Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Civil War diary from the heart of the Confederacy

A Rebel War Clerk's Diary, Vols. I & II, John B. Jones

My father gave me these two books several years ago, and since he never follows my blog I can admit that at the time, I didn't think I'd ever read them.  Though I've lived half my life now in the South, when it comes to books about the Civil War, I prefer the Northern perspective (possibly from reading Gone With the Wind at an early age, when we were living in Georgia.  My mother had forbidden me to read it; I was ten, and I didn't realize the futility of trying to hide a book that size under a mattress).

But I kept these books on the TBR stacks, and then reading George Templeton Strong's diary of the Civil War made me more interested in first-person accounts of the war, particularly diaries.  When I finally sat down with John Jones's, I ended up reading through both volumes in just a few days, fascinated by seeing familiar events unfolding from such a different angle.  Jones was a Southerner by birth, living in New Jersey but working in Philadelphia, where he published a pro-Southern newspaper, the Southern Monitor.  When war broke out in April of 1861, he feared that he would be liable to arrest as a prominent Confederate sympathizer.  He fled south, leaving his wife and five children to follow later.

Stopping first in Virginia, which had not yet left the Union, Jones watched as a convention met and eventually chose secession.  To provide for his family, he decided to seek a post in the new Confederate government.
"At fifty-one, I can hardly follow the pursuit of arms; but I will write and preserve a DIARY of the revolution.  I never held nor sought office in my life; but now President Tyler and Gov. Wise say I will find employment at Montgomery."
Jones travelled to the first capital of the Confederacy, where he was appointed a clerk in the office of the Secretary of War.  When the government offices were transferred to Richmond, Virginia, he moved with them.  His family joined him there, and eventually his two sons also found places in the government (which kept them out of the army).   From the heart of the Confederacy, in one of the offices central to the Rebel war effort, Jones watched President Jefferson Davis, the three Secretaries of War he worked under, generals including Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, members of the Confederate Congress, and officials from every level of the government.  For his work, he had access to official correspondence and state papers, many of which he had to summarize or draft responses to.  He wrote about all of this in his diary, which he stated more than once he kept with the full knowledge and approval of the President and the Secretary of War.  He often quoted the President's letters, and sometimes copied them whole into his diaries, which makes an interesting contrast with Harold Holzer's book about Abraham Lincoln's mail, Dear Mr. Lincoln.  I can't believe that Jones ever showed his diary to Davis or his superiors, or some of his franker comments might have cost him his job, if not landed him in jail.  On the other hand, he was completely loyal to the Confederate cause, which he saw as a war to preserve slavery and Southern independence, the birthright of the American Revolution.  He owned no slaves himself but was fully committed to the slave system.  I found it interesting that in contrast to Strong, Jones never used the n-word, only the term "negro."

Jones and his family lived in Richmond throughout the war.  They faced the constant threat of Federal invasion, and despite their exempt places his sons were sometimes required to join home guard units to defend the city.  Many of the entries detail the hardships the civilian population suffered.  It was often difficult to bring goods and food into the city.  Speculation and inflation drove prices to unbelievable highs, while salaries sank with a Confederate currency that constantly fell in value. In official papers and in articles that he wrote for the city's newspapers, Jones frequently called for government control and rationing, with prosecution of speculators and hoarders.  His own family benefited from his government contacts, which allowed him to buy food at reduced price or in effect on the black market, which Jones justified out of necessity.  He constantly put the blame for shortages on Jewish merchants, and I was taken aback by the blatant anti-semitism in so many of his entries.  The second Confederate Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, was Jewish, and he went on to serve as the Secretary of State in Davis's cabinet.  I wonder if Jones kept his attitudes toward Jews for the privacy of his diary.

Another frequent target of Jones's ire was the large number of able-bodied men not serving in the Confederate forces.  As in the North, those liable to the draft could hire substitutes to serve for them.  In addition, the Confederate Constitution exempted many government positions from service, and farmers and industrial workers could also be excused.  But manpower shortages became so dire in the last two years of the war that there were calls to arm even the slaves, with the promise of freedom after the South gained its independence.  Jones frequently railed against the rich slaveowners who hired substitutes, while poorer men fought on their behalf in a war over slavery, and he also wanted the young men in cushy government jobs sent out to the army - though not his own sons.  He never explained why they should have been safe, exceptions to his own arguments.

In all of this, Jones's diary makes for much grimmer reading than Strong's, yet it does have its more human, even light-hearted moments.  Jones turned the backyard of their rented house into a garden, out of necessity.  His family needed all the tomatoes, cabbages and beans he could grow, but he loved every moment he spent there and took great pride in his harvests.  When his daughter's elderly cat died in 1864, he wrote,
"I sympathize with Fannie in all the grief natural on such an occasion; but really, the death of the cat in such times as these is a great relief to me, as he was maintained at the cost of not less than $200 per annum." 
I couldn't help but empathize with him at that moment, a man willing to spend what little they had on a family pet, and appreciating how much her cat meant to his daughter.  There was also the time he opened an old trunk, the key of which had been lost for many years, to discover it contained among other things "several books - one from my library, an octavo volume on Midwifery, 500 pages, placed there to prevent the children from seeing the illustrations . . . "  Obviously a more successful tactic than hiding it under a mattress.

Unlike George Templeton Strong, whose diary lay undiscovered in an archives for decades, John Jones decided to publish his after the war.  He apparently revised and expanded it from his original notes, but he did not live to see its publication in 1866, having died a few months before.  I hope that his book helped his family as much as Ulysses Grant's posthumous Memoirs did his.  I'm sure though that not all the reviews were positive.  Of all the Confederate leaders, only Robert E. Lee escaped his frank criticism or blame.

The edition I read is from Time-Life Books, part of their series the "Collector's Library of the Civil War."  Other than a brief note on the author, the diary was not edited, simply re-printed from the 1866 volumes.  I will be checking to see if another edition is available.  It would have been helpful to know more about some of the people that Jones mentioned, and also to have some perspective on his criticism.  I am also interested to know just how much revision he did prior to publication.  The author's note states that he "added assertions based on hindsight - the diary's major weakness. . . "   Despite its weaknesses, I am glad to have read this and to have watched the events of war unfold from a new perspective.


  1. Wow, what a block buster of a book. I have also mainly read books on the Civil war when I was so engrossed with them growing up in Michigan, being in the north I suppose. Such a fascinating time period in America's history but such a rough time for everyone involved. Interesting reviews. Thanks Lisa.

  2. Pam, it truly is a fascinating time, as our country tried to tear itself apart, truly a family war. I've lived in Michigan myself - twice!

  3. Oh, I love that quote about the cat! I've never thought before about what a hardship it must be to keep a pet during war or times of economic struggle.
    That's why diaries like this are so fascinating - they illuminate these small, overlooked details.
    This really sounds like a gem!

  4. This sounds fascinating! Diaries are my favorite historical reading (although I agree, I like them to have notes explaining everything). I've always been fascinated by the Civil War, but especially so since I moved to the South five years ago. I will definitely look for this book!

  5. Anbolyn, I've read a little about the difficulties that pet owners faced in World War II, with rationing - but nothing as severe as a state of siege! The family also had a parrot, by the way, who was prone to snatching the scarce food off their plates!

    elizabeth, as much as I love history, I've really only started reading diaries in the past few years - what I've been missing! This one is probably available as an e-book.

  6. This is one I will probably not read. My TBR civil war section is too big already, but your comments on the period are informative. I always learn something new from your history posts.

  7. Lisa, I always enjoy your history posts even when the book you are reviewing is not one I am likely to read. This sounds like a good book for a reader who has done more extensive reading on the period than I have.

  8. Fay, thank you! My Civil War TBR stack is also pretty sizeable - despite my resolve to read them all before the 150th anniversary ends in 2015. I know I missed a lot with this diary, without explanatory notes & because I don't know this side of the war as well.

  9. Lisa May, glad you liked Water for Elephants too - isn't it always special when a book you aren't expecting much of turns out to be great! Cheers


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!