By James Byers
Stuck in my apartment with nowhere to go and nothing but time on my hands, I decided to willfully violate CDC guidance and do something I had been meaning to do for a while: spend time getting to know an elderly relative. I was stuck in quarantine, feeling uncertain, even scared, about the future, and I figured I better try to get one worthwhile thing done while I waited for the future.
I have had in my possession for many years the journal of my paternal great-great-grandfather, Lemuel Augusta Tate (1829-1916), which he kept while serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Transcribing it electronically had always been a goal of mine, but it was a task for a future time when I would be less busy. I did not envision that time as my final semester of graduate school. Then again, there were a lot of things about my final semester of graduate school that I could not have envisioned even three weeks prior. If this experience is teaching me anything, it is that there is no time like the present.
The work of carefully transcribing a 150-year-old text on a computer proved challenging but pleasantly distracting. Although American cursive as I learned it has not changed much since the 1860s, getting accustomed to my forebearer’s original spellings took a while. Likewise, trying to capture as many details as accurately as possible required a lot of referential reading, as many important place names have changed since 1864. Luckily, the high volume of digitized Civil War records available online meant I was able to trace the people and places he mentioned with great reliability from the comfort of my apartment.
While I secretly hoped that Lemuel had written an undiscovered bestseller whose book sales would support me on the rough seas of the COVID-19 economy, it was not to be. For a start, the journal wound up being 95% weather-related. Lemuel’s writing style is terse and matter-of-fact, and is fairly thin on reactions or editorial opinion. Instead, almost every entry starts with atmospheric conditions, and sometimes entire pages consist of nothing but weather reports. While I initially feared that I would have to suffer through 90 pages of amateur meteorology, I came to understand that this fixation made complete sense. Weather means a great deal to someone who spends most of their waking hours outside and usually sleeps in a tent no matter what the conditions, something that I had to remind myself as I sat in my heated apartment, watching the rain through the window. I groaned out loud while reading the entry for June 14th 1862, “The wind began to blow very hard and the rain fell in torrents. Our tent got blown down and everything got wet.”
It was not all weather; there was marching too. With the thoroughness of someone recording training for a 10K on Strava, Lemuel made sure posterity would know exactly how far he went each day. “Friday 23rd [August, 1863] Marched to Opelousas [Louisiana]; distance ten miles. It rained on us all the way.” Despite the occasional shower, I got the sense that marching was, in a way, preferable to prolonged stays in camp. Often periods between marching orders consist of the written equivalent of forced small talk: weather and comings and goings of fellow soldiers. It could be that a week of social distancing and then quarantine was causing me to project my sense of boredom onto him, but his writing suggests otherwise: “[July] 6th, we reached Memphis. July the 11th, up until this time, nothing of note has occurred.”
A common aphorism holds that most Civil War soldiers experienced “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror,” and the journal bears this out. Out of roughly 90 pages, Lemuel writes about experiencing combat on perhaps 4 of them, and rarely at length. The report of an attack or the sudden arrival of an enemy force brought out his more descriptive side, which built me up for battle scenes that usually failed to materialize. In one instance, Lemuel was stationed near the besieged Confederate city of Vicksburg when the Confederates suddenly appeared in the Union rear. “7th [June, 1863], Very heavy firing at Vicksburg…At eleven o’clock the rebels made their appearance in the edge of the timber about half a mile from our camp. Every man that had able to carry a gun was ordered into rank.” And then, anticlimactically, “The rebels disappeared into the timber.”
These entries often left the military historian in me wanting more detail and the fiction reader in me wanting more climatic action. The Union capture of Vicksburg, which historians traditionally call one of the turning points of the Civil War, was another example. For the better part of five or six pages, I had been counting down the days until the city fell. Lemuel was there, serving as a short-term crewman on one of the floating gun platforms that shelled the town from the Mississippi River, and his diary records the constant sounds of battle, “very heavy firing heard today…brisk musketry and cannonading,” coming from the besieged town. I finished transcribing a page with June 30th as the final date. I flipped the page slowly and expectantly, sure that Lemuel would write something, anything, about the most important Union victory of the war. The next entry was July 16th, nearly two weeks later. I felt bitterly disappointed.
My disappointment, however, is a symptom of the privilege of knowing the future. For Lemuel, the fall of Vicksburg may have been cause to celebrate, but he was living through the Civil War day by day. Two weeks after Vicksburg, he and his comrades were engaged with another Confederate Army near Jackson, Mississippi. War is a legendarily fickle business, which Clausewitz likened to a game of chance, and Lemuel could not know, as I do, that the tide had turned definitively against the Confederacy. That fact would have been cold comfort as he and his comrades marched into the Louisiana bayous two months later in a failed, and now nearly forgotten, campaign to capture Eastern Texas. Few of us know what a post-COVID world will look like, and even if we have turned a corner in our struggle to contain and combat the pandemic, that is for history to tell definitively. We too live day to day, watching and listening to reports of mortality ringing like the echo of distant gunfire.
Unlike my own story, I know how Lemuel’s ends. He survived and came home after another year of service. He was 36 when honorably discharged, 11 years older than the average Civil War soldier. He was also lucky; 30% of his regiment, the 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, never came home. I know few of the details of his subsequent life after the diary ends in 1864, but I do know he married (at least) twice and fathered a few children, including my great grandmother, before he breathed his last in 1916. He is proof that life goes on despite national calamities, and that’s reason to be hopeful. Furthermore, he found ways to distract himself, just like me, through long and difficult days. My favorite entry in the diary comes near the end, as he awaits the steamer that will carry him upriver from New Orleans on the long trip home to Indiana for the first time in over two years. It reads, in his characteristically terse style, “[April] 4th , I got my fortune told.”
Maybe he did know the future after all. I certainly don’t, but I’m glad to report that, after a week of quarantine, “nothing of note has occurred.”