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

By John H. Westervelt; Anita Palladino | Go to book overview

Introduction

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.1

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”2 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”3 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.

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