“Day dreams are . . . the amusement of boys”

I mentioned a few days ago a letter written by Confederate Lt. William Drenner, trapped in Vicksburg by the besieging Federal army. A letter to his wife turned into a running account of his time trapped in the beleaguered city.

155 years ago today, he wrote an entry I found especially poignant: 

June 20th

Day dreams are said to be the amusement of boys—yet I cannot at this time keep from indulging in them. I think of the exquisite happiness I will have, surrounding your and Gertie [his daughter]—when we are listening to her prattle and learning her ideas—and developing her little innocent mind of the long winter nights in our comfortable room—with a cheerful fir and good books—of the bright spring days—with your flowers—and garden—with the growing corn and nice stock—of the summer with its luscious fruits and harvest—I think of quiet Sabbaths at home and at church—of pleasant evenings when I am through the business of the day and contact with coarse vulgar men—that I will be with you and our sweet darling child—and call it—foolish—sentimental—dreaming—call it what you will—yet I indulge in such thoughts—so often and never more so than just at this time when my only communication with you can be in thought. Oh! my dear wife—should that time ever come—I will care little for the world or its surroundings—and in the bosom of my family I will find happiness. Every day’s contact with me only adds to my dislike of the association and the hurry and bustle of the world has no charms for me.

You can read his full letter online and follow his experience in the siege day by day.

Wood-Choppers Along the Kennesaw Line

“The battles of the Kennesaw line were fought for weeks. Cannonading and musketry firing was one continual thing. It seemed that shooting was the order of the day, and pickets on both sides kept up a continual firing, that sounded like ten thousand wood-choppers. Sometimes the wood-choppers would get lazy or tired and there was a lull. But you could always tell when the old guard had been relieved, by the accelerated chops of the wood-shoppers.”

— Sam Watkins, “Kennesaw Line,” Chapter XII, Co. Aytch

“One day could be like another”

For anyone who might’ve forgotten, the siege of Vicksburg was grinding along 155 years ago today.

We spent a little time in mid-May commemorating the campaign for Vicksburg and the initial attacks on the city. And all good Civil War buffs know that the city surrendered on July 4, 1863.

In between, Federals besieged the city. And a lot of folks tends to just lump that together as a single, monolithic event—“the siege of Vicksburg”—without considering what that actually entailed, particularly on a day-to-day level.

For Federals and Confederates alike, that often entailed boredom. 

Consider today’s diary entry by Lt. William Drennan, a Confederate ordinance officer in Featherston’s Brigade:

June 9th

Another day as like the past twenty one as one day could be like another.

Monotony does not convey all that the sameness of these days imposes on one. There is a tension of the nerves—an extreme anxiety like you many have experienced for a few moments—and that you have felt that you had to endure it long that it would craze you. I fear a spell of some nervous fever as soon as the excitement is over—and it certainly will be over soon.

Drennan’s is actually one of the best accounts of the Vicksburg campaign and siege. It started out as a letter to his wife, but he was unable to get it in the mail before the siege lines cut the city off, and so it became a running chronicle of his time in Vicksburg.

My friend, Matt Atkinson, transcribed, edited, and annotated Drennan’s letter and published it in 2009 as Lieutenant Drennan’s Letter: A Confederate Officer’s Account of the Battle of Champion Hill and the Siege of Vicksburg. You can now find Drennan’s full letter online here, although I recommend Matt’s hard-to-find hard copy if you can find it because his annotations are excellent.

As the siege continues to unfold, you can follow along with Drennan day by day.

“What Shall Be Done with the Slave?” The 9th Illinois Cavalry and Practical Emancipation

Hiram Franklin Sickles (Dennis C. Schurr Collection)

I am frequently sidetracked when scanning through historic newspapers on a quest for specific information. What can I say, the headlines are still doing their job. Such was the case while digitally flipping through August 1862 issues of the Chicago Tribune. “What shall be done with the slave?” asked the commander of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, stationed at the time near Helena, Arkansas. As I guessed, the officer had already reached an opinion of his own. His letter to the editor is a perfect summary of how many northern soldiers saw emancipation as a means to end the war, regardless of their stance on abolition before 1861.

Hiram Franklin Sickles was born in Otsego, New York in 1818. He attended the Philadelphia Naval Asylum and served in the navy for a decade, working in the Topographical Department and twice circumnavigating the world. Afterward he settled in Moline, Illinois where he operated a flour mill, occasionally practiced law, and dabbled in local politics.

Moline Workman, November 4, 1856

It appears that Sickles did already have anti-slavery sentiments before the war. A Chicago Tribune article from December 15, 1860 stated that he met a St. Louis slave owner while travelling for business during the summer. Their discussion eventually turned to politics, and, after disagreeing, the two placed a bet on the results of the upcoming election–Sickles wagered flour from his mill against one of Eldad N. Whitford’s slaves. Sickles won the bet but promptly freed the slave but upon being summoned to St. Louis to take possession.

Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860

Sickles’s flour business along the Mississippi River caused him to spend considerable time in New Orleans. A possibly apocryphal story from his 1892 obituary stated that when Louisiana seceded the local authorities confiscated all of Sickles’s property, forcing him to return north “impoverished but full of patriotism.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles helped drill new volunteer soldiers. He received a commission as major in the 9th Illinois Cavalry in September 1861 and was promoted lieutenant colonel in February 1862, frequently commanding the regiment. Of personal interest, the 9th Illinois Cavalry contained several companies of soldiers from my hometown of Geneseo. The regiment operated in Arkansas during 1862 as part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest.

Brigadier General Frederick Steele commanded one of Curtis’s division. He opposed confiscating slaves as “contraband of war” and reminded those around him of the orders of Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the department, “prohibiting fugitive slaves and unauthorized persons from coming within the lines.” The regimental historians of the 9th Illinois afterward noted that this directive showed “very clearly the delicate and kid-glove fashion in which at that time the war for the suppression of treason and rebellion was then being conducted.”

That approach began to change in late June when Curtis led an expedition through eastern Arkansas to reach the Mississippi River for resupply. The 9th Illinois participated in the march and suppressed an attack on the wagon train near Village Creek on June 27th. After suffering significant casualties, including the wounding of Colonel Albert G. Brackett, command passed to Sickles. The Army of the Southwest defeated another threat along their route at Cotton Plant on July 7th and safely reached the city of Helena one week later.

Army of the Southwest Expedition through Arkansas, June-July 1862 (map by author)

Their exposure to southern plantations along the way convinced them of the futility of waging a “soft war.” One member of the regiment, who called the march “one of the most arduous and fatiguing of any made during the civil war,” afterward recalled:

The weather was intensely hot, and the road lay through the malaria-breeding swamps and fenlands, where the trailing masses of Spanish moss on the great cypress trees wave like mourning bands over the reeking lands. Everything grows there in the rankest profusion, and the cotton and corn fields are most beautiful, the ground being rich and easily cultivated.

Most of the people residing in this region were strong in their secession feelings, and, being considerable slave-owners, were willing to shed their blood for what they considered right. There were many large plantations where great gangs of slaves were worked successfully, the cultivation being something marvelous.

A lawyer before the war, Curtis did not initially advocate for abolition. He continued to maintain that slaves of loyal citizens were not considered “contraband.” Such privilege did not extend to secessionists, however, and Confederate use of slaves to erect barricades along his route provided rationale to justify confiscation. The issue of emancipation was actively debated at the time in newspapers and in Congress but was not yet settled. Nevertheless, Curtis actively employed the contraband slaves his army encountered in foraging, scouting, guiding, and clearing the barricades along the route.

“Our Western boys were very thankful for their aid, and to it they attribute no inconsiderable share of the success which attended their march,” claimed the Chicago Tribune after an interview with Major William J. Wallis of the 9th Illinois Cavalry. “The Major further states that the prejudices which might have existed in the army against the employment of men of color in any way that they can be made useful, have entirely disappeared; and that soldiers who were the most rantankerous of Democrats when they started from home have become practical Abolitionists, to whom the work of liberation is now a positive delight.”

Of course there was no such unanimity in opinion. Captain Charles S. Cameron believed “a majority of the soldiers cared nothing about the question of slavery, but wished to fight the battles of the Country and let slavery take care of itself.” If Cameron’s statement was true, however, such sentiments were not publicly expressed to the same degree. Any such soldier opposition to emancipation put little damper on the desire of the slave population to seek freedom among the Union column.

Curtis commented to a correspondent with the New York Tribune about the intelligence and initiative of those who tagged along with his command, a testament to the grapevine communication network that undermined plantation owner efforts to keep their slaves ignorant. On July 31st the newspaperman wrote that the general remarked to him “that he was surprised at the intelligence they manifest and their perfect understanding of the causes of Rebellion and of their rights.” Curtis allowed those who came into Union lines at Helena to earn their own money through the sale of cotton seized from their former plantations.

Most estimates suggest that approximately 2,000 slaves reached Curtis’s army through the first week of August. That number steadily grew. For reference sake, the 1860 census listed a black population of 17,660 for the five counties through which Curtis’ expedition marched.

“The presence of the Army of the Southwest sounded the death knell of slavery in Arkansas’s premier agricultural region,” historians William Shea and Earl Hess recently concluded. “Curtis emancipated slaves on a mass scale, ignoring the fact that in mid-1862 he lacked the authority to do any such thing. In towns along the way soldiers commandeered printing presses and produced stacks of emancipation forms. News of what the Federals were doing spread like wildfire, and by the end of the campaign, more than three thousand refugee slaves, ‘freedom papers’ in hand, trailed the dusty blue column en route to an uncertain future.”

Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862

Lieutenant Colonel Sickles saw complete emancipation throughout the Confederacy as the best possible future. On July 30th he wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune that appeared in print on August 15th.

It has become a subject of much interest to nearly all army officers in the field, what is to be done with the slaves of rebel owners? I think a large majority of both officers and men were, on entering the field, decidedly opposed to any policy, either civil or military, that would effect the “status” of the slave, in any of the States where the “institution” is legalized by proper local enactments. But a wonderful change has come over the entire surface of affairs, teaching us, through bitter experience that such doctrines are entirely incompatible with the successful prosecution of this war, on the part of the federal government or others in authority.

My own experience, as well as that of hundreds of other officers of the army of the Southwest, furnish to us the most unmistakable evidence that this rebellion cannot be conquered while this element of power is left to the disloyal slaveholder–and nearly all slave owners are disloyal. The sacredness which seems to surround this class of property in the South, gives to the enemy a tower of strength. We find that while the slave owners are in thousands of instances actually connected with the rebel army–guerrilla bands, or otherwise aiding and encouraging the common enemy of the United State government, the slave population is actively employed (under protection of our own troops) in carrying forward the different branches of material industry throughout the slaveholding States. Indeed, nearly all of the labor which gives to the south its important strength, is derived from this class of property, which seems to have had the benediction of all our prayers.

I have been taught, like many others, that where the slave has been unmolested in his labors, under direction of his owner or overseer, there we find nearly every white male inhabitant of suitable age absent from home, either in the rebel army or “bushwhacking.” Not only this, but the poor whites who are not able to own slaves, are furnished with labor to till their little patches of ground from the slave population, while they themselves are in the service of the enemies of our country.

In this way, our government is rending the most essential service to the South, in protecting and reserving a power to her, which she cannot find in any other direction. The negro is also employed in building fortifications for the enemy–constructing barricades and entrenchments, and in some instances have had arms put into their hands to use against our troops.

With these facts coming within the range of the knowledge and experience of nearly every officer in active service in the seceded States, I have no hesitation in saying, and of holding myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration, that, with all the energies at command of this government, this rebellion will likely to continue until either terms of peace are arranged between the contending parties, or that this important element of power, now reserved to the South by the military and civic authorities of the United States government, shall be weakened to such an extent that the slave shall no longer remain the bone and sinew, the entrenchment and stronghold of his rebellious master.

The changing attitude of the 9th Illinois Cavalry was but one of many similar experiences among Union forces throughout the south. President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was only a month away.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in history, the story of the contrabands at Helena cannot be neatly wrapped up with that happy ending. Curtis left the Army of the Southwest in late August to take command of the Department of Missouri. General Steele therefore replaced him as army commander at Helena and soon reversed many of Curtis’s policies, particularly in regard to the slaves who thought they had found liberation within the Union army. Steele went so far as to actively encourage regional plantation owners to journey to Helena for the recovery of their slaves. By the formal signing of the Proclamation on January 1, 1862, however, Steele had moved on as well.

Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862

While researching Sickles, I found as a bonus another of his published letters. This one was addressed to the editor of a local paper, the Rock Island Argus and Daily Union.

Camp, near Helena, Ark., Aug. 5th, 1862.

J.B. Danforth, Jr.: I regret to learn that there yet remains in the loyal states some people, who assume to believe that intervention on the part of the federal government with reference to private property in the seceded states is unwise and impolitic, especially where the question relates to negro slaves. They seek to fortify their logic upon the unconstitutionality of such a measure. If it were not true that treason and rebellion are equally unconstitutional, then the correctness of this reasoning would be readily conceded.

It must admitted that as a mere technical proposition such conclusions are correct. But when the destiny of a great nation hangs upon the variation of a fundamental law, and its very existence is depending upon its reasonable infraction, then I think there are none who have the love of country in their hearts who will doubt the wisdom of such a measure. These nice distinctions, which gave to the politician the ground-work of his faith at a time when peace and prosperity were enjoyed by every citizen of this great commonwealth, can hardly hold their empire when the most crushing accumulation of disaster and ruin balancing in the scale, and ready to fall upon our unhappy country.

I know, from my own experience as a federal army officer, in active service in some of the seceded states, that the policy hitherto pursued and yet insisted upon by the tender footed demagogues, has placed in the hands of the enemy of our country a goodly portion of their material resources to prosecute this unholy war against us. As startling as this declaration may seem, it is nevertheless true, as I think I shall be able to prove.

Those who are familiar with the institutions of the south, and the organization of its society, will admit that the principal element of its material industry, consists in its slave population. This tower of strength still left to the undisturbed control of this refractory and rebellious people, and protected by the fostering care of our beneficial government, with all the omnipotent energies of its military and civic powers, how thankful ought these traitors to be that while they trample upon constitutions, and hurl defiance in our teeth, they still deal with a government that has such yearning solicitude and consideration for their wellfare.

The owners of negroes, in a majority of cases, so far as my observation extends, and I think it generally true, are directly or indirectly connected with the Confederate army in some way, either as officers, furnishers of supplies, or otherwise aiding and abetting this rebellion. The slave population is left at home, with the benediction of “political hacks” pronounced upon it, that this servile labor may continue to build fortifications and entrenchments for our enemies, construct barricades, and above all, to fill their grainaries from the abundant harvest,–the result of slave labor protected by us. There is but little cotton permitted to be raised in any of the slave states. This prohibition is by order of the rebel government. But all tillable land is to be employed in raising corn, wheat, oats, potatoes, and anything that will subsist its armies; and, again, the poorer class of white people who are not able to own slaves, are furnished by their more opulent neighbors with slaves to till their little patches of ground for the support of their families, while all the men of suitable age are fighting against us. These are facts, and I hold myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration.

You may as well undertake to reverse the current of the Mississippi with a clam shell as to bring this rebellion to a speedy and successful close, without humiliating compromises, unless we first cripple and weaken this great element of rebel power. At present I have no politics, and recite these facts for the benefit of my northern friends, who take a south-side view, only, of these questions.

Respectfully yours,

H.F. Sickles. Lt. Col. 9th Ill. Cavalry.



“Moline Mills.” Moline Workman, November 4, 1856.

“A Wager.” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860.

“From Curtis’ Column.” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to “Messrs. Editors,” July 30, 1862. “What Shall Be Done With the Slave? A Letter from Lieut. Col. Sickles, 9th Illinois Cavalry.” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862.

Guilbert to editor, July 31, 1862. “Interesting from Curtis’s Army.” New York Tribune, August 6, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to J.B. Danforth, Jr., August 5, 1862. “Letter from Lt. Col. Sickles.” Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862.

Browning, Orville H. Diary, October 14, 1862. Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, eds. The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume 1, 1850-1864. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Librabry, 1925.

“A Famous March: Fighting Our Way Through Arkansas.” Chicago Times, August 7, 1886.

Davenport, Edward A., ed. History of the Ninth Regiment Illinois Cavalry Volunteers. Chicago, IL: Donohue & Henneberry, 1888.

“Mustered Out.” National Tribune, July 21, 1892.

Hess, Earl J. “Confiscation and the Northern War Effort: The Army of the Southwest at Helena.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 1 (Spring, 1985).

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Teters, Kristopher A. Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.


‘Citizen Archivists’ and Civil War Documents

NARA microfilm

National Archives microfilm Photograph by author)

by Kelly Mezurek

When I began my research on an Ohio African American Civil War regiment, the 27th United States Colored Troops (USCT), the only option I had if I wanted to read the soldier’s compiled military service records and pension files was to visit the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Although I loved the experience of holding the nineteenth-century documents in my hands while sitting in the Archival Research Room on Pennsylvania Avenue, those multiple trips over the years were an overwhelming financial burden for me as a graduate student and later adjunct professor.

And there were many trips.

Researchers are limited to four “pulls,” or individual files, six times a day (the numbers of which have changed since I began in 2001; the days and hours for the research room have also been cut). For regimental research, the time required to study the records of over 1,000 men can be daunting. Even after microfilm copies of the compiled military service records became available, which presented new problems of readability and access to microfilm machines if you could obtain copies of the microfilm rolls, the pension files remained available only at the National Archives.

This has changed drastically with the massive high-quality scanning projects that have made millions of Civil War military documents available online from the comfort of our own homes. Fold 3, a commercial website affiliated with Ancestry.com, includes the complete set of the compiled military service records for the 27th USCT, as well as almost every other black regiment. All other Union and Confederate troops have various levels of records scanned, from index cards to full compiled military service records. The site is in the process of scanning all widow pensions, with 11 percent completed, and offer a variety of other administrative military records. As of today, the site includes 91,045,934 Civil War records. It is absolutely amazing how much research can now be completed at little cost; and it is impossible to describe how much easier it is to decipher the documents when I enlarge them on my 24” monitor!

Koffler POW Record

From the Civil War Service Records of David Koffler, a private in the 9th Maryland Infantry (Fold3.com)

Of course we need more than the official military records to research the men, regiments, and communities that participated in the Civil War. Newspapers, letters, and diaries provide evidence of the lived experiences in the participants own words. We are fortunate to have access to multiple online sources for nineteenth-century newspapers, through subscription or free of charge, including the Library of Congress site, Chronicling America, and Ancestry.com just to name a few. And a Google search for “online Civil War diaries and letters” brings up over 2,300,000 hits. While the typed content of nineteenth-century newspapers is relatively easy to read, transcribing the scribbled, punctuation-starved, sometimes cross-hatched handwriting of the soldiers and their loved ones is a different story.

Reynolds Obit Clipping

Report from Gettysburg, clipping from The Ohio Democrat, July 17, 1863 (Chronicling America, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/)

Fortunately, a growing number of organizations are working to increase our access to Civil War-era personal accounts and correspondence, as well as to additional official records. Through a growing number of crowdsourcing programs, or online forums that bring together a community of volunteers who collectively contribute to a defined project, people from around the world are helping to make some of the countless manuscript and archival materials held in repositories available online by transcribing valuable and interesting documents.

The impetus for many of these projects began on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial, with the goal of providing the general public with access to resources that had been previously limited to academic researchers or those known about only by the valuable archivists who protect our written records in local, state, and federal repositories. Unfortunately, budgets often fail to adequately provide for the multiple projects that museum professionals, archivists, and historians would like to do. The tools developed by early contributors to the digital history field, especially the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, provided the solution for many of the groups who sought to share Civil War primary sources online where they could reach larger audiences.

Three-Step graphic

From the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center “Instructions for the Transcription Center” page (https://transcription.si.edu/instructions)

Today there are several established online projects that provide a platform for “citizen archivists” to help transcribe these Civil War documents. Each site provides clear and simple instructions that allow participants to get right to work. Once completed, institutions place the transcriptions online for people who are curious or seek to become more informed, and for researchers who have limited time and financial means to visit archival repositories in person. Many stories have been written about the various projects and transcribers’ experiences, including this recent article published by the online version of The Christian Science Monitor—released while I was writing this post—“Wanted: Volunteers who like history . . . and can read cursive.”

Crater Diary Page

Page 1 from the Lewis Crater Diary, 1864-1898, part of The University of Iowa Libraries DIY History Civil War Diaries and Letters project (http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/items/show/326)

If you would like to become a transcriber for one of these wonderful projects and help to expand our understanding of the experiences of Americans during the most pivotal time in our history, here is a list of some of the projects related to the Civil War era. And if you know of any others, will you please share in the comments section?

Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center  The Smithsonian has multiple topics to choose from, but those specifically related to the Civil War era include the Douglass’ Monthly and North Carolina Assistant Commissioner, Letters Received.

National Archives: Citizen Archivist Dashboard  A variety of manuscript collections selected from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, examples from the Civil War include the case files for former Confederates seeking pardons and amnesty, approved pension files, and The Adjutant General’s Office, Letters Received.

The University of Iowa Libraries: DIY History – Civil War Diaries and Letters  This project is almost complete with over 9,100 of 9,154 pages from over 90 manuscript collections transcribed.

African American Civil War Soldiers  This project seeks to transcribe the soldier’s military service records held by the National Records and Administration and available on Fold3 to create a database of the almost 180,000 black men who served in the United States Colored Troops.

The Newberry: Transcribing Modern Manuscripts  This project has several topics that include the Civil War era, including Family Life in the Midwest: Letters and Family Life in the Midwest: Diaries.

Mapping the Fourth of July: Exploring Independence Day in the Civil War Era This project includes speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, and letters from a variety of American citizens who lived throughout the country during the Civil War.

Digital Maine Transcription Project Search under “Browse by Tag” to see a number of Civil War documents by topic, regiments, and battles.

At the Utterance of “Spottsylvania”

From The Thirty-Second Maine Regiment of Infantry Volunteers: An Historical Sketch by Henry C. Houston of Co. C (Portland, ME: Press of Southworth Brothers, 1903), pp. 144-145:

The utterance of the single word “Spottsylvania” [sic] is enough to bring most clearly and vividly before out mental vision all the scenes of those long hours of restless and unremitting strife.At its sound, we can still plainly behold the piles of dead and wounded heaped about the “bloody angle”, where the tide of battle surged highest and most fiercely. We can still hear the deep and thunderous reverberations of that incessant musketry-firing which for so many hours rolled and pealed in one grand volume of sound, without an interval. We can still see the trees of the dense forest amid which the conflict was waged, all scarred, scathed and torn by the storm of flying missiles which swept through them. We remember the stout trunks, riven to fragments by the exploding shell, or literally hewn to pieces by the musket-balls, and cut down as if felled by the woodman’s axe.