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Interpreting Civil War Diaries
How to Read Diaries, Letters and Other Civil War Writings
There's a wealth of letters, diaries and other hand-written documents from the American Civil War, but it isn't always easy to understand what you are reading. Unfamiliar handwriting, archaic abbreviations, no-longer-used words, faded ink and smudged pencil and place names that have changed can make a Civil War diary difficult to read or to make any sense out of the writing.
Even when someone has conveniently transcribed the letter or diary into print or put it online, there is still the mystery of unfamiliar words and slang from that period. Puzzling it out becomes easier with some background information that I'll provide here.
My Method for Making a Civil War Diary Easier to Read
In working with my great-great grandfather's pocket diary, I struggled to decipher the elaborate handwriting now faded from 150 years passing. Using a magnifying glass was clumsy and I feared for the safety of the fragile diary if I handled it too much.
My solution was to photograph each page with my digital camera. I felt this would be less damaging than mashing the open diary face down on a scanner. I uploaded the photographed pages to my computer where I have Adobe Photoshop. I used Photoshop (other programs can do this also) to brighten the pages up. Experiment with "auto contrast" or "auto levels" to see which makes the writing clearer.
Then I printed out each diary page on a full 8 X 11 inch sheet of paper. Now I had the print large enough to more easily tell what some letters were. I could handle them as much as I wanted, and even make margin notes on these printed sheets.
Photo by Virginia Allain.
How to Read Handwriting from Civil War Times and Earlier Eras - Available from Amazon
This book was recommended by a genealogy site.
The book shows a wide variety of examples of penmanship to help you decipher old handwritten documents.
Learning a Person's Handwriting Style
from the Civil War Era
In working with Abraham Bates Tower's journal, I found some capital letters puzzling me. Was that a "T" or an "F" or a "J" or an "I"?
Scan through the diary or letter looking for words that are obvious. Sometimes it is someone's name that you know how it should be spelled. Now apply that letter to other mystifying words. Fortunately in my ancestor's diary, he wrote an alphabetical list of the men in Company G of the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. That helped me decipher many of the capital letters.
In addition, I found online a book with the company roster. That gave me a second verification of the names and some of the ornate first letters.
Everyday Language of Soldiers - in the Civil War
It isn't just the old-fashioned spelling and unfamiliar penmanship that can throw a reader off-track. In the military, there are specialized words and slang terms for the equipment, duties and activities. These can mystify a reader unless they have this book at hand.
You can find some terms at this site: Definitions of Civil War Terms.
Reference Books on Forgotten or Obsolete Words
I wondered the first time I read in a Civil War diary that the regiment boarded the "cars." It was obvious from the context that the troops were being moved but I knew there were no automobiles in 1863. I've since found that it is early terminology for traveling by railroad on a train of cars which now we would just say "train."
I need to get this just to find out what the words in the title are.
A Civil War Diary in a Museum
Lots of great words in this collection.
Check a Timeline for Background Information about a Diary or Letter
Words or sentences that you don't understand, may be clearer once you know about events, places, and people from that same time period.
You can find a basic timeline by searching on the internet, but this one is detailed and illustrated. Keep it close at hand as you read through your ancestor's Civil War diary.
Learn about Daily Life during the Civil War - for background information for a diary or letter
"His price lists, descriptions of money, and period terms are especially well done and useful," (review by Chrijeff)
I've added this one to my wishlist which is getting pretty long now.
Help Transcribe Civil War Diaries
The University of Iowa Libraries have a project to transcribe the Civil War diaries and letters in their collection. They've put the original pages online and are asking for volunteers to transcribe them.
- Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project - Civil War Diaries and Letters Digital Collec
Civil War Diaries & Letters Digital Collection Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project Select an Item to Begin Transcribing: Bean family letters, 1845-1860 Bean family letters, 1868-1898 Miles Beaty letters, 1862-1863
Storing the Civil War Diary - in a museum quality archival box
This box available from Amazon. The site also has archival tissue paper to wrap around fragile items such as an old diary.
Don't stuff your treasured family diaries into a cardboard shoebox. They deserve proper storage that won't damage it.
More about Civil War Diaries
- Civil War Diaries Online - The North
There's something compelling about reading a first-hand account of life in Civil War times. Fortunately a number of soldiers' diaries are available for reading online. Camp life, battles, and more.
- Women's Civil War Diaries
To gain insight into the experience of women during the Civil War, read their diaries. Many are online in full for reading and others are published books. This primary source material at its best!
© 2011 Virginia Allain