Preserving Civil War Diaries

By Priest, John Michael | Social Education, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Preserving Civil War Diaries


Priest, John Michael, Social Education


THE STUDENTS INTERPRETING AND PRESERVING SOLDIERS' STORIES program, which I began more than ten years ago, helps students learn about the American Civil War and engage in history firsthand. Since 1990, more than twenty students in grades 9-12 in South Hagerstown High School, Hagerstown, Maryland, have used their time before or after school to transcribe, edit, and publish primary source documents of Civil War veterans. They analyze, interpret, and investigate multiple historical viewpoints to validate primary source documents while preparing the documents for publication. Because we found that we could not recruit the requisite fifteen students for a class each year, and we could not integrate the class content into the Washington County Social Studies Essential Curriculum, the program is voluntary and occurs during nonschool hours.

Historical Diaries

In 1990, we published From New Bern to Fredericksburg, the Civil War diary of Captain James Wren (Company B, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers). Our second book was One Surgeon's Private War, the Civil War memoirs of Surgeon William W. Potter (49th and 57th New York Volunteers). Our most recent project, which began in March 1999, involves Sergeant William H. Relyea's The History of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers. This is the third in a series of publishing projects at South Hagerstown High School.

James Wren

James Wren's diary covers the war from March 1862 through December 1862. During that time, the captain, an iron manufacturer from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, saw action at New Bern, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The students produced this work from an undated, typed manuscript that I found at Antietam National Battlefield. The students worked on all the footnotes, the map, the artwork, and the photography for the book. They also wrote the appendixes, which include a glossary of Wren's unique spelling and a copy of his letter of resignation from the army. The students also indexed the work.

The unflappable James Wren decided in early 1863 that he had done his duty in the war and had to return home to attend to his business. A phonetic speller who used only three punctuation marks in the entire manuscript, Wren wrote about what he lived as he "heared" it and "seen" it. He wrote in a distinctive dialect, which the students preserved. The product of a segregated and class-conscious society, he poked fun at the Irish and at the Germans. The students had never considered ethnic groups other than African Americans or Native Americans as being the victims of prejudice and racism.

The captain used his authority to sober up a drunken enlisted man by having him strapped to a board on his back for a day. He also commandeered houses for hospitals and for his personal quarters. In another instance, he stole a general's Thanksgiving dinner. His men pilfered houses in Fredericksburg, Virginia, for flour and luxury items. Students thought that Wren was a contradictory, uneducated "character," to say the least.

William W. Potter

William W. Potter served in two Civil War regiments between 1861 and 1864: the 49th and the 57th New York Infantry. His recollections, which my daughter transcribed from his original 1888 typescript copy, contain vivid accounts of the Peninsula Campaign and the fighting around Petersburg. William Potter grew a beard (a mark of adulthood) and developed into a self-assured officer who was always watching out for his own betterment. He spent a great deal of his time "rubbing elbows" with his superiors to secure his best interests. Every inch the officer and the gentleman, he seldom mentioned enlisted men by name, and he never spoke of them as his equals. When his cigar maker was killed, Potter griped about the loss of the man's services but could not recall his name (the students identified the man as Private James Kris, age eighteen, of Company F). As a surgeon, Potter performed an early version of plastic surgery on a man whose face had been destroyed by a shell fragment. …

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