Harper's Weekly 02/04/1865
A SOLDIER'S DIARY.
Mr. Editor,—I send you a bit of veritable his-
tory—a leaf from a soldier's diary in the last cam-
paign. The testimony of an eye-and-ear witness,
the personal record and experience of one man is
always valuable. But every man in the army has
his story or report to give. Collect a hundred thou-
sand such reports, and you have the history of a
campaign. Not the dry official report of the gen-
eral or corps commander, nor even the flaming rhe-
torical descriptions of “our correspondent.” Here,
as nothing was done for glory, so nothing is written
for effect. But the simple incidents of a soldier's
life, told naturally as they fell out, are forever link-
ed with the brightest and the darkest page in a na-
To the writer, of course, and to his family and
friends, not to the great public, such a record is
most valuable. It will instruct the present, and
be an heir-loom to future generations. And to him-
self it remains a cherished memento of dear-bought
experience. A note taken on the spot is a wonder-
ful refresher of memory. The mere telling from
day to day of what he did and where he was brings
up a host of incidents, a thousand associations, just
as the items of a business man's experience lay open
at a glance his whole plan and economy of life. All
common men in the midst of great actions are poets,
and write poetically; that is, truthfully. A bold
stroke or two, no matter how rough the writing
may be, paints the image to the mental eye, and
gives the scenery of war and battle. And as the
scene changes and shifts, and unrolls itself to the
gaze of the actor and spectator, he is made a par-
ticipant in all the fortunes of the fight, in all the
passions of the combatants, while the glory or dis-
grace of the action is keenly felt as his own. In
after-life he lives over again in memory the battles
through which he passed, and how he fought all
day and marched all night in one of those flank
movements which his General was so famed for ex-
ecuting. He remembers that in such an action or
skirmish a bullet ticked him, and a comrade was
either wounded or killed; that on such a night he
worked in the trenches in the rain, or was detailed
as picket-guard; and that another time he lay with
his regiment a long time under a broiling sun, and
lay close to keep clear of rebel bullets and shells
falling thick about him. He is fond of telling over
“hair-breadth” escapes, his “moving accidents” by
flood and field, and his particular “peril” in the
“imminent deadly breach.” In short, the whole
art of writing or story-telling, to the private soldier,
consists in putting the greatest quantity of life and
action into the fewest possible words.
April 13.—Pleasant morning.—Left for our regiment at
8 o'clock; marched to Alexandria at 10 o'clock; took the
cars, got to our regiment at Rappahannock station at 5
April 17.—Sunday.—Cloudy, cold morning.—Worked
all day building our tents.—Cleared off in the afternoon—
heavy fall of snow on the mountains.
April 18.—Cold morning.—Finished our house and
moved into it—four of us—all together.
April 22.—Frosty morning, but pleasant.—The regi-
ment presented Colonel Woodard with a splendid horse,
saddle, and bridle, worth $305.
May 4.—Started for the front.—Marched across the
Rapidan at 9 o'clock; camped and got our breakfast;
marched to the front and camped for the night.
May 5.—Drawn up in line of battle.—Marched into the
woods and laid down.—Four companies went out skirmish-
ing.—At 9 o'clock, drawn up in line of battle; 12 o'clock,
charged the rebel lines.—Lost a good many boys.—Colonel
May 6.—Started at 4 o'clock; marched out two miles to
the rebel lines, formed in line of battle, and laid down.—
Laid all day: shells passed over us pretty thick.—Rebs
charged our right wing: drove it in.—Withdrew to our
May 7.—At sunrise the rebs made a charge on our cen-
tre, but we drove them back: sharp-shooters firing at us,
we charged on them and drove them back to their breast-
works.—They shelled us all day.—Left at 9 o'clock to re-
inforce the left wing.
May 8.—Marched all night down through Spottsylvania.
—Went into the fight at 10 o'clock, made two charges on
the rebs, got drove back—loss very heavy.—Rested.—Or-
dered out in front: only 200 men left.—Stand picket all
May 9.—Pleasant morning.—Started early, marched
out, formed a line of battle.—Laid down.—Laid all day
in the hot sun, with our straps on.—Attacked the rebs a
little before night, drove them back, then laid down and
May 10.—Pleasant morning.—The battle commenced
anew at noon, lasted till 9 o'clock, when we passed to the
front to support the skirmishers.—Staid there until dark;
drew back, lay down for the night.
May 11.—Cloudy, looks like rain.—Skirmish firing com-
menced early.—Just commenced to rain a little.—Ten
o'clock, moved back into the woods, and stopped.—Laid
there all day and all night, until 4 o'clock.—Rained near-
ly all night.
May 13.—Started at daylight, marched one mile, stop-
ped and wrote a letter home at 11 o'clock.—Built a line of
breast-works—rained a good deal—put up tents and laid
down.—Called up at 10 o'clock, and marched all night in
May 14.—Stopped at 5 o'clock, made our coffee, and ate
our breakfast.—Laid there all day and all night; rained
a good deal.—Drew three days' rations.—A good deal of
fighting through the day: got shelled some.
May 17.—Cloudy.—All quiet along the lines this morn-
ing.—Sick to-day: building fortifications.
May 18.—Warm morning.—The battle opened at sun-
rise; very heavy artillery firing.—Fired all the forenoon.
—Got letters from home—sent a letter home.—Threaten-
ing rain.—Go on picket: rained some in the night.
May 19.—Cloudy.—All quiet on the line.—Our boys
changed papers with the rebs this morning.—Wrote a let-
ter home.—Relieved from picket at 9 o'clock: laid behind
breast-works all night.
May 23.—Cloudy and cool.—All quiet this morning.—
We are in Bowling Green, beginning to move forward.—
Marched nine miles, forded the North Anna River at 2
o'clock.—The rebs attacked us at 6 o'clock.—Fought an
hour and a half: whipped them.
May 28.—Pleasant morning.—Started at sunrise,
marched 10 miles, crossed the Pamunky River, and
formed a line of battle: threw up breast-works.
June 3.—Rainy morning.—The battle opened at six
o'clock.—Continual roar of musketry and artillery until
evening: rained all the time.—I was on the skirmish line
from 9 till 5: balls and shells fell thick all around me.
June 6.—Cloudy, but warm. Stopped at 6 o'clock near
Cold Harbor.—Cooked our breakfast, washed, got a letter
from home: ordered to pack up and go on picket at even-
ing.—Got a good night's sleep.
June 7.—Cool and cloudy.—The boys go in swimming
in the mill-pond.—Went out on picket at 8 o'clock: re-
lieved at sundown.—Marched five miles and bivouacked
for the night.
That will do for the present. The notes have a
sameness, like the duties which the soldier has to
perform. But they give some idea of a campaign
which the boys commonly describe as “forty days
under fire.” O ye civilians and pen-and-ink gen
erals, who manage the war at home and sketch im-
aginary campaigns over cigars and wine and the
daily papers, while you speculate on the rising
glory of the country, and the great names of the
war, never forget the poor private soldier, nor de-
spise these “short and simple annals” of his exist-