On to Atlanta: The Civil War Diaries of John Hill Ferguson, Illinois Tenth Regiment of Volunteers

On to Atlanta: The Civil War Diaries of John Hill Ferguson, Illinois Tenth Regiment of Volunteers

On to Atlanta: The Civil War Diaries of John Hill Ferguson, Illinois Tenth Regiment of Volunteers

On to Atlanta: The Civil War Diaries of John Hill Ferguson, Illinois Tenth Regiment of Volunteers


Historians have shown us the drama and sweep of the swathe Sherman's March cut through the South. Officers have bequeathed us accounts of what happened in strategic and practical terms. But for a gritty, day-by-day, on-the-ground view of what the march to Atlanta meant to the common soldier, nothing can compare to the diary of an enlisted man like John Hill Ferguson. nbsp; A Scottish immigrant and a U.S. citizen since 1856, Ferguson enlisted in the Illinois Veteran Volunteers in 1860 and shortly afterward began to keep a diary. The annotated entries presented here, from 1864 and 1865, describe life in the Tenth Illinois as the troops made their way through the Carolinas and Georgia under Sherman. In these pages the details of Civil War soldiering become real, immediate, and personal, as do the daily dramas of life on the march. Smallpox struck Ferguson's unit early on, decimating his company; food, when there was any, was invariably poor; and always Confederate defenders waited up ahead, exacting a heavy toll on the advancing Northerners. These events and details, conveyed with all the force of Ferguson's fine intellect and superior powers of observation, offer an unforgettable firsthand view of that savage contest.


I have always had a great love of history. I credit my father for this. He has always given my sister and me a sense of belonging to the world and taught us that often the actions of just a few individuals have an impact on world events. My mother has always encouraged me to use my imagination and be tenacious. I have also been blessed with aunts, uncles, more distant relatives, friends, and teachers who nurtured me in so many ways.

One of these many caring family members was a cousin named Mrs. Ona Brown Mitchell. “Miss Ona,” as I called her, was my second cousin on my father’s side. She was born in the early part of the twentieth century in east-central Illinois. Although I knew her for most of my life, we became close only when I was an adult. We visited many times, and she was a constant correspondent for many years. She passed away just a few years ago. in the early 1990s, when I was living in Jacksonville, Illinois, Miss Ona wrote to me and mentioned that one of her family members had been a Union soldier and that he had kept a diary during his service. His granddaughter was an alumna of MacMurray College in Jacksonville, and she had placed his diaries in its archives. Miss Ona asked if I would go to MacMurray College’s Henry Pfeiffer Library and have a look at them, and I agreed to do so.

The staff at the library was very helpful. They spent several days locating the documents of John Hill Ferguson in the storage area of their archives and called me when they were available. Central Illinois, where Jacksonville is located, is Abraham Lincoln country, and one fall afternoon I found myself sitting in the library’s Lincoln Room on a hard oak chair. I was looking at five small books of differing sizes with varying types of paper, written mostly in India ink and in a neat hand. These were the diaries of John Hill Ferguson. Within a few moments of exposure to these papers, I became aware of their significance. I was holding history. It was alive in my hands and before my eyes. After my obligation to share with Miss Ona the information that she requested was fulfilled, I wanted to find a way to bring these neglected documents to others.

I began to transcribe Mr. Ferguson’s diaries in my spare time. Initially I recorded them verbatim, including all nonstandard spellings and, since Ferguson did not use any punctuation for the first few years, without adding any punctuation. Later, I corrected the spelling of only the . . .

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