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In the early 1980’s, my father tracked down the Civil War diary of Edward F. Hopkins, his maternal grandfather.  The diary had left the family, time and circumstance unknown, and was owned by a Civil War buff.  The owner kindly produced a written transcript, which Dad typed up, photocopied, bound in multiple copies, and distributed to family members and a local historical society.

(Department of Irrelevant Digressions:  The binding my father used was his own, patented, invention.  Since it was developed on company time, he got no direct financial benefit, which, when you also account for his just missing a patent on what came to be called microfiche, explains why I am sitting in a well-worn chair, in the back-bedroom of my modest house in Colorado, typing this, rather than reclining on a chaise longue, by the pool of my immodest villa in Cannes, dictating it to my secretary.)

The diary begins on August 6, 1862 with Edward finishing a carpentry job in Pompey, NY, and noting the U.S. Government’s plans to draft 300,000 men.  It ends on December 31, 1864 with him, recently invalided out of the army, back in Pompey, listing fellow 149th New York Volunteers killed or wounded in that year.

The diary is methodical and, with a few exceptions, unemotionally factual.  We learn that, in his nearly-twenty-five-months of service, he …

Helped recruit scores of friends and acquaintances for the 149th NY Vols …

Entered as a Second Lieutenant and left as a First Lieutenant …

Traveled many hundreds of miles by rail — from Central New York to DC; from DC to Tennessee to northern Alabama; and from Tennessee back home …

Marched uncounted hundreds of miles from encampment to encampment to battle to encampment to battle …

Wrote scores of letters home and received nearly as many in return …

Reported regularly on the weather, which, unsurprisingly, was mild and pleasant at times, rainy and utterly foul at times, and bitterly cold and snowy at times …

Took part in major battles at Chancellorsville (Va) and Lookout Mountain (Tenn), matter-of-factly recording their brutality, but little of their emotional impact on him … 

Had his picture taken regularly (ambrotype) when things were quiet and he could get to a nearby town …

Built, or helped build, or supervised the building of, scores of huts, storage rooms, shelters, bunkers (he was, after all, a master carpenter) …

Kept careful accounts of money borrowed, lent, and earned, and kept track, by letter, of properties owned back home …  

Seldom complained (in his diary at least) about the food, periodically had to buy his own food, and kept careful accounts of those expenditures …

Was frequently ill (diarrhea), but incapacitated only three times — (1) when he was granted leave to go home (he reports he was to face a disciplinary hearing for overstaying his leave, but we never hear about this again); (2) when he was hospitalized (dysentery) outside Gettysburg and consequently missed the war’s most famous battle; (3) near Chattanooga when, sleeping outside, he was injured by a tree-limb felled by compatriots who were collecting logs to build a shelter.

This injury hospitalized him for six weeks.  After his first request for leave was denied (prompting an unusual outburst — I think it is an outrage, am entitled to one if anyone is), leave was granted, he headed home by train, itemizing the cost of the last leg (Cleveland-Syracuse — $8.10), and was officially invalided out.

A Few Final Thoughts: Participants in wars often describe the experience as long days of routine (trying not to die of boredom) punctuated by hours of sheer terror (trying not to die, period).  The diary conveys something of this, but within a limited emotional range.

It is possible that, if not for diarrhea, dysentery, and an errant tree-limb abbreviating my great-grandfather’s participation in active combat, my father might not have been around to put the diary project together, nor my beloved cousin who added genealogical data to its publication, nor even, come to think of it, I.

Now that’s something to ponder!