The Civil War: Invalid boy’s diary at Library of Congress needs to be read without prejudice

Diaries of the Civil War cannot be understood with eyes biased by hindsight. Photo: Library of Congress Photo: Architect of the Capitol

VIENNA, Va., November 14, 2012 — It seems much is being made of at least one of the Civil War holdings of the Library of Congress, on display as part of their current exposition.  And the simple but elegant comments by a teenage boy are, sadly, being viewed through 21st Century eyes rather than those of the era in which they were written. It is ever thus.

Michelle Krowl, one of the manuscript specialists at the LOC, has read and studied the writings of this 17-year-old boy, a resident of Macon, Ga. as he saw and experienced parts of the war looking out the windows of his home, and she appreciates the youth’s outstanding effort at chronicling what he saw and felt.

Bedridden, Youth Turned to His Diary

General Sherman

The young man and scribe, Leroy Wiley Gresham, had  apparently been crippled by a broken leg which occurred many years prior to the time of the diaries. He spent a good deal of his time in bed and suffered from other problems, such as bedsores (so it appears from the descriptions). He also endured the various medicinal “remedies” of the time, which may or may not have helped.

His sad thoughts at the age of 15 are expressed on St. Patrick’s Day, 1863, when he acknowledges that he is “more discouraged and less hopeful” than he ever has been before and is fully aware that he is “weaker” and “more helpless” than he ever remembers being.

The Boy Wrote About His World As He Knew It

Homebound, he watches other boys play ball outside. Then the activities, sounds, and pictures of the war begin to intrude into his area, offering him something new to be interested in.

His command of language is almost startling, assuming that with his handicap he may never have attended school. Still  his vocabulary and expression bespeak someone who somewhere, somehow was educated.. 

A reporter in a national newspaper recently wrote about Gresham and his ability to  read Shakespeare and Dickens as well as play chess. But the reporter just has to end the description with, “But he is a partisan Southern youth,” and we’re left to wonder, what else he could possibly be living in Macon?

Yes, he’s from Georgia, which means he refers to Abraham Lincoln as “the royal ape” or to a Northern general who was killed in battle as a “red-mouthed abolitionist.” Are we supposed to color this young man with the prejudices of the victors, 150 years after the victory? The objectivity supposedly demanded of journalists is certainly missing from this article.

A Journey to the North Did Not Help the Boy

Dr. Joseph Pancoast

An interesting facet is that Gresham and his dad, obviously well-to-do individuals, sail up to Philadelphia in order that the boy might be examined by a noted Quaker doctor, Dr. Joseph Pancoast, who specialized in surgery.  The visit is apparently unsuccessful, and the leg that seems to have healed improperly after the break is never straightened out correctly. The doctor advises him to stay “lying down for the summer.” But for him, summer never ends. 

The diary predictably covers the members of the household, including the presence of the family’s slaves, one of whom, Howard, his father takes with him when he goes off to fight in the war.

At some point in 1864, Gresham tells how one of the slaves belonging to a cousin is hanged for what was termed “insubordination,” and others are – in his words – “paroled” because they joined with other raiding groups and had the gall to declare themselves free. A current-day reader is advised “to fairly guess what he meant by ‘paroled,’” leaving an inference that is far from clear.

The journal describes the ups and downs of a Southern family’s life in that turbulent time with the Union forces stationed just outside Macon, and the town capitulated into an armistice to avoid being overtaken on General Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Cannonball House in Macon, Ga. got hit by Union

The last of anything approaching relative good health for the boy seems to be in April, as he expresses his failing feelings about the war: “The capitulation of Lee is believed to be” real, and “if so, good-bye C.S.A.” It is two and a half weeks after Lincoln’s assassination that he hears the word, but he makes no comment on it.

Why It Is Important to Read Historic Pieces in their Context

Concurrently with his already precarious health declining in May, he notes that the slaves have already started leaving. A notation at the end in a different hand says that he died on July 18, 1865.

The diary is, by turns, fascinating, illuminating, depressing, and brilliant. The writing and the feelings, which belong to this young man alone, are admittedly colored by his family and upbringing, but they do not deserve to have the mantle of prejudice draped upon them by reporters of today in a feeble attempt to vilify a young boy of the South.

A friend of mine from Florida sent me a note saying that these people, “are judging this sick kid’s writings by today’s standards and completely push aside the feelings of this boy. They do not even try to understand his thoughts and have a one-track mind towards anything that occurred in the South. This to me, is a classic case of ignorance.” I concur.

While many diarists have been published through the years, these diaries by a teenager during the Civil War, and a handicapped one at that, are an evocative read and a welcome addition to the library of any Civil War buff.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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