Diaries, Letters and Memoirs from the Civil War

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

Civil War EnvelopeMany of the fine details that we know about the Civil War have come down to us from diaries, letters and memoirs from the people who were eyewitnesses to the war and its impact on their lives.

Most soldiers wrote home to their families on a daily or weekly basis. In their letters the soldiers of both sides wrote to parents, wives and sweethearts about their experiences in the war. They wrote about the bad food, the sicknesses around them and the war from a ground level view.

We also have letters from higher offices who gave a more panoramic view of the war to their readers. Confederate General Robert E. Lee frequently wrote to his wife and oldest daughter about his feelings on a wide variety of subjects.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant frequently wrote to his wife Julia on a wide variety of subjects. Mrs. Grant often stayed with the General especially when the army was in a permanent location like the ten months during the Siege of Petersburg. Grant wrote his memoirs after the war and his time as President, finishing the final volume before he died of cancer.

Of course, both leaders wrote extensively. Abraham Lincoln often used his letters to elaborate on his policies. In order to get the widest possible viewership Lincoln often wrote to newspaper editors like Horace Greeley who would publish the President’s letters.

Jefferson Davis sent and received numerous letters from a wide variety of individuals who were involved in various aspects of the war. He sent and received letters from Generals Lee, Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. Davis used letters has his primary means of communication, especially when telegraph lines were down.

Diaries were also popular during the Civil War. They range from diaries kept by private soldiers to general’s diaries. The writers recorded the most intimate details of their lives on the front lines. Soldiers from both sides give us an inside view of war at its worst. Both Sam Watkins, a Confederate and Elijah Hunt Rhodes, a Union soldier, wrote illuminating memoirs and diaries about their experiences during the war.

There are also a number of civilian diaries from people like Mary Boykin Chesnut who resided in Charleston, Montgomery and Richmond at key times during the war due to her husband’s position as a politician and an officer in the Confederate Army. Mrs. Chesnut began her diary on February 17, 1861, and ended it on June 26, 1865.

George Templeton Strong was a New York lawyer and diarist. Strong’s 2,250-page diary, now in the collections of the New-York Historical Society, whose first entry was recorded on October 5, 1835, was discovered in the 1930s. Beginning at the age of fifteen, Strong wrote almost every day of his life for nearly forty years. Strong helped found the United States Sanitary Commission, which helped ameliorate the sufferings of wounded soldiers during the American Civil War.

Finally, we have the numerous Civil Wars memoirs that were written by many of the more important personages of the war. Already mentioned were Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. General Grant wrote the two-volume set while he was dying of cancer. Grant candidly depicted his battles against both the external Confederates and his internal Army foes.

General William T. Sherman also wrote a memoir about his service during the Civil War. Sherman was one of the first Civil War generals to write a memoir, starting it in 1875. His two-volume set begins in 1846 during the Mexican War and ends with the military lessons of the Civil War. He revised it in 1886 by bringing it up to his life up to 1884.

Robert E. Lee has left us only tantalizing hints on what he would have written in his memoir but unfortunately he died before he could compose one. We will have to be satisfied with the extensive collection of his letters to family and friends.

Many of the Confederate generals used their memoirs to put forward the “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy. The chief proponent of the “Lost Cause” was Jubal A. Early who is often described as an unreconstructed Confederate.

Other Confederate generals used their memoirs to justify decisions that they made during the course of the war. Both General James Longstreet and Edward Porter Alexander fit in to this category.

Over the next several weeks we’ll be expanding on this important aspect of Civil War history. I look forward to your continued interest and readership.


Series NavigationMary Chesnut’s “A Diary from Dixie” >>

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