Text authored by Harry Smeltzer: Preview – Croon (Ed), “The War Outside My Window” on April 17, 2018
Note: Bull Runnings is Harry Smeltzer's weblog on the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas
CWL: note the paragraph which begins 'Undoubtedly . . . 'This is a little different for Bull Runnings. The good folks at Savas Beatie sent me a digital, advance unedited galley of a unique diary, The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, edited by Janet Elizabeth Croon. The story of this diary, which I’ll describe below, has been bouncing around for quite some time – here’s a WaPo article from 2012.
I’ve read snippets of LeRoy’s diary, and enough of other online sources which you can find yourself to get a good idea of his back story (note this is a preview, not a review.) Here’s the gist – he was a very bright, well-read, and articulate young man, living in Macon, GA. He suffered from a disease resulting from a severe injury to his leg – when the diary opens, he’s already an invalid and would need to be pulled about in a wagon of sorts. Unlike the reader LeRoy was of course unaware that his condition was mortal, and he would barely outlive the war that understandably occupied so much of his thoughts. Our knowledge of his impending doom makes his daily writings, spanning the whole conflict and very much of and in the moment, all the more poignant in their innocence, ignorance, and wit. You’ll feel for the kid.
Here’s young Gresham’s entry for July 22, 1861, with the early news of the fighting at Manassas:
Macon July 22 1861: Another great battle at Manassas! Sherman’s Battery taken! Terrible Slaughter on both sides! The enemy retired from the field. The Fight commenced 4 oclock this morning and continued until about seven. The battle raged with terrible force and a heavy loss on both sides. There has evidently been a signal Victory at Bulls Run. President Davis’ message is out. It is not only well written, but beautiful in contrast to the boorish effort of Doctor Lincoln, Chief magistrate of United States. Raining very slightly before breakfast this morning. Sad news Gen. F. S. Bartow is killed. Macon Gaurds in the fight. President Davis commanded in person; Beauregarde + Johnson’s army both engaged 40 000 to 70 000 on a side. Beauregarde’s horse shot from under him. It will be sometime before we can get the truth of it. Dressed my back this morning and its healing though very slowly. General Wise has also gained a signal Victory in western Virginia, killing 150 federals and losing few of his men. Julia Ann is up and about again. Very heavy shower this afternoon. Uncle John, Deo Volente [God willing], leaves for Athens tomorrow. Father comes home but there are no more reliable dispatches. The battles undoubtedly sends a thrill of Anguish to many an anxious heart in the newborn Confederacy. Ave Maria Jose [goodbye].Undoubtedly, some will latch on to the undeniable fact that LeRoy was a youth of privilege and wealth, a member of a slaveholding family with personal servants, and may argue that these are the most important, or even the only, aspects of his life with which we should concern ourselves, to the exclusion of all others. To the contrary, young Gresham’s story and personal observations give great insight into the mind of someone raised in the reality of the times, and should provide a tool for historians to interpret those times in context as opposed to retrospect. I mean, that’s their job, after all. It’s not everyone’s job. But it is that of the historian.
It’s hard to tell you what you’ll get with the final product. Of course you get the diary and detailed annotations in bottom of page footnotes; illustrations including a few of actual diary pages with what we refer to today as “metadata” (doodling, sweat stains, etc.); Hal Jesperson maps; extensive dramatis personae; and appendices related to LeRoy’s medical condition. A lot of detective work went into this.
[Dennis Rasbach, MD, has written an e-book (not yet available), I Am Perhaps Dying: The Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham and the Medical Backstory of his Private Battle with Tuberculosis During the Civil War. Keep on the lookout for that.]
The War Outside My Window is scheduled to drop in June, with national coverage and a feature in the Sunday Parade magazine. Advance orders or signed copies are being taken at the Savas Beatie site linked above. I think this will be an important work, and well worth your time.