Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part four)

Brian Swartz and 96th Penn Inf monument at Gettysburg

Brian Swartz, who writes the Maine at War blog, stands beside the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry monument at Gettysburg in early May 1863. Describing Gettysburg as his “Lourdes Shrine,” Swartz visits the battlefield every year. (Photo and shadow courtesy of Susan Swartz)

conclusion to a four-part series

In wrapping up yesterday’s segment, Brian Swartz, author of the Maine at War blog, mentioned Tom Huntington’s new book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. “He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units,” Brian said. But of course, when people think of “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s generally one figure who comes to mind.

Chris Mackowski: Since you mention Gettysburg, I have to pop the Chamberlain question. Do you have any thoughts about Chamberlain? 

Brian Swartz: He was heroic and a natural-born leader. I think he had the heart of a warrior. Obviously he was at least somewhat of a tactician, and an effective governor, but his ability to write—he was a prodigious writer after the war—is what let him overshadow the tales of other Mainers. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the left flank of the Union army at Little Roundtop, but there were other Maine units that suffered as bad, if not worse, and other Maine officers who were just as brave, some of them in somewhat more difficult situations.

I’m thinking of Colonel Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine, down on and around Devil’s Den. The 17th Maine was down on the wheat field. I was just there a little bit over a week ago, and if you walk it back and forth, you still can’t really get a sense of the violence of the combat there. There was the 19th Maine over on Cemetery Ridge, plugging the hole with their charge on July 2nd.

And then of course Charles Tilden and the 16th Maine’s sacrifice on Oak Ridge on the afternoon of July 1st. Tilden, to me, of all the Maine officers at Gettysburg, is the one that to this day is the most overlooked. Part of his problem was that he wasn’t a prodigious writer. He was a very enigmatic individual. It’s difficult to find information on him or letters he’s written and other material he’s cited in post-war. Maine at Gettysburg probably contains the most original Tilden-based material there is that I’ve found.

Chris: You mentioned you were just at Gettysburg and went out to Brandy Station. How often are you able to visit the battlefields?

Brian: I try to go to Gettysburg every year. It would be the equivalent of my Lourdes shrine, and to me is an annual pilgrimage.

Chris: Do you have other battlefields that you like particularly?

Brian: Antietam. I love Washington County, Maryland. If you’re heading westbound on I-40, there’s a spot where, just as it crests South Mountain, you can look to the west and see the valley before you with all the farm land with the different colors and such.

Antietam, to me, is a very haunted place, and it’s a very small, compact battlefield. During my research for volume one of my “Maine at War” book series, I spent a considerable time there tracing the movements of the 10th Maine and also the 7th Maine and their advance to the Piper Farm.

I like Brandy Station. Manassas. Shiloh is one that I particularly enjoy of all the battlefields east of the Mississippi. There are only a few minor battlefields that I still need to visit on this side of the river. Shiloh to me is a battlefield where, if you remove the monuments and are there on a fine April morning, it could be the opening moment, the opening volley. It’s so well preserved.

Chris: I feel that way about Spotsylvania. If you take away those few monuments, it feels like a step back in time.

Brian: I just had the pleasure three or four years ago to walk Laurel Hill. I’ve been out to the Mule Shoe over a half-dozen times over the years. This time we stayed in Fredericksburg for a few days, so I parked and followed the trail up to the top of Laurel Hill, which we would not even call a hill here in Maine—it was just a little rise actually.

Fredericksburg, the Slaughter Pen farm, I walk out there and follow the route of the 16th Maine. You’ve got what can be a really noisy airport right next door to you, but it really helps you appreciate what Tilden and all his boys and the other Union troops went through as they were charging out across that farm towards the Confederate-held hills.

Chris: Let me back up to something you said just a second ago just to shine a little light on your “Maine at War” book series. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Brian: Maine at War, volume one—the book is titled, From Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. It opens with the duel in which Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston was shot and killed. The reason I open with that is that his young son became Jonathan Prince of the 1st Maine Cavalry. He’s one of my favorite Maine characters out of all of them who served in the Civil War. After the opening chapter, which covers the duel and the aftermath of what that does to the Cilley family, the book covers Maine’s involvement in the war from early April 1861 to November 1862. I take different characters, and I weave their stories in.

It tells the story of particularly the army, because I had great difficulty in finding letters and reports and such of Navy personnel. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I am focused primarily on the Army soldiers and such and their families back home. I cover from basically the first regiments in Maine to the 16th Maine Infantry and their march from Antietam to Fredericksburg, and how they became known as the Blanket Brigade. That’s what ends the book.

That book is due out sometime this fall, I’d say maybe later in the fall. It’s being published by Maine Origins Publishing out of Brewer. Volume II is going to cover Fredericksburg, possibly through Gettysburg. There’s quite a bit of material for me to read through there. That is probably half-written.

I mentioned earlier, I just finished up the battle of Brandy Station. That took quite a bit of research, quite a bit of coordinating and, even though I knew quite a bit about the Civil War campaigns and such, I find that when I try to write up a particular battle chronologically, I have to do additional research to get everything in the correct order. It’s very easy to make a mistake.

Chris: Good luck with that. I look forward to picking up a copy, for sure. Before we wrap up, is there anything I’ve not asked you that I should have?

Brian: I guess I’d just like to say I really enjoyed telling the story of Mainers involved in the Civil War, and in using their stories, educating readers about specific moments or battles in the war.

Gettysburg: it wasn’t just Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. We have hundreds, if not thousands of acres out there on which Maine soldiers fought: in Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Appomattox Courthouse. I wrote a series on that, which was very eye-opening for me.

I just like telling the stories, and I always like hearing from readers if they like something, or disagree with it, or whatever, I really like hearing from the readers.


You can reach out to Brian directly at And don’t forget to check out his blog, Maine at War.

Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part three)

Whenever he visits Fredericksburg, Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stops by the Slaughter Pen Farm to walk the route taken by the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment on December 13, 1862. (Photo courtesy of Susan Swartz)

part three in a four-part series

I’m talking this week with writer Brian Swartz about his excellent blog Maine at War. In yesterday’s segment, we talked about the connection people in Maine felt—or didn’t feel—to the war taking place so far from home, and how Brian’s blog really gets at those connections on a very human level.

He’s also good at capturing big events from a soldier’s-eye view, like, “Joe Hooker takes command, and here’s what the soldiers think,” “emancipation happens, and here’s what the soldiers think.”

Chris Mackowski: Tying that back to what you just said [in the last segment], I think you do a good job of making the war very personal through the stories of these individuals. 

Brian Swartz: Well thank you. That’s been the goal from the beginning. I’ve learned the hard way not to trust the validity of what the generals publish in the original records. I’m sure you’re aware that there were some Union generals that would ignore what they had done wrong or take credit for something that somebody else did right. I’m thinking about Oliver Otis Howard at Chancellorsville, who spent very little time talking about his failure to secure his flank in his official records report. But the soldiers, the ones on the front lines, identify what’s happening.

Both sides of my family have had strong military traditions. My father was a United States Marine aviator in World War II, and then he was an Air Force combat pilot for two tours in Korea. My mother was a Coast Guard veteran, a Coast Guard SPAR in World War II. Her brother served a year in Vietnam in a non-combat role. My brother just retired from the Maine National Guard as a colonel after 30 years in service in both the Guard and the Army, and that included a year’s tour as the coalition brigade commander in Afghanistan. Particularly from my father, some of his tales were probably where I learned to focus more on the people on the lower-echelon levels. He retired as a major, so he never became a general, but sometimes I think wearing your first star can change a man’s attitude about himself, whereas down among the grunts, I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did, from the lowest private even up to colonel. Ordinary Mainers got the job done and came home. It was just incredible.

Chris: The way you articulate that makes it sound like no-nonsense Yankee sensibility.

Brian: It is. There’s the attitude up here that, at least when you get away from the halls of government and anything above Augusta, that “We’ll take care of this and get it done.” You see it often at the local level. The town needs something done and volunteers will get together—say, it’s something like a construction project—they make the plans and they build it. The Mainers that were here were very independent and self-sufficient, particularly the farmers, sailors, loggers, and fishermen, and they would not let anything stand in the way of getting the job done.

I am surprised at how many and why so many rallied around the flag of our state. Fifteen percent of the state’s population went off to war, and even considering the draft, I still cannot determine why these volunteers all did it. But they took with them their ideals of “We want to get the job done, and we want to go home.”

I particularly see that in some of the writings from John Haley in the 17th Maine. [Haley’s book, The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer (Downeast, 1985) is one of the best-written primary accounts of the war available.] Some of the other material I’ve come across from that Army of the Potomac regiment in the battle of Fredericksburg and that disastrous fall and winter, thanks to Burnside and his incompetence—that’s my own opinion—were men who just stayed with it.

A year or two ago I wrote a blog post about a letter that was written by a local soldier who explained why he and his comrades were staying with the flag. It was very poignant and moving. I am proud to be able to write about these people.

Unfortunately, I do not have any blood ancestors who served in a Federal unit, at least from Maine. Even though I had family here in the Penobscot Valley by the 1850s, none of them served in the military. Fortunately, my maternal grandfather’s mother was a widow. She married someone who was a veteran of the 22nd Maine as her second husband, so I view him as a Union soldier who was adopted into the family. I’m proud to claim him as my one Maine connection.

Chris: I still have family in Maine, but I don’t have any ancestors from the state who fought. But it’s been really neat to find guys who are from the same places I lived and worked up there. You have these connections and, like you said, you sort of adopt these guys and become very partial toward them. Do you have a particular regiment that you’re partial to?

Brian: Yes, the 11th Maine Infantry.

Chris: What do you love about them?

Brian: Specifically, Company D with Sergeant Robert Brady and his son, who was 16 when he joined, Robert Brady Jr., who actually went on to write the regimental history. I just had the impression that this particular regiment epitomized the ordinary men of Maine that got together, served together, went and fought some confusing battles for this particular outfit. They were tough, they had that ability, as Mainers do, to look up the chain of command and see which of the officers were phonies and which officers really cared for their men. Other than that, I can’t really tell you why, other than that they seemed to be a real cast of characters, many of them being from the Penobscot Valley—and because I’ve lived here most of my life, there’s a connection there. I’m familiar with the area.

Chris: If you were to point someone in the direction of trying to learn more about Maine’s story during the war, obviously your blog is the place to go, but if people want to know more, what would you tell them?

Brian: There are some books out there but not many. I would recommend that if someone was looking for the history of a particular Maine regiment to read Edward Tobie’s History of the 1st Maine Cavalry. It’s well written, and the action often flows very well—granted that it’s in 19th Century grammar and writing style. The book Maine Roads to Gettysburg by Tom Huntington is a very good introduction to some of the Maine regiments and units at Gettysburg. I like the way he takes these units from their muster or formation to when they arrive at Gettysburg and what they do there. He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units.


Of course, if you’re going to mention “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s one personality who towers over the rest. When we wrap up our conversation tomorrow, I’ll ask Brian about JLC.

Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part two)

Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stands at Lookout Point on Lookout Mountain. With either his wife, Susan, or their son, Christopher, in tow, Swartz has visited many Civil War battlefields east of the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swartz)

Part two of a four-part series

I’m talking this week with Brian Swartz, a former writer and editor for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. While with the paper, he started a regular column and blog called Maine at War. He belongs to Richardson’s Civil War Round Table in Searsport, Maine and for the past two years has chaired the Bangor Historical Society committee that organized Drums on the Penobscot: A Civil War Experience.

Yesterday, Brian explained the origins of his work, and we began to get into the particulars of how he pulls his material together.

Chris Mackowski: You talk about old newspapers. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at old editions and I just find them to be fascinating sources of soldier letters, particularly—and as sources they’re often overlooked. I’ve gone through old editions of the Bangor Whig & Courier and found gold nugget after gold nugget.

Brian Swartz: I will agree with you there. Obviously, you and I have researched some familiar pages. I find that I ignore the reports from the battlefield and the general press accounts. They’re inflated and inaccurate. But when you read the soldier accounts. . . . The soldier either sent the letter directly to the paper or a proud mother or father asked the paper to publish a letter. The nuggets that are dropped in, a paragraph at a time in these pages, take you so incredibly close to the war.

I am wrapping up research I’m doing for book two of my “Maine at War” book series. I just wrapped up Brandy Station, and that included a visit about a week and a half ago to Fleetwood Hill for the first time since the Civil War Trust [now American Battlefield Trust] had acquired it and knocked down that house that was on top of it. In my research, I found a letter published in a paper written from a trooper in the 1st Maine Cavalry. He participated in that charge up and over Fleetwood Hill, and his observations about what the regiment did afterwards—it was almost like riding alongside him on a horse. It was incredible, and it was in a newspaper.

Chris: Do you have particular papers that you prefer over others?

Brian: Yes. The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, the Portland Daily Press, the Maine Farmer, which was out of Augusta, dedicated to agriculture in Maine and had a four-page issue every week that often had excellent material like letters and reports and such from people that were involved in the war, as well as some astute political observations. There was the Eastport Sentinel Downeast. And when I have time, I go to research the Lewiston newspapers from the period.

I should mention one more paper: the Republican Journal in Belfast was a pro-Democrat, anti-Lincoln administration newspaper, and it gives delightful insight into the other side of the coin.

Chris: You also mentioned that you spend a fair amount of time in the state archives. I know they’ve got a really neat collection of stuff. Are there any particular treasures there you appreciate?

Brian: In researching the 5th Maine Infantry, I came across the commanding officer’s report of the regiment’s participation in the Chancellorsville campaign, particularly in their effort to get past the Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights at the battle of Second Fredericksburg. And then they went out and fought the battle of Salem Church. It was very well written and very detailed. I cannot remember that officer’s name, but it comes across that it really bothered him that his regiment was so shot to pieces.

There are so many treasures. The one that I found recently that I just finished writing up: Freeman McGilvery was promoted to major in late 1862 or early 1863, and that opened up the captaincy of the 6th Maine Battery, which he had raised. The lobbying that went back and forth in the letters to the state house in Augusta is very interesting, almost to the point of being hilarious in the commentary between the men and some of the officers.

Then of course there are Sarah Sampson’s and Isabella Fog’s letters, who were both women from Maine that became volunteer nurses. Whenever volunteer nurses arrived, they usually dedicated themselves for the rest of the war serving as nurses. Both them wrote letters that are on file in the state archives.

Chris: One of the things I think is really neat about your blog is that you do have a lot of that civilian aspect—the home front, the contributions of Mainers in Maine during the war—which I think is an aspect of the war that tends to get overlooked in favor of the mud and blood and battlefield stuff. What do you think it was like to be in Maine, so far away from the front lines during that time?

Brian: If you had a direct connection with the military, like a son, husband, cousin, uncle, father, etc., who was going to war, it was difficult, especially depending on where you lived.

In the larger cities, there seemed to be more of a support network for women who saw their household income threatened because the man who was providing the money went to war. Thirteen dollars a month [a private’s pay] isn’t going to cover much. If you go out into the outlying towns, it became more serious, in the sense that now if a family has lost a father and son that went off to war, now mom is home, usually with younger children. How is she going to till the fields, chop the firewood, cook, and raise the kids? It was tough.

The lack of communications really made that loneliness more acute. The military was good at getting the mail to and from the soldiers and, in many families, the women wrote frequently. Say there was an elderly father left behind, or a middle-aged father: he would write to his boy that went off to war. Friends would write to soldiers.

But the press accounts about battles would come back before any news about casualty lists, and that would lead to a lot of fear. I sensed that particularly in the pages of the newspapers. People just worried.

There were many others who didn’t care that the war was going on. Some merchants did well, especially manufacturers of wartime goods and people who owned steamers and sailing ships that the war department would lease or rent—however they paid for that.

There was an aspect where it was almost like Vietnam, which was also concurrent to my growing up. For those who had a connection to the war, the war was going on. For the rest of us who had no family over there, it was just a story on the evening news, and I sensed that the Civil War could have been that way in Maine, again particularly in the larger towns and cities. If you had a physical connection to the war, it was happening. If you did not, it was just a press account in the newspaper, or maybe a story told at the general store or something.


Brian’s blog successfully captures the soldier’s-eye view of Maine at war, on the home front and on the front lines. “I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did,” he says in tomorrow’s segment. We’ll explore that further, and we’ll talk about the things Brian has learned from those men by spending so much time reading their accounts.

Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part one)

Brian Swartz (photo courtesy of Gabor Degre)

Part one of a four-part series

Much romance surrounds the state of Maine’s role in the Civil War, in large part because of the myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his role on Little Round Top. However, as Tom Huntington points out in his new book Maine Roads to Gettysburg: How Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Howard, and 4,000 Men from the Pine Tree State Helped Win the Civil War’s Bloodiest Battle, there was more to Gettysburg than Chamberlain.

Writer Brian Swartz, a native Mainer himself, has been exploring the Pine Tree State’s role in the war in an even wider and deeper way. His weekly blog, Maine at War, which he’s been writing since the Sesquicentennial, tells the story of “soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians” sent “south to preserve their country in the 1860s.”

“‘Maine at War’ introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state’s honor during that terrible conflict,” the blog explains. “We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it.” Swartz also adds a warning: “Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality.”

Having deep roots of my own in Maine and a deep pride in Mainers on the battlefield, I reached out to Brian to talk about his work. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Brian Swartz: Let me begin with a brief introduction. I grew up in Brewer [Maine]. We had a house on the edge of my grandparents’ farm, and it was on Chamberlain Street, so there’s always been, for me at least since I was very young, a name recognition with Joshua Chamberlain. [Chamberlain was born in Brewer, on Chamberlain Street, and his birthplace still stands.]

I think it was in the winter of 2011 that I approached the top brass of Bangor Daily News, where I was working as the special sections editor and also the editor of The Weekly, which was a 12-page broadsheet that we published every Thursday in the greater Bangor area. I proposed writing a monthly column about Maine’s involvement in the Civil War, and it was going to be called “Maine at War.” I was instructed to focus just on Maine and not the general campaigns of the war.

Initially, I believed there was not much material out there, but that was due to my ignorance. Once I began researching Maine’s involvement in the war, I realized that the state’s contribution to saving the Union was substantial, both in terms of the military and the civilians at home.

Being a transplanted Mainer—my parents are a Virginian dad and a Maine-born mother. I was born in Victoria, Texas, where my father was stationed with the Air Force. My parents divorced in the late 1950s, and Mom moved us “home” to Brewer, Maine, where her parents lived—so I grew up in Maine. I have a tremendous love for the state and for the people who tough it out here. It’s a difficult state in which to make a living. The more I researched Maine’s involvement in the war, the more I really came to appreciate what our ancestors had done to help save the Union.

Chris Mackowski: Did you have a particular interest in the Civil War that made you pitch this idea?

Brian: Yes. The Civil War centennial started in 1961, of course. I was growing up in Brewer at the time. I was in school and the Bangor Daily News—ironically, my future employer—every Saturday in the comics ran a strip that was based on some event happening in the Civil War that particular week. I loved it.

I’ve always enjoyed history, particularly military history, and in trading letters with my dad, I was telling him what I was reading and telling him about the Civil War, and he mentioned that he is descended from several Virginia Confederates, most of them from the Shenandoah Valley.

It turned out that my great-grandfather, Joseph Swartz of Rockbridge County, which includes Lexington, had served in the Richmond forts in the winter of 1864 and 1865. He was reluctantly dragooned into the military at either 16 or 17 and survived the war. He married a woman, her name was Elizabeth Ochiltree, whose had three of her four brothers die in Confederate service. Two of them died of disease while serving in the 5th Virginia Infantry. The youngest brother was drafted in the summer of 1864 into the 14th Virginia Cavalry and then killed in a skirmish outside Cedarville in November 1864.

This information from my dad gave me a connection to the war and—I cannot call it a “visceral connection,” but it was like “Wow, we had people here?” It just brought an interest in the Civil War more to life than an interest in World War I or the Revolutionary War. I’ve been a fan of the Civil War all my life. I took my family to Gettysburg the first time in 1989, and was enamored with the place. It was much more than what I had expected.

Then, as the Civil War Sesquicentennial approached, I got this idea for a monthly column. I pitched it, it was approved, and was called “Maine of War,” and I started immediately in April 2011 with a blog post about Fort Sumter. There was a particular Mainer who was supposed to be aboard the Powhatan, the big Navy steamer that was actually sent off to Pensacola instead.

I continued with the column monthly for about a year, and then when I was assigned editorship of The Weekly, we needed material to fill the pages, so the column became weekly. The print edition continued until my retirement from the Bangor Daily News in April 2014, but I published my first blog post on March 6, 2012, and that has continued weekly to this day.

Chris: One of the things I like so much about your blog is that you’ve got a lot of material that is really well researched, and you’re able to keep the content current and fresh and updated. What goes into putting this together every week?

Brian: Research. Mostly my own, and occasionally somebody provides me information. Usually, that comes from a descendant of a Maine soldier who served in the war. Some of the stories I’ve told have come that way. I have others that have been provided to me that I haven’t written yet.

I’ve spent countless hours at the Maine State Archives with Dave Cheever, who is the Maine State Archivistand a good friend of mine. He is also a Civil War buff and extremely knowledgeable about Maine’s involvement in the war.

I’ve also spent far too many hours researching the Maine newspapers that were published from 1861-1865, just looking for material, sometimes specifics, sometimes just seeing what’s in a weekly newspaper, like the Maine Farmer, which, despite its name, turned out to be a very good source of Maine-based material in the Civil War—just going through edition by edition to see what they’ve got.

I pull all of that together, and then craft the individual blog posts. Some of them are in a series. I just finished one up on nurse Sarah Sampson of Bath, who should have her own Mercy Street-type TV show or movie. From my naivety in the early winter of 2011, believing there wasn’t much information out there on Maine’s involvement in the Civil War, I’ve come to realize that I could write these blog posts for another 50 years and not even begin to touch what’s out there.


As former journalists, Brian and I both appreciate the value of an old newspaper as a research tool. In tomorrow’s segment, we’ll talk a little more about that, as well as some of his other favorite sources as he researches the stories of Maine at war.

Scenes from Vicksburg, Day 3 (part two)

part of a series

For most of the day on Thursday, we concentrated on sites in Vicksburg National Military Park. Here’s a little promo Kris shot. And here’s an introductory piece we did about artillery, featuring Parker Hills and the artillery display outside the park’s visitor center.

From there, we went to one of the most recognizable spots on the battlefield: the Shirley House and the Illinois monument, near the 3rd Louisiana Redan. We shot a video in front of the Shirley House–which Federal soldiers called “the white house”–and one in the redan itself, then we went down the road a piece to the Stockade Redan to talk about the action that took place there, too.

Shirley House historians

Historians Tim Smith Kris White, Scott Babinowich, and Parker Hills, with the Trusts social media guru Connor Townsend in front of the Shirley House

Shirley House rose

The Shirley House is the only wartime structure along the line that still stands. (see the link below for more info)

Illinois Monument-Scott

Scott Babinowich, Vicksburg National Battlefield’s Chief of Interpretation, explains the symbolic nature of the Illinois State Monument. (see link below for more info)

Orion Howe Dash of Courage

14-year-old drummerboy Orion Howe earned the Medal of Honor for actions in front of the Stockade Redan, relaying information to Gen. Sherman.


Click here for more information on the Shirley House, including a look at one of Vicksburg’s most iconic images.

Click here for more information on the Illinois State Monument

Click here for more information on Orion Howe.

Click here for more information on the Stockade Redan.

Book Review: “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865”

Let me say right up front that The War Outside My Window is NOT the feel-good book of 2018. In fact, it is just the opposite. The war is lost, the boy dies, and animals are harmed in the passing of this time period in Georgia. Nevertheless, with a cup of good coffee and a positive attitude, it is one of the most interesting books published in a long time.

This book is the diary of young LeRoy Gresham, the youngest son of an affluent slaveholding family in Macon, Georgia. He was twelve years old in 1860, and an invalid due to a combination of a serious leg injury from a fallen chimney that crushed his leg and skeletal tuberculosis, specifically Pott’s disease. Google up some images of this affliction and you will get a good idea of the misery that was a daily companion to this bright, inquisitive, witty, well-read, and sensitive young man.

LeRoy began keeping his journal on June 12, 1860, with a very mundane entry: “Mother has gone to the serving society.” As time continued, he began to find his own, very authentic voice. The diary is not a series of maudlin, self-pitying entries. Rather it is a view of the South from the beginning to the end of the Civil War, as Macon reacted to secession and gathered men for volunteer soldiering (in a state with a governor who did not necessarily want to send them), until the surrender at Appomattox and beyond. Interwoven among the usually inaccurate news reports, Leroy gave evidence of his deteriorating physical condition.  This amazing young man who read Greek and Roman classics along with Shakespeare and Dickens, loved math and solving puzzles, and played chess on a very high level, lay in his bed and observed the collapse of his world. To relieve the tedium of dying, his family somehow came up with a cart or small wagon to relieve his bedridden condition. A relative or more often, a young slave, pulled him around town so that LeRoy could immerse himself in the goings-on of the day.

News came in the form of newspapers, letters, and gossip. The reader will be struck with the military inaccuracies, especially as to casualty counts. Young LeRoy read every newspaper he could get and bemoaned the diminishing sources of current news as the war went on. His immediate family was impacted directly. His older brother, Thomas, served in Lee’s army in Virginia and many others in the extended group of family and friends served as well. The home front deteriorated, as evidenced by the actions of LeRoy’s mother and sister. New bonnets were made of palmetto, and dresses were repurposed in order to attend local gatherings and church. Homespun cloth was sent up from the family plantations along with meat and vegetables for the table, and to share among the less fortunate.

LeRoy wrote about everything, from social events to family matters. Deaths (many), weather (hot or raining, it seemed), and his pets were recurring topics. He named his various dogs for Confederate generals, but most were ill-behaved and ended up changing ownership. His declining health was addressed regularly, and the reader gets a solid look at family medicine in the 1860s. LeRoy’s parents could afford the very best for their son, but without an understanding of germs or disease, most of the efforts of doctors did little to alleviate his discomfort or alter the progression of his disease. Both the Preface and the Appendices have detailed accounts of how editor Janet Elizabeth Croon, publisher Theodore P. Savas, and Dennis A. Rasbach, MD, FACS worked to solve the mystery of LeRoy’s diagnosis. His care is analyzed piece by piece and compared to modern medicine, making for fascinating, if painstaking, reading. LeRoy wrote: “I am weaker and more helpless than I ever was . . . I have been sick with a pain in my back and heart all day . . . Saw off my leg.” He did not realize until the very end of his life that he was dying, and the reality of this came as a shock to young LeRoy.

Editor Janet Croon, an educated educator in her own right, has given the reader much more than just a glimpse into the past. The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Journal of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 presents the compelling story of a doomed young man of white privilege who was dying at exactly the same time the southern dream of an independent Confederacy was dying. Eventually, both fail. Without the efforts of Croon, Savas, and Rasbach, LeRoy Gresham’s voice, which speaks as powerfully to us from the past as does that of Anne Frank, would have continued to be unheard. Readers will remember LeRoy long after the covers of the book have closed. As sad and difficult as this book is to read, it is definitely an important addition to the understanding of the Southern home front.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, Editor–The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

Savas Beatie, LLC, 2018

401 pages

Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, Medical Forward, Dramatis Personae, LeRoy Wiley Gresham Obituary, Postscript, Medical Afterwords, Appendix, Note on Sources, Acknowledgements, Index, Maps and Illustrations