Are soldier's letters and diaries worth studying?

Lubliner

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
I think you could catch a glimpse into a daily life that offers more than just a commander's battle report. Because the common soldier that often made up the lower ranks was always on guard when dealing with authority, the private journal would allow more insight into morale and a more sensitive awareness at any particular time. Even if it is only weather, that soldier must have deemed it important enough to write it down every day. As to why he did so would be the crux to understanding the soldier. Being of a military rank yourself @major bill, you may have fun picking through the journals and viewing them in a relative light of that rank, IMO.
Lubliner.
 
Joined
Jun 12, 2016
Location
Memphis
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?
Are these letters and diaries civilian? I find reading through civilian letters rather interesting, but it really depends on what I'm willing to invest my time in reading.
 

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
I only thumbed through them for a half hour. Most appear to be correspondence from soldiers to thier families. I think some families donated other period items as well. I did not see a bunch of men in uniforms in the photo albums. When I looked at the card catalog (no longer on cards), the catalogs were not too detailed and not real helpful; often the catalog listed these as Civil War "family papers". The real asset of the Clarke Library is that years ago they produced microfilms of newspapers and have a good collection of Michigan Civil War era newspapers. I go spoiled by living a mile from the State of Michigan Library which has all but a few of the surviving Michigan Civil War era newspapers on microfilm.
 
Joined
Jun 12, 2016
Location
Memphis
I only thumbed through them for a half hour. Most appear to be correspondence from soldiers to thier families. I think some families donated other period items as well. I did not see a bunch of men in uniforms in the photo albums. When I looked at the card catalog (no longer on cards), the catalogs were not too detailed and not real helpful; often the catalog listed these as Civil War "family papers". The real asset of the Clarke Library is that years ago they produced microfilms of newspapers and have a good collection of Michigan Civil War era newspapers. I go spoiled by living a mile from the State of Michigan Library which has all but a few of the surviving Michigan Civil War era newspapers on microfilm.
What operarational security infractions do you find in the letters, if any? I like to look for the advertisements, if any, in CW era papers. That's awesome you live so close to "access" those letters and microfilms.
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
I will admit that I´ve read some really dull soldier correspondence. Not all of it is equal in value. When all it says are things like ¨In answering the question so and so asked - no¨ or ¨did you receive the receipt I sent you 2 months ago¨ it can get old pretty quickly.
 

Arioch

Sergeant
Annual Winner
Joined
Dec 24, 2010
By the way, just an FYI for others, I have been in contact through the years, with the US Army History barracks in Carlisle. Great source...they have been kind enough through the years to make copies or transcripts for me, when I've requested. I've thought a lot about what to do with the material I personally have. My intention is to one day donate the diary, all of my own notes, gatherings, writings, sources, etc...To the USMHI when the time comes. They have been the most outstanding, and helpful institution I have dealt with through the years on this topic.

Once upon a time I contacted the Smithsonian about the diary (I was 15 - 16 at the time)...they could have given a s**t...nasty, condescending, dismissive (go away little boy)...and I was offering to donate it at the time.

The USMHI genuinely cares about this stuff...and since there is still not as much written about the unit, I'll make a contribution to their holdings...and let others dissect and argue about what I managed to find out and document.
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
The Smithsonian is like the nation´s attic; it´s full of stuff that will never see the light of day again. Honestly, it´s full. While I won´t defend a superior-than-thou attitude, I do understand that a soldier diary would not be as interesting to them as it would be to the historical society in the soldier´s hometown, or even a state archivist.
 
Joined
Sep 28, 2013
Location
Southwest Mississippi
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?
Yes.

IMHO it's worth reading all letters and journals.
Every reaction you have received from other CWT members is correct.

A Soldier loved to receive letters from home and write letters when he was able.
"Fake news" or whatever ... these guys were not going to write home to their Mothers or Sisters, detailing the graphic horrors of what they had been through.

I'm lucky to have have read letters from my relatives in the 7th Mississippi after Shiloh.
All letters were pretty much the same.
Not one letter mentioned the thousands of corpses everywhere, but only referred to the battle in generic terms.
Such as :

"By now I'm sure you've read of the great battle and I'm OK, but John Smith from over in the next County was hurt" .

Such letters (at times) are indeed boring ... but their words give tremendous insight to life on the front, in camp, and back home.

These guys were not generals.
They had no idea if/where they would be marching the next day.

But yeah ... their letters are very much worth reading.
 
Joined
Sep 28, 2013
Location
Southwest Mississippi
This is very true...it can be a bit of pot luck....the one I have is 6 months of nothing...and then it explodes...
Perfect example.

I read through so many very early War letters about mundane concerns ( clothes, pots & pans, how are the livestock, did the rain damage the cotton crop ?) stuff like that. That's when these guys were on our gulf Coast.

Then BOOM, the Battle of New Orleans erupts a few miles away, and within a short time these guys have been sent up the railroad to
a very distant North Mississippi town called Corinth. ( Just a few miles from a Tennessee village called Shiloh) .

After that battle, most letters stopped for a few months.

But from reading these letters up to Shiloh, they were all griping about their officers & the weather.
 
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CaptSpook

Private
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
I think you could catch a glimpse into a daily life that offers more than just a commander's battle report. Because the common soldier that often made up the lower ranks was always on guard when dealing with authority, the private journal would allow more insight into morale and a more sensitive awareness at any particular time. Even if it is only weather, that soldier must have deemed it important enough to write it down every day. As to why he did so would be the crux to understanding the soldier. Being of a military rank yourself @major bill, you may have fun picking through the journals and viewing them in a relative light of that rank, IMO.
Lubliner.
Personal accounts of the war provides us with at least some insight from soldiers and sailors that are difficult to garner from other sources. Letters and journals often provide me with an appreciation of not only the individual's war experiences but also, the socio-economic, religious, and political atmosphere in which I can then form a context under which those events took place. "Period context" is essential in our understanding the underlying motives of folks from any period of history.
 

fiddle1863

Private
Joined
Sep 22, 2019
Location
Tennessee
Funny this thread should pop up now. I give living history presentations on the aspects of the music of the CW period. I need to scale down a project I am doing, which really requires more diving into letters, diaries, so on. Letters are, as you all have mentioned... mostly dry stuff. But I will ask here... has anyone come across references that you have found from your letter reading, to any of the music played within camps, as well as the regimental bands? Need to add that I probably have found most of the readily accessible info to music during that period, through dedicated books and of course, the internet! lol

At this point I am looking for additional personal references to details that may not be among the thousand times over, copied quotes. Anything, but unique would be golden. Like... "the (fiddler) we had was wounded... found out he was a she." (like a Gettysburg drummer was; really!) Etc.

A couple of years ago I spoke to Dr. James Davis; SUNY, a musicologist who wrote 2 or 3 books on the subject of CW music. He had never found any reference to women and the fiddle back then, not surprisingly. My own research revealed one, a then famous European classical violinist who made her way to America antebellum and settled in Nashville. She married an officer, lost him and her history goes dark until she moved back north and began concertizing again, often with the beloved band director, PS Gilmore - believe it or not. :smile: So it would indeed be scarce but then again, there were likely a good thousand women cross dressers who participated, and a few musicians were among them.

But just as much...I hope to find more input re: the exchange of tunes played on the eve of Stones River, or after Fredericksburg. I need lines from diaries, journals, etc, not links to the popular CW sites/music stories. Some of them btw, are incorrect re: the timing of the bands who played (no pun intended, lol) as writers seem to copy each other's material too often. Found this digging deeper.

Anyone recall anything? Or point me to something. I will add that live a half hour from LMU in TN. When the Lincoln Library and Museum on campus finally reopens, (Oct?) I may have to just move to Harrogate to save gas. 😊 Sorry for the length, TY!
 

JimN

Cadet
Joined
Dec 3, 2014
I think they are definitely important to study. Many are mundane but the ones with good content from either a Private to a General can be very useful. An author uses a primary source such as a letter to form an opinion but it’s only one author’s opinion. I think many Civil War readers in general take an authors work as the last word but reading any primary source can result in differing opinions.
I recently bought some Civil War letters from a Captain in the 5th Excelsior Regiment (74th New York) and some by his son in the 155th Pennsylvania. They are fun to read.
 
Joined
Sep 28, 2013
Location
Southwest Mississippi
Letters are, as you all have mentioned... mostly dry stuff. But I will ask here... has anyone come across references that you have found from your letter reading, to any of the music played within camps, as well as the regimental bands?
Great question !

Of all of the letters I've read, none of the guys mention the regimental band.

However, I seem to recall a few letters referring to the sound of drums if something serious was about to take place.
 
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Joined
Mar 19, 2018
Funny this thread should pop up now. I give living history presentations on the aspects of the music of the CW period. I need to scale down a project I am doing, which really requires more diving into letters, diaries, so on. Letters are, as you all have mentioned... mostly dry stuff. But I will ask here... has anyone come across references that you have found from your letter reading, to any of the music played within camps, as well as the regimental bands? Need to add that I probably have found most of the readily accessible info to music during that period, through dedicated books and of course, the internet! lol

At this point I am looking for additional personal references to details that may not be among the thousand times over, copied quotes. Anything, but unique would be golden. Like... "the (fiddler) we had was wounded... found out he was a she." (like a Gettysburg drummer was; really!) Etc.

A couple of years ago I spoke to Dr. James Davis; SUNY, a musicologist who wrote 2 or 3 books on the subject of CW music. He had never found any reference to women and the fiddle back then, not surprisingly. My own research revealed one, a then famous European classical violinist who made her way to America antebellum and settled in Nashville. She married an officer, lost him and her history goes dark until she moved back north and began concertizing again, often with the beloved band director, PS Gilmore - believe it or not. :smile: So it would indeed be scarce but then again, there were likely a good thousand women cross dressers who participated, and a few musicians were among them.

But just as much...I hope to find more input re: the exchange of tunes played on the eve of Stones River, or after Fredericksburg. I need lines from diaries, journals, etc, not links to the popular CW sites/music stories. Some of them btw, are incorrect re: the timing of the bands who played (no pun intended, lol) as writers seem to copy each other's material too often. Found this digging deeper.

Anyone recall anything? Or point me to something. I will add that live a half hour from LMU in TN. When the Lincoln Library and Museum on campus finally reopens, (Oct?) I may have to just move to Harrogate to save gas. 😊 Sorry for the length, TY!
I have a letter that the writer IF I REMEMBER correctly states " The band was playing the Death March " for a soldier who died of disease.
 
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