The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 Edited by Janet Elizabeth Croon, Savas Beatue Publishing, 480 pp, maps, images, medical forward, Dramatis Personae, $34.95
Residing in a family that owned two rural Georgia plantations but residing in Macon, Georgia, LeRoy W. Gresham, has left a remarkable document that reveals much about the daily life of a slave holding family. Gresham is a resilient young adult who grievously suffers from known and unknown health conditions. While viewing a house that had recently burned down, a chimney collapsed and struck his leg. In his future are not canes, crutches or wheelchairs. He must be pulled around in a cart by his brother, cousins or a slave. Unknown to his doctor or his parents is that tuberculosis has entered his body and he is slowly degenerating. He dies in 1865 at the age of 18.
The American Civil War is indeed outside of his window. In 1860 he gathers premonitions of the coming storm when he travels on a ship from Savannah to Philadelphia and New York City for the purpose of being examined by medical specialists. He notes the present of Japanese visitors walking the streets of Philadelphia. Back home, he views it by reading newspapers, conversing with relatives and visiting the troop trains that pass through Macon. Sherman’s march misses Macon but the refugees from the march don’t.
If you are an environment historian, you should read the diary for the droughts and floods that interrupt the agriculture practices of the plantations and the fluctuating prices of food. If you are a social historian, you should read this for his description of his family’s extended relative connections, his education, the family’s parlor games and the diets of a plantation household that live in a city. If you are drawn to communications and journalism, you will find how fast news and newspapers travel between the United States and the Confederate States. He has his favorite Northern and Southern newspapers and he comes to an understanding of ‘fake news’ and how and why it exists. If you are a medical historian, you will discover how doctors understand and treat Gresham’s coughs, back pains, headaches, nerve damage to his leg and hips. Readers will come to learn that a belladonna plaster on the spine really, really itches.
In Gresham’s diary there are fires which destroy homes; eleven homes and farm buildings are destroyed by fire during 1860-1861. Readers might ponder whether these fires occur when a fire place ember pops and lands on carpets and quilts or whether some slaves became arsonists. Funerals are a regular occurrence. Elders and infants die; adults get very sick very quickly and die.
Gresham is never not reading two or three books at the same time. The works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, James Fennimore Cooper, William Prescott [the historian] are each on his bookshelves which hold history, travel or fiction books. If relatives come to visit him, they usually bring a book or newspapers and then take some time to play chess with him. Also on his book shelf are manuals of chess openings used by the experts. He does have opinions about the New York City and Philadelphia newspaper editors.
When Gresham is outside he travels to the train station to talk to the troops or ventures to a target range where he practices his archery and rifle skills. With help he flies a kite. At night he studies the constellations. During the daytime he works on math problems, Latin and essays.
The annotated notes by Janet Elizabeth Coon are clear, concise and insightful. There are maps, sample pages of the diary, and a list of those relatives, neighbors and slaves mentioned in the diary. What readers will not find in the book is ‘presentism’ inserted by the author. Race, gender, class issues are not offered in the context of today’s social and political environment. They are not absent from the diary though. You may read the diary and find out what women do, slaves do, capitalists do as viewed through the eyes of a young adult male.
There are between twelve and fifteen book awards related to the American Civil War. The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 will likely be nominated several times as a ‘book of the year’. Other diaries of this caliber are by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Sarah Morgan, Sam Watkins and the Cormany Diaries.