I've found that letters and diary entries, when pertaining to the war or battles just fought, are very interesting. To me, officers reports (OR's) and letters are written in the moment or shortly thereafter. They tend to be more accurate and truthful, rather than memoirs written years after the war. OR's tend to hold more weight when it comes to accuracy, and I would put a soliders diary in that category. Like we've seen in some memoirs, the person writing them years after the war may have an ulterior motive, or may not remember things exactly as if they were written in the moment.
 

tony_gunter

Corporal
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
Mississippi
I've found that letters and diary entries, when pertaining to the war or battles just fought, are very interesting. To me, officers reports (OR's) and letters are written in the moment or shortly thereafter. They tend to be more accurate and truthful, rather than memoirs written years after the war. OR's tend to hold more weight when it comes to accuracy, and I would put a soliders diary in that category. Like we've seen in some memoirs, the person writing them years after the war may have an ulterior motive, or may not remember things exactly as if they were written in the moment.
OR reports in the Vicksburg Campaign suffer the same errors. The situations were so fluid, many of the reports weren’t filed until weeks after the battles, if at all.

OR reports also tend to be at the 5,000 foot level. It’s interesting to get the perspectives of the men engaged. In the Vicksburg Campaign, it’s absolutely critical to understanding what was going on. Especially with regard to James McPherson, Grant’s confidence in him rendered many of his reports so lacking in details that they’re useless from an interpretation standpoint because he felt no need to justify or explain anything.
 
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