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This Week in History: Scenes from Civil War Diaries

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 28th, 2013

In the midst of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, archives and special collections libraries across the country are gathering their Civil War papers and memorabilia to share with the public.   The West Virginia and Regional History Center is no exception.  The WVRHC holds a vast array of material from the Civil War period, including personal diaries and journals.  The excerpts below give readers a glimpse of what life was like for people in central Appalachia in late May during the war years.

The following three excerpts are from a diary of Marcia Louise Sumner Phillips of French Creek and Buckhannon, [West] Virginia (A&M 1846).  She was married to Sylvester B. Phillips, Captain of Company E, 3rd Regiment Virginia Volunteer Infantry, later the 6th Regiment, West Virginia Cavalry.

Sunday, May 26, 1861:  “This has been a pleasant day.  Syl- and I did not go to church, but he has stayed with me all day.  We have talked over the gloomy prospects of our country and our own dangerous condition, in particular–a little band of loyal hearts, true to the Union & surrounded by Secessionists- and I know not how soon my beloved husband may be torn from me. He has done everything to-day to cheer me and encourage me.  He was reading poetry aloud from one of my Scrap Books and I noticed a little scarcely perceptable tremor in his voice…”

Thursday, May 29, 1862:  “… We had a pleasant social time, and this evening a parlour full of callers, for S— expects to start to his Regiment in the morning- once more to leave his delightful home for the hardships of the “tented-field”. Oh! it is hard, so hard but let me smother my grief deep in my throbbing heart and watch and pray for the welcome time when ‘These terrible sounds shall die out of the air, And Peace, walking slowly, pick flowers for her hair, From the fields where the fierce armies, met.’”

Friday, May 30, 1862:  “They are all gone. The house lately resounding with social merriment, is now silent as a ‘dark and closed up tomb.’ As for me, ‘I feel like one, who tread alone, some banquet hall, deserted.’- There is something in hanging up and putting away his clothes; to take his coat and fatigue cap from the chair, where he had thrown them…”

The following excerpt is from a diary authored by Frank Zeller of Company L, 8th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, describing his unit’s march from Charleston to Lewisburg, West Virginia in the summer of 1864 (A&M 3501).  He likely wrote this diary after the fact, since his entries are more embellished than many of the other soldiers’ diaries in the WVRHC.

Sunday, May 29, 1864:  “A dense fog hanging like an impenetrable gloom over valley and hill, from the Kanawha to the Elk rivers, completely shut out from view the surrounding world.  This Sabbath morning constitutes an important epoch in the history of the Eight Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.  Although unconscious of the fact, as Soldiers usually are, yet on this morning commenced a march which for distance, difficulty and daring, has not been surpassed by the march of any other army since the war began.  … Soon we were out of sight of what had been our temporary homes, with our backs turned upon anxious and loving hearts in a distant land, our faces toward the enemy of the Country and the Scenes of National Conflict; our lives in our hands, trusting only to our unknown destiny…”

The following two excerpts are from a diary of Michael A. Ayers, a sergeant major in the 11th Regiment, West Virginia Infantry (A&M 325).

Tuesday, May 30, 1865:  “Visited town this morning another bright day. The last rebel army has surrendered, and I will look for the speedy muster out of our Regt.”

Wednesday, May 31, 1865:  “…I am once more on the eve of departure for the army, and I hope will be the last time I may have the painful feelings of parting with dear friends, but on the contrary that I may soon get out of the Service and return home there to remain Surrounded by warm friends and associates who I can live among and enjoy their sweet society…”

Blog entry by Jane Metters.

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