Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day by day through the Civil War

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War, 1860-1865  (Vol. 3).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This is not exactly Christmas reading, though it does cover four very different Christmas.  I had read George Templeton Strong's Civil War diary a few years ago.  It is considered one of the most important contemporary accounts of the war years, with quotations and citations showing up in all kinds of books about the Civil War.  I originally read a stand-alone edition, but it is actually the third of four published volumes of Strong's diaries.  I read Volumes 1 and 2 of the diaries earlier this year (the first covers the years 1835-1849 and the second 1850-1859).  I wanted to re-read the Civil War volume in its proper place, before going on to the fourth and final volume (covering the years 1865-1875).  But I also wanted to re-read it in light of some of the other books on the Civil War that I have read this year, all of which cite the diaries, including Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial, Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, and Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising.

When 1860 opened, George Templeton Strong was living in New York City with his wife Ellie and two sons (and another on the way).  He was a lawyer with a busy practice in his Wall Street office, his free time devoted to the vestry at Trinity Church and the Board of Trustees of Columbia College, and a social life among the city's best families.  He was also a passionate musician, attending rehearsals and performances of the Philharmonic and local opera companies, as well as musical evenings with friends.  Like many Northerners, he believed slavery was wrong but held racist ideas about African Americans (generally referring to them by the n-word).  He felt abolitionists were the real danger, because their agitation about slavery was driving a wedge between the free north and the slave south.  If everyone just ignored slavery, it would not be an issue.  But the rising tension over whether new territories, like Kansas, would be slave or free put the issue of slavery front and center.  With the Republicans, Strong came to agree that slavery must be protected under the Constitution but confined to where it already existed, and he reluctantly voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, on a Republican platform of containment. 

Many Southerners were convinced that, whatever the Republicans said, Lincoln's election meant an attack on slavery. Before 1860 ended, South Carolina had seceded; by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, five other states had followed, forming a Southern Confederacy.  Like many others in the North, Strong reacted with passionate patriotism to the possible division and demise of the United States.  Over the next four years, he would devote himself to the Union cause.  His greatest work was with the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief organization.  The army's medical bureau, dealing with a peace-time army of 15,000, was unable to cope with a volunteer force of more than a million, where a single battle might leave 30,000 casualties on the Union side alone.  These volunteer soldiers, many fresh off the farm, were also vulnerable to disease, and most had no idea how to lay out a camp or even dig a latrine.  The Commission raised funds for supplies, doctors, camp inspectors, hospitals, and convalescent homes.  Strong served as treasurer throughout the war, overseeing the collection and disbursement of more than $4 million dollars (an estimated $108 million in 2011 dollars).  As treasurer, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and generals from George McClellan to Ulysses Grant.  This access to the political and military centers, with his visits to army camps and hospitals, solidified Strong's devotion to the Union cause and particularly to the soldiers who fought for it.

At the same time, his attitude toward slavery changed completely, as he came to see it as the root cause of the war.  One of his main objections to slavery had been the forced separation of enslaved families by sale.  Now there were constant references to sale of children and the abuse of women, including sexual assaults.  Like the abolitionists he had previously despised, and with black Americans themselves, Strong argued for the enlistment of black soldiers long before the Lincoln administration made it federal policy, and he frequently reported the bravery of the black regiments in combat.  It is also notable that Strong began using the words "Negro" and "black" to refer to African Americans, though he continued to use the n-word as well.  Even more than the South, he would come to blame the North for the war, for its acquiescence in the evils of slavery.

Strong's place in society and his position with the Sanitary Commission meant that he met everyone of importance in New York and Washington, and he reported on it all.  He served on the committee organizing the visit of the Prince of Wales to the city in 1860, where he met the British ambassador Lord Lyons.  (His diary perfectly reflects the anti-British feeling in the North, charted in Amanda Foreman's book.)  In the last pages of this volume, he attended the funeral service of Abraham Lincoln at the White House: "I count it a great privilege to have been present. There will be thousands of people ten years hence who would pay any money to have been in my place" (April 19, 1865).

In the end, I feel almost as though I have lived through the four years of the Civil War, through this extraordinary diary and the man who kept it.


  1. How fortunate we are that Strong kept a diary. It sounds like he was a remarkable man who wasn't afraid to modify his opinions as he gained more knowledge.
    I love reading diaries - I know you've reviewed a few lately - do you have a favorite?

  2. I so much enjoy your American history posts. Just picked up Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz about the John Brown raid at the beginning of the Civil War. Among my reading resolutions for the new year: Read more history.

  3. Anbolyn, I do find journals and letters so fascinating - voices from the past. I don't know if it's from just having read this diary again, or if it's because it's about the Civil War, but I'd say this is my favorite.

    Fay, I'll look forward to your post on the Horwitz book. My resolution should be to read more general history, but I keep getting drawn back to the Civil War.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!