There is nothing like holding an old diary in your hands to connect you with the daily life of a person from the past. Sure, it can be difficult to read, maybe written in pencil with personal abbreviations that are tricky to decipher, but you can see how the binding is worn and imagine the writer carrying it in a pocket. You can think about all the different generations of people involved in creating the diary and keeping it safe for you to use today. But sometimes diaries don’t survive and a typed transcription can be just as important, though less appealing as an object.
Author and librarian Christine Friesel published a book that tells the story of three diaries written by her great-great-grandfather, Charles Brother, of Bath, New York. She owns one diary, another is in an Alabama library, and one is lost. Transcriptions of all three diaries are held at the Lilly Library, donated by the Indiana Magazine of History in 1951.
Friesel’s book, The Boys of Bath: The Civil War Diary of Pvt. Charles Brother, USMC, contains the text of all three diaries, with annotations and excerpts from other documents to provide context. Brother’s diaries are important because they are one of the only surviving accounts by an enlisted man of the experience of serving in the Union Navy during the U. S. Civil War. Officers were more likely to keep diaries since they were generally more educated that enlisted men, and overall, we have many more diaries and letters from enlisted and volunteer soldiers who served on land. That is a function of numbers. Nearly 2,129,000 men served in the Union army during the civil war while only about 100,000 served in the navy.
The diary is full of mundane yet important details of weather and food, as well as dramatic descriptions of the Battle of Mobile Bay, a bloody 1864 naval battle that blocked a main Confederate supply route from Havana and the Caribbean. Brother saw many of his shipmates killed and maimed, some of them his childhood friends from Bath, New York.
The diaries are the writings of a young man seeking adventure and finding it with its highs and its deadly lows. Friesel writes:
Charley Brother, the boys, and their officers deliver an intimate, little-known version of the Civil War, and not all was fighting. During liberty hours, Brother became a tourist, walking great distances in New York’s Five Points, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Boston, Yale College, and tropics. He chased down Mary, his childhood sweetheart now living in the city, even frustratingly missing her because of the poor communication as she hurried to the barracks to see him.pp. xxiii-xxiv
Friesel brings great sensitivity to the story of these “boys of Bath” and her introduction is especially eloquent on the way the trauma of war affects families and how it can be hidden or sidelined in the interest of avoiding difficult feelings. Friesel’s book is a reminder that even the most modest folder of typed pages can hold wonders and be transformed into an important work of history through the work of many hands– the man who wrote about his experiences as a marine, his family who kept the diaries safe, the grand-daughter who transcribed them, and the scholar who applied her hard work and interpretive powers to bring us this book.