Diary of a Yankee Engineer: The Civil War Story of John H. Westervelt, Engineer, 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps

Diary of a Yankee Engineer: The Civil War Story of John H. Westervelt, Engineer, 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps

Diary of a Yankee Engineer: The Civil War Story of John H. Westervelt, Engineer, 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps

Diary of a Yankee Engineer: The Civil War Story of John H. Westervelt, Engineer, 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps

Synopsis

On September 8, 1862, John H. Westervelt enlisted as a private into the 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Corps. That same year, he shipped out of New York on the "Star of the South" to South Carolina to fight for the North in the Civil War. The following April, he began a journal for his 13-year-old son Frazee so that his child could know of his experiences in the war. Sixty-two years later, John Westervelt's journal - 68 entries written on tattered, yellow pages, a record of "such things as may come under [his] personal observation" - was found in the trash outside his former home now West Farms. In early 1995, his drawings, meant to accompany the written journal, were discovered in the West Point Special Collections Archives. The two have been reunited in Diary of a Yankee Engineer. Westervelt's words, intended not for the history books but for the education of his young son, present a more humble vision of military life and of the North's struggle in the Civil War, than the often told sagas of glory. The journal gives us a rare look at the soldier's life of relentless tedium, the fatiguing fight of brother against brother - of pestilence and illness, giving us a "truer, if not beautiful" picture of war. This is the story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary time - a man who merely lived as he thought right and who died in consequence. Anita Palladino's introduction provides us with a brief history of the man and the events of his life. By salvaging John Westervelt's journal and reuniting its text with its art, Ms. Palladino has unearthed a rare, firsthand look at the men behind the war of Rebellion.

Excerpt

By the time the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, two hundred years had passed since the Westervelt family docked at New Amsterdam. From two brothers on board the Hoop were to descend a long line of patriots, religious and political leaders, and, in 1827, a farmer’s son named John Henry Westervelt.

Unlike some of his more renowned relatives, John lived a relatively obscure life. The little that is known about him comes, for the most part, through his own words, written in faded ink and sent in installments to his thirteen-year-old son, Frazee. This diary, on a series of tattered, yellow pages, records “such things as may come under my personal observation” during his service with the 1st New York Engineer Corps.

John’s accounts do not speak with the authority of a general and make no pretense of battlefield heroics. Yet, by his intent to write not for history, but for Frazee, his journal presents a truer vision of military life than the more often told sagas of glory. The soldier’s life of relentless tedium, the fatiguing fight against the twin enemies of pestilence and illness, give us perhaps one of the “truer, if not beautiful” pictures of war. Early dreams of greatness depart, leaving only the voice of an ordinary man in an extraordinary time, a man who merely lived as he thought right, and died in consequence.

The early life of John Westervelt is largely undocumented; both church and school records for the years involved are missing, yet his youth was undoubtedly similar to that of other farm boys in mid-nineteenth-century America. His early education was probably either at Brick Church or English

1. W. Talman Westervelt, Genealogy of the Westervelt Family (Salem, Mass.: Higginson Books, 1990), pp. 1–2.

2. Diary entry of May 8, 1864.

3. Comment written on reverse of his sketch.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.