Diaries and Letters from Soldiers

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Diaries and Letters from Soldiers

Writing letters to loved ones and keeping personal journals was one of the primary ways in which Civil War soldiers passed the time in camp or at the end of a long day's march. These activities relieved the tedium of a soldier's life and served as the main vehicle through which Rebels and Yankees maintained their emotional ties to family and friends back home. Penning correspondence to loved ones and the exercise of diary keeping also had significant therapeutic benefits for many battle-scarred soldiers.

The themes that the soldiers explored in these notes, letters, and journal entries were repeated again and again. Recollections of battlefield experiences and emotions were a major and often cathartic focus, but far more sentences were devoted to wistful expressions of love for wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, and children back home. Accounts of daily life in camp also took up a lot of space in letters and dairies. One historian observed that "[t]hey used ink and pencil, even crayons. They wrote on foolscap and parchment, in the margins of newspapers and on the back of wallpaper. When a precious sheet of paper was filled, if there was more to say they gave the sheet a quarter turn and cross-wrote over what they had already written" (Davis 1991, p. 39).

Pining for Loved Ones

Of all the topics that soldiers wrote about during the Civil War, perhaps none were written about with the same fervor as those of homesickness and love for absent family. Some soldiers maintained some measure of restraint and formality on these topics in their letters and journal entries, but many other war-weary Rebels and Yankees wrote with emotional abandon. "I am sick and tird [sic] of the war and I want to see you and the children the worst in the world," wrote one private in the Ohio 1st in 1862. "I wood [sic] give my monthly wages and my hundred dollars bounty to be at home" (McPherson 1997, p. 256).

Like many other men caught up in the conflict, Confederate surgeon Harvey Black showed a fondness for reliving past days of domestic bliss in his letters home. In a November 1863 letter to his wife Mollie, for example, he recalled the joys of their courtship:

The happy day of our marriage arrived and since then, hours, days, and years of time, confidence & happiness passed rapidly away, and only to make us feel that happy as were the hours of youthful days, they compare not with those of later years and perhaps even these may not be equal to that which is in reserve for us. I don't know how much pleasure it affords you to go over these days of the past, but to me they will ever be remembered as days of felicity. And how happy the thought that years increase the affection & esteem we have for each other to love & be loved. May it ever be so, and may I ever be a husband worthy of your warmest affections. (November 1, 1863)

Honor and Sacrifice

Patriotism was another favorite topic in the correspondence and journal entries of soldiers fighting under the Union and Confederate banners. One of the most famous letters of the entire war was written by Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861. In this letter, which is suffused with powerful expressions of love for his wife, Ballou nonetheless signals his willingness to sacrifice himself to the Union cause.

If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready…. My courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt. (Ballou 1888, p. 1058)

Ballou did remain true to his word, and sacrificed himself to the Union cause a week after this letter was written to his dear wife Sarah.

Many Confederate soldiers expressed equally heartfelt feelings about the importance of duty and honor. In one letter home, a Georgia native gently rebuked his wife for a previous letter in which she had told him that his daughters were pleading for their father's return.

I came to the war because I felt it to be my duty…. I am not going to run away[;] if I never come home I had rather di[e] without seeing them than for pe[o]ple to tell them after I am dead that their father was a deserter…. It [is] every Southern man[']s duty to fight against abolition misrule and preserve his Liberty untarnished which was won by our fore Fathers [sic]. (McPherson 1997, p. 138)

Soldiers in both armies also expressed profound anger at men back home who avoided military service. They equated such evasion with cowardice and absence of moral scruples, and reserved special scorn for wealthy countrymen who used various draft exemptions to avoid shouldering their fair share of the burden.

I have come here and left everything that is dear to me on earth to fight and suffer all manner of hardships to protect property, not my own, whilst many of them who have property are still at home with their families—in fact they are the ones as a general rule that stay at home," wrote one bitter Rebel from South Carolina. "Will we poor soldiers ever be recompensed for what we are doing? I fear not (Reid 1892, p. 13).

An Alabama soldier voiced similar sentiments, denouncing "the miserable gilded coward who remains in the rear to fatten like a hyena over the grave of his country" (Williams 1981, p. 146).

Soldiers' ink also turned venomous on the subject of civilian critics of the war (known as "Copperheads" in the North). "It is outrageous and abominable that the Army must be slandered and abused by the cowards that stay at home," wrote a Massachusetts officer in 1864 (Brewster 1992, p. 298).

Tales of Hardship and Horror

Another recurring topic in the letters, journals, and diaries that survived the war was everyday discomfort, hunger, and hardship. In one representative passage from a Confederate soldier's diary, a long march to Chattanooga that was interrupted by a wonderful and unexpected bounty is described: "I remember I found some apples about the size of a quail's egg, under an apple tree and I ate about as many as I could hold, and that night we were notified that we could draw some rations but I was too tired and sleepy to get up. I was about petered out and had done without rations so long I was not hungry" (Robertson 1988, p. 110). Sentiments such as these were legion, in letters and journals written by Yankee and Rebel alike.

Such excerpts provide important insights into the everyday experiences of hungry, poorly equipped, weary, and—in many cases—disillusioned soldiers. But they pale next to the vivid descriptions of battle found in many letters and journal entries. Some soldiers, clinging to conventions of masculinity, were loathe to admit the fear they undoubtedly felt, but other were frank about their terror and anguish.

Nonetheless, the historical record is generously sprinkled with letters and diary entries that make it clear that "seeing the elephant"—experiencing combat firsthand—was a terrifying experience. After the epic Battle of Antietam, for example, a Union officer with a New York regiment acknowledged that "I don't pretend to say I wasn't afraid, and I must say that I did not see a face but that turned pale or hear a voice that did not tremble" (McPherson 1997, p. 37) in the moments leading up to the battle. A captain in a North Carolina regiment was similarly candid, noting that even after acquitting himself well in several battles, he still approached every battle "badly scared … I am not as brave as I thought I was. I never wanted out of a place as bad in my life" (McPherson 1997, p. 37).

Some soldiers writing about actual battle scenes, meanwhile, were not inclined to spare their readers from the brutal realities of war. Writing in his journal, a Tennessee infantryman recalled one harrowing Union assault on his company's position:

A solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns [was] poured right onto our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush our of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium. Afterward I heard a soldier express himself by saying that he thought 'Hell had broke loose in Georgia, sure enough' (Watkins 1882 [1987], p. 157).

On the whole, however, soldiers were hesitant to recount the gritty details of war and hardship with their relatives and friends back home.

Survivors of these orgies of bloodletting often could not help but comment on the hellish tableaus that prevailed after the rifles and cannons finally fell silent. One soldier at the Battle of Chancellorsville wrote that

[O]ur line of battle extended over some eight miles and for that distance you see the dead bodies of the enemy lying in every direction, some with their heads shot off, some with their brains oozing out, some pierced through the head with musket balls, some with their noses shot away, some with their mouths smashed, some wounded in the neck, some with broken arms or legs, some shot through the breast and some cut in two with shells (Linderman 1987, p. 125).

Army surgeons offered similarly bleak perspectives in their journals and letters. "Oh! It is awful," wrote one field surgeon. "It does not seem as though I could take a knife in my hand to-day, yet there are a hundred cases of amputation waiting for me. Poor fellows come and beg almost on their knees for the first chance to have an arm taken off. It is a scene of horror such as I never saw" (Bowen 1884, p. 304).

Brothers in Arms

Soldiers also wrote at length about the officers who commanded them. Some passages sang the praises of captains who were brave, knowledgeable, and attentive to the needs of the men under their commands. At times, however, the lines written about officers dripped with anger and disillusionment. Special bitterness was reserved for those officers who did not share in the hardships experienced by common soldiers. One Confederate soldier, for example, griped that his regimental commanders

had their black cooks, who were out foraging all the time, and they filled their masters' bellies if there was fish or fowl to be had. The regimental wagons carried the officers' clothes, and they were never half-naked, lousy, or dirty. They never had to sleep upon the bare ground nor carry forty rounds of cartridges strapped around their galled hips; the officers were never unshod or felt the torture of stone-bruise" (Hunter 1905, p. 517).

A far different tone prevailed when Union and Confederate soldiers wrote about their fellow enlisted men, however. These descriptions of comrades-in-arms were usually littered with references to brotherhood, shared sacrifice, and mutual respect. After the epic Seven Days battles, for example, a private from the 83rd Pennsylvania—which suffered 75 percent casualties—wrote that "it seems strange how much the rest of our company has become united since the battles. They are almost like brothers in one family now. We used to have the 'aristocratic tent' and 'tent of the upper ten,' and so on, but there is nothing of that kind now. We have all lost dear friends and common sorrow makes us all equal" (McPherson 1997, p. 87).

Letters and journals also provide ample evidence that fraternization between armies was not uncommon, at least in some theatres, especially in the latter stages of the Civil War. After a friendly meeting between the troops near Kenesaw Mountain in 1864, a member of Sherman's army in a letter to his parents remarked:

We made a bargain with them that we would not fire on them if they would not fire on us, and they were as good as their word. It seems too bad that we have to fight men that we like. Now these Southern soldiers seem just like our own boys… They talk about … their mothers and fathers and their sweethearts just as we do. …Both sides did a lot of talking but there was no shooting until I came off duty in the morning. (Wiley 1943 [1992], p. 356)

A final subject that was frequently discussed was the character of the people and land that came under occupation. Yankee troops were convinced of the superior industry and culture of the North, and when they traveled through the South they searched for evidence to support that notion. Their letters described, at length, the Southern climate, agriculture, housing, cities, and civic populations, both white and black (Mitchell 1988, p. 90). One of the recurring topics in their narratives of Southern life was evidence of the depravity of slavery. Not surprisingly, soldiers from rural areas of the North who had little experience with blacks also wrote at length about their impressions of the blacks they encountered.

Many of these letters and diaries exhibited little sympathy for Southerners and the difficult conditions in which they existed during the last years of the war. Union soldiers saw the straits in which Southerners found themselves as a fitting punishment for their rebellion. But empathy for hungry Southern civilians could still be found in some letters and journals. "All I pity are the little children," wrote one New York soldier stationed in Virginia in December 1864. "They look up so sad with so much astonishment wondering, I presume, why we are all armed, filling their little hearts with terror, & why they are all so destitute & why Papa is not at home attending to their wants in this bleak, cold winter weather. Poor children! They know not they are suffering the curse of treason" (Mitchell 1988, p. 117).

Mail Call

Civil War soldiers also treasured letters they received from wives, children, parents, and friends. "For soldiers in the field," observed one historian, "an unreliable postal service was the only link to home. When mail did get through, each letter was treated almost as a sacred relic…. If soldiers felt great joy on receiving a cherished letter, they also experienced deep depression when no word came" (Williams 2005, p. 239–40). Indeed, one Confederate soldier reported that "those who received letters went off with radiant countenances. If it was night, each built a fire for light and, sitting down on the ground, read his letter over and over. Those unfortunates who got none went off looking as if they had not a friend on earth" (Worsham 1912, p. 98).

Mail call became more psychologically important as the war progressed as well. As memories of home and loved ones became hazier with time, tangible evidence that people back home still had the weary soldiers in their thoughts was crucial to shoring up morale. As one Union soldier bluntly stated in a letter to his sister, "I had rather have letters now than clothes" (Gordon 2002, p. 328). But just as messages of love sent spirits soaring, tales of woe—usually in the form of financial hardship—eroded the spirits of soldiers whose psyches were already frayed by war and its many discomforts and brutalities.


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Williams, James M. From That Terrible Field: Civil War Letters of James M. Williams, Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Volunteers, ed. John Kent Folmar. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1981.

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Kevin Hillstrom