This episode of the podcast features an interview with Jan Croon, the editor of The War Outside My Window - The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865. The book is the diary of the young man and his observations of the Civil War and his life during that time. It forms an excellent first-hand account of the war, the life his wealthy family lived beforehand as well as their state of affairs which were the same as those of so many Georgians in the wake of the war.
A link to a review of the book can be found here.
The link to this podccast episode can be found here.
Sam Burnham, Curator
To listen to the podcast episode featuring an interview with editor Jan Croon, click here.
I am thankful to have had the opportunity to take a look at at such an intriguing work. Only a day after my review copy shipped, a family friend recommended the book pointing out she's a cousin of the author. This is a published diary meaning that, in this case, the author has died and the published work has been completed by an editor who compiled the diary and tried to make it relevant and readable for a modern audience. This puts an effective editor in the position of researcher, dot connector, notation maker, and even translator.
The author, LeRoy Wiley Gresham, was 12 years old when he began his diary in 1860. Gresham was a particularly bright young man. He was already an adept writer showed an interest in many subjects, including the gathering clouds of the ominous war to come. The Greshams were an educated family who were among the wealthy of Macon's populace. LeRoy was afflicted with a condition of the spine that left him bedridden. Instead of many of the activities common to other boys his age (which could have included service among the Confederate military ranks) he became an avid reader. He documents the news of each day including reports from the battlefield, from politics, and typically a report of the day's weather. Occasionally an entry might be nothing more than a weather report from the day. in other entries, such as late September, 1863, he relays news of major developments in the war.
If you know the names and dates, you know what to expect from the events. But you find yourself interested to read how he reports it. You can see Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Peachtree Creek, and Atlanta, long before they happen. But to see it in the eyes of a young man standing in the path of Sherman's advance gives you a taste of what it must have been like to be standing there yourself. I can imagine that for a person who does not know the specific names and dates, this narrative makes for a great story a first time learner will get caught up in.
I was amazed to see how quickly the news traveled then. Reports from battles were often given by the next day, although much of the information was wrong. Casualty numbers and specific people reported dead were wildly inaccurate and he often added corrections as he received new information. He reports Hood killed at Chickamauga, then maybe not dead, then not dead but having lost his leg. The corrections also included the death of Peyton Colquitt, a relative of Gresham's who has been mentioned here before.
LeRoy's fortunes seem to track the Confederacy's. At first he has a life of wealth and privilege. Without giving away too much, the family's fortunes, and LeRoy's health, take a dramatic turn in the famine left in Sherman's wake - much like the fledgling nation's. LeRoy's fate and the Confederacy's seem to be metaphorically tied to each other.
As for the editing, Janet Elizabeth Croon took a diary from the 1860's with the intent of presenting it to a modern audience. I mentioned "translator" as one of the hats she had to wear. Gresham uses many abbreviations and terms that were familiar to him but that the casual reader might not understand. Carefully added text fills in the gaps between his familiarity and the reader's curiosity. It makes for a seamless read that is easily understandable in 2018.
There are extensive footnotes to help the reader understand historic, cultural, familial, and medical terms or allusions. It is evident that Croon put a lot of work into research, documentation, and gathering information that she probably had to learn herself as she went. The notes are so impressive that it pains me to point out there are a very few inaccuracies (ex: 20 May 1864 when Rome, GA is evacuated, our army was at Kingston, GA, not NC). The errors are so rare and minimal and that one so close to home that it caught my attention. Such minimal errors are understandable when the weight of the notes are considered. She did a fantastic job.
One of the best things about this book is it puts a first-hand account of the era, and the war specifically, in a form that makes it accessible to an everyday reader. This is a serious historical document that the average person in 2018 can understand. You don't have to be a Civil War scholar or even a historian to appreciate it or enjoy it. The human story involved, the struggle of a youngster who learned to deal with the specter of death at an early age before having to confront his own frail mortality, is touching. In an age where anything Confederate is to be hated and scorned, Gresham reintroduces the humanity of the Southern people into the conversation. He's not a statue or a flag, hes a young boy facing a harsh world and it is easy to become sympathetic to him. Croon does a good job of steering away from bias on either side and presenting only the facts and letting LeRoy tell his first-hand story. And I enjoyed reading it.
Sam Burnham, Curator
One of our stops on our recent trip to the Washington area was Manassas Battlefield. The very first stop at the battlefield was, of course, the visitor center. At Manassas, that is located on Henry Hill, site of the heaviest fighting during the first battle. Manassas, known to some as Bull Run, is unique in that it doesn't just commemorate multiple days of fighting, it covers two separate battles on the same ground, fought roughly a year apart. The majority of 1st Manassas was fought on and around Henry Hill.
On July 21, 1861, many civilians came out and sat out on a hill overlooking the battleground to watch the pageantry and observe what both sides believed would be a swift and ending to this war. Take two sides made of Americans, distribute each a full share of American hubris and voila, naivete regarding war. The townspeople spread blankets and picnicked under the July sun. No one expected what really happened.
85-year-old Judith Henry was bedridden in the house atop the hill. During the battle her house was destroyed by Union canon fire and the widow was killed. She is buried just behind the reconstructed home where the Henry family had lived for over 100 years.
A Legend is Born
During the battle, the Union was gaining the upper hand and Confederate troops began to fall back to the treeline. Just inside that treeline a 37 year old college professor whose quirky ways had earned him the nickname "Tom Fool" was sitting on his horse and preparing to lead his 2,500 Virginians onto the battlefield. When told that the enemy was driving the Confederates, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson replied, "Then we will give them the bayonet." In addition to a military officer, Jackson was a strict Presbyterian, a Calvinist of the highest order. There was no way in his mind that he could die any time other than the ordained moment. He therefore didn't take many extra precautions to avoid the event. So moments later he was on Henry Hill leading a push against the rallying Union forces, standing out in the open, not remotely seeking cover. General Barnard Bee saw this spectacle and cried out to his men "There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Let's go to his assistance!" Bee would be killed in the following moments and Jackson had earned a new nickname - one that people tend to remember more than his given name.
Here Come the Georgians
The Union artillery had been commanded to report to Henry Hill and open fire. Their commander pointed out the lack of infantry support but the command stood. As they unlimbered their artillery they noticed they were a tad late. The Confederate artillery was much closer than anticipated and already opening fire. What followed is described at the battlefield as an "artillery duel." It was basically two lines of cannons set up entirely too close together and blasting away at each other. It wasn't a good situation for anyone involved.
In a world where bigger is better and might makes right, having eleven artillery pieces on a hilltop sounds right invincible. In reality, without infantry support, those batteries are sitting ducks. So when that terrible whoop came from yonder woods - that first occurrence of the Rebel Yell - the Yanks knew they were in trouble. The Georgians poured from the treeline along with Kentuckians and Virginians and came rushing at the artillerymen. It doesn't matter how big your guns are when about 50 men are facing down 6 or 8 regiments of screaming angry Southerners. The artillerymen fled or were killed. The Confederates took the hill and then pushed back two gallant attempts by the US Marines to reclaim it.
In the fighting that day, there were approximately 5000 casualties. The nation learned that the war would be neither quick nor glorious. The townspeople who came to watch wound up fleeing in fear. Their evacuation hindered the Union retreat by clogging up the roads with extra traffic and chaos. Everything that had been associated with war in the past no longer existed - if it ever had. Manassas was violent, brutal, unforgiving. Rather than a parade with fancy fireworks, spectators witnessed two giant brutes fighting on a hillside, each trying to find the crudest way imaginable to destroy the other, with little or no regard for collateral damage.
Among the dead were Savannah's General Francis Bartow and a 26-year-old Roman, Private Charles B. Norton.
Bartow was commanding the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 11th Georgia regiments as well as the 1st Kentucky regiment. Norton was assigned to Company A, 8th Georgia. General Barnard Bee of South Carolina, who inadvertently gave Jackson his nickname was also killed at Manassas. They are just a few of the many. And Manassas was just the beginning of a war that would claim Jackson as well.
It is hard to overstate just how much America changed on Henry Hill at 1st Manassas. May we never forget what happened there. May it be a lesson to us in times of incivility. May the lesson be that there is no easy, quick, or glorious way for war to replace proper and civil debate. And may the brutality on Henry Hill never find our own line of sight.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire