Victor D. Clark’s Civil War Diary
I’m not one to read another person’s diary, let alone shout its contents to the world. A diary is the first-person account of someone’s life, often written as the last act of the day, the diarist alone, in reflection, settling into the quiet night. It’s intimate, just the writer and the page, the writer deftly choosing what to include, what to leave out, ensuring that the past is a mosaic of the details they want to remember, and the page, nonjudgmental confidant, dutifully accepting of the script, the scrawling, the scratching, the smudging, and the occasional tears. And it’s meant to be private. I am not a diarist, but I have dabbled, recording my most profound thoughts, hopes and every damn affront and rejection, real or imagined, inflicted upon me by the cruel world at large and, by those nearby. Upon coming across one of these unfilled books later, I am awash in embarrassment of my own making. Imagine the horror of someone, anyone, ever reading that crap. That’s why I tend to throw them away. So it was with trepidation, reservation, respect, and a big helping of heebie-jeebies that I opened the first page of the Civil War diary of Victor D. Clark and became a peeping tom into another person’s life.
It was an assignment. My peeping, not his writing. I was taking a class on genealogical research and the last assignment in the course, the grand finale of everything we’d learned, was to visit a local archive and find a manuscript to write about. Manuscripts are the coolest things! Think old, hand-written, one-of-a-kind documents and you’ve got the picture. Or, the text, actually. The only stipulation was that the manuscript had to be pre-20th century and mention people by name, like a letter or a diary. Totally new ground for me; I’m used to vital records, land surveys and deeds, and public records. The archivist and I found a box containing at least five qualifying diaries and donning prophylactic white gloves, (and feeling even more skeevy) I carefully delved in to the one on top.
“The Property of Victor D. Clark, Benton, Crawford Co, Ohio, No. 2, Memorandum and Sort of Diary.”1 Oh, good, it’s only a sort of diary. It was dated October 24th, 1863 and within the first few pages Victor laments the fact that he’d lost his previous diary, started at the age of 14. He quickly reconciles his remorse by acknowledging that it had been “a Scrabbled up mess”. Victor then issues a very official sounding proclamation, to himself, invoking the name of God and promising nothing but calculated accuracy in his writings, until such time as he must “pass from this Entry Way to an other world”.
Let’s do the math. He’s young, he’s a Buckeye, and he’s endeavoring to write the kind of diary I’ve always failed to produce. He’s on the move and the Civil War is waging. Plus, he’s kind of a drama king. Who writes a three page proclamation (the pages are small, I admit) stating the purpose of their diary before they even really begin it? I am intrigued and a bit smitten.
Victor then does exactly what every genealogist hopes that everyone, everywhere, writing anything, ever, will do- he starts out by setting down his autobiography. Complete with names, dates, and places. Woohoo!! Jackpot. All reservations I had are quickly tossed aside. I’m back in my comfort zone.
Victor has just turned seventeen, hails from a Scipio, New York farming family, has lost both his parents, is emancipated from his stepmother, and has recently relocated to Ohio with his grandparents, who missed their westwardly migrating kids. He’s come along with them, having no other relatives left in New York, and because he “thought it was my Duty to come and See them Safe through and take care of them”. Like they’d have died along the way without his teen-aged, manly help.
So the diary opens with them in Ohio, squatting on the land of one of the kids who’d left them behind in New York. (Oh…Hi, Mom.) Victor, after “visiting all summer”, commences to set up their home and get to work. And work he does, seemingly for everyone but his own family. Entry after entry records his labors: husking corn, sowing fields, harvesting, and mostly, chopping wood. Day after backbreaking day, he supplies the area with their cooking and heating fuel. He’s a reliable, literate, hard working self-starter who possesses above average communications skills, and he’s available. Who’s hiring? Everyone, it seems. He’s building up quite a clientele, he’s in demand. But…he starts to get tired of it.
Sadly, other than the proclamation, Victor is a minimalist writer. He discloses the date, the place, and remarks about the weather. He keeps accounts of his work, his earnings, and where it is spent. He occasionally mentions visiting, but never elaborates. He records receiving and replying to letters, but never what they say or how he feels about the sender. He rarely mentions other names. He likes to sign his entries, as if endorsing them. But, unlike my own silly and meaningless attempts, there are no juicy details, no insults or record of slights. He seems to merely be trudging along, day after day. I’m suddenly aware of the time, the silence of the archive, and that I need to pee. I’m wondering where my interesting drama king went, when BAM! He enlists in the Union army.
It’s February of 1864 and Victor is still only seventeen. He’s worked hard since October, but has little to show for it. He’s endured repeated illnesses and a slash to his foot, received chopping wood (cringe). He’s been struggling to “do right in the Sight of God” (no juicy details, of course). There must be very few other young men around, they’re all off fighting, bless ’em. Victor describes in uncharacteristic detail the box he constructs for his uncle Richard’s care package. The weather is so cold he can’t chop wood, so, he enlists. Because, “thinking it to be a better situation than there is around here better than chopping at five six schillings a cord”. Finally, he thinks! And it’s kind of a game changer. He enlists with the Union army, going off to fight the Rebs, doing his duty to Uncle Sam, closing out his accounts, going on visits to say goodbye…
Except, they won’t take him. The poor guy reports for duty and is turned away, “on ac[coun]t of being burst”. I kid you not. That’s what it says. (Yes, I toyed with “burnt”. But that just conjures up silly visuals. Here’s Victor, on a skewer, trying to pass muster but those recruiters, with their discriminating eyes, can easily see he’s just a toasted marshmallow. The charcoal kind we Bruggemans make. Reject! Next!)
And now, engaged reader, a short lesson on reading Victor’s 19th century diary. It’s written in pencil, in cursive, with letters, and often, whole words that are indecipherable, and overall, it’s smudged. Some of the corners of pages, where there was writing, are gone. Victor does not have a firm grasp on grammar, capitalizing on a whim, continuing words onto the next line with nary a hyphen, chopping them off whenever he runs out of space, and never incorporating that lovely little sentence delimiter, the period. His t’s tend to be crossed to the right of the letter and his lower case g’s stand proud and tall with their tails above deck. Thankfully, he did pay attention in Spelling. When I started reading his diary, I had to look at each letter closely, add them up into words, and then measure what I thought it might say against the context in which it appeared. (Sort of like I’ve always done with hearing, right?) When he’s talking about moving to Ohio, he’s probably saying, “they drawed their money” even though to my eyes it clearly says “drowned”. Some words or letters are either completely smeared out or are faint ghosts. When that happens, I get a running start about a page back and plow through, reading as fast as I can, right on past the missing word and LO! Sometimes, my brain knows what to fill in.
But clearly, this says, “being burst”. WTF? When the traditional dictionary failed to enlighten, I went to A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English2 and then tried War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War.3 If you need new time sucks, these are for you. But neither are definitive on “burst”. There is a definition having to do with being on a drunken spree, as in “on the burst”.4 And “Bursted”, which means being hard up, as in “broke”.5 We all understand that one. But it’s a completely silly reason to turn down an able-bodied young man bent on pocketing that bounty and going off to war. Oh, I didn’t mention the bounty? The army needed recruits and were paying men $100 to enlist. Perhaps he meant, “busted”, as in “caught”. I think he got caught lying about his age.
So the poor kid has to return home. Dripping with disappointment and embarrassment. “So now I am back in Benton again It is all right I believe”. Dang, that stinks. He mulls it over for exactly one month (I only assume so, of course), and then, he enlists again. He goes to a different town and somehow (don’t look at me!) passes muster. Next thing we know, he’s pocketed that bounty and has met up with his regiment at Point of Rocks, Maryland. Where they proceed to do regimenty things, maybe drill some, clean their guns, maybe they played poker and visited saloons, they might have made up little ditty-based plays which were performed in the cool evenings, or maybe they fought vicious hand-to-hand combat with the rebels for days straight, kicking ass and taken’ names,6 we just don’t know and why don’t we know? Because Victor’s diary goes strangely dark.
No, a diary can’t really “go dark” but his does jump from April 8th on one page to May 18th on the next, blithely skipping over his first six weeks of active service. He’s experiencing the most interesting period in his entire life, so far, and yet he records no dispatch on it. One day he’s happily hanging with his squad, the weather is beautiful, the place is gorgeous, all “I am well”. And me? I’m happily along side him, going to war, wondering where we were all headed next, hungry to kill us some Rebs. But suddenly, wait, what? There, on the very next page, he’s sick, in a hospital, where he’s been for at least the prior two weeks.
Let’s do the math here. He gets to his regiment around April 7th. By May 18th, he’s already been hospitalized for two weeks, so that means he arrived there about the 4th of May. He was with the regiment for less than a month. Twenty-seven days. Yeah, I know conditions for Civil War soldiers were rough. They had to walk everywhere, there wasn’t any Internet, and they didn’t have a Subway at each camp.7 But the hospital? WTF? And of course, he never says. He doesn’t name a diagnosis or disclose any kind of treatment or name any affected body parts or anything. And he’s settling in and getting comfortable as he’s recovering, receiving his mail, observing the weather, pondering God. Yawn, yawn, yawn. But, thankfully, dear diary reader, Uncle Sam wants his bounty’s worth and he kicks Victor’s butt back out into the hard theater of war.
And for exactly five action filled pages, covering about twenty days, he fights in the Civil War, in real battles, in what later becomes known as The Valley Campaigns of 1864.8 Our Victor is in the thick of it and he records it all, accurately, in his usual spartan way.
His regiment is the first to cross the Shenandoah River at Snicker’s Ferry, alternately known as Cool Spring, where they engage in skirmishes. Cut off and receiving no reinforcements from the rear, they are ordered to retreat. They have no choice but to re-cross the river, under fire the entire time. Many man are shot, many go down.10,11 They suffer “considerable loss”. Snaking along the edge and top of this diary page, Victor scribbles, “must write home as soon as possible”. He understands the magnitude of what he’s just participated in and that they’ll be reading about this one back home.
The regiment heads back up the Shenandoah Valley, to Kernstown, where they spend several days, battle line formed, and occasionally engaged. A major battle ensues (The Second Battle of Kernstown) and again, they’re outnumbered.12 They are routed into Winchester,13 but the fighting doesn’t stop, “we are now at this place which is at present in possession of the Enemy”. They retreat further back up the valley, first to Bunker Hill that night (the West Virginia one) and again, further, up to Martinsburg, West Virginia, the next morning.14 They are being continuously overrun and pushed back by the Confederates, relentlessly and with great loss of life. At Martinsburg, the Union army scrambles to load its stock and troops onto a supply train and retreat again, this time in relative safety, to Williamsport, Maryland,15 where our Victor, woefully misnamed, who’s been on the losing end of every skirmish and battle he’s recorded, who probably really misses that farm and/or that hospital, decides he’s too sick to go on. “…I was obliged to fall out on acc[oun]t of being Sick”.
Let’s do the math here. “Victor” met up with his regiment around April 8th, spent twenty-seven unrecorded days with them, then was hospitalized for fifty-six days. He then rejoins the regiment for just another twenty-seven days in July. They’ve fought in two major battles and lost two major battles. They’ve been fighting and retreating up the valley for nine days. There are a zillion Confederates in the area and they have the upper hand. And Victor has 86’d himself. (Isn’t that desertion? I dunno.) He hides, trying to “look sharp” but within forty-eight hours, he’s captured and becomes a prisoner of war.
Thus, the diary ends. Victor is in the Confederate prison at Danville, Virginia. Housed in old tobacco barns under reportedly deplorable conditions,16in typical Victor style, he reports, ” we have Enough to Eat & fare much better than expected”.
There are four more of Victor’s diaries in that box at the archives. I took a peek into each one but don’t yet know the details of his imprisonment. In conducting my research for the paper, I did discover that he survives the war and ends up as a minister in Missouri, where, sadly, he dies young and apparently, childless.
I handed my paper in, just under the wire, last Sunday night, relieved and proud to be done with the class. But somehow, I’m not done with Victor. Or perhaps I should admit that it’s Victor who is not done with me. He haunts my thoughts, distracting me and keeping me awake. He’s become part of my history of doing family history. And no, we are not related. But my brain keeps jumping back to him and I feel like I’ve left him hanging, there in Danville, a prisoner of the enemy and still only seventeen. Okay, Victor, I’ll be back. And in the quiet of a 21st century archive, with me waving my white gloves, together we’ll read you on out of that place.
What do you think?
Note: If you would like more details about the diary or the research I did on it and on Victor’s service and later life, you can read the faux client report is here. The research is not yet complete as we were given a contract of only six hours. (If you are not a Dropbox member, just click the sign-in/sign-up box closed.)
2. John S. Farmer and William E. Henley, A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English: Abridged from the seven-volume work, entitled Slang and it’s Analogs (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1905) p. 80; digitized book, The Internet Archives (https://archive.org : accessed 25 August 2015).
3. Paul Dickson, War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War, 2nd ed. (Dulles, VA : Brassey’s Inc., 2004), p. 6; digitized book, The Internet Archives (https://archive.org : accessed 25 August 2015).
4. Farmer & Henley, Dictionary of Slang, p.80.
6. I mean no disrespect to Victor or to any veteran of any war anywhere.
8. “Valley Campaigns of 1864,” article, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : accessed 25 August 2015); “Early’s Washington Raid and operations against the B&O Railroad (June – August 1864)”, Cool Spring and Second Kernstown.
9. C.M. Keyes, editor, The Military History of the 123d Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Sandusky, Ohio: Register Steam Press, 1874), Chapter VI, p.76-83; digitized book, Internet Archive (https://www.archive.org : accessed 20 August 2015); citing University of California Libraries.
9. Alfred R Wauh, Shenandoah Valley from Maryland Heights, pencil and Chinese White drawing on light green paper, 1864, Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.; digitalized image, Library of Congress (www.loc.gov : accessed 27 August 2015).
10. Keyes, editor, History of the 123d p.76-83.
11. “The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,” database, National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm : accessed 19 August 2015), Battle Details, Cool Spring; citing Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefield, Technical Volume II, Battle Summaries (Washington D.C.: Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, 1993).
12. “The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,” database, National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm : accessed 19 August 2015), Battle Details, Kernstown II; citing Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefield, Technical Volume II, Battle Summaries (Washington D.C.: Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, 1993).
14. The Roster Commission, compilers, Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Vol. VIII (Cincinnati: The Ohio Valley Press, 1888), p. 376, Victor D. Clark; digitized book, Internet Archive (https://www.archive.org : accessed 20 August 2015); citing New York Public Library.
15. Keyes, History of the 123d, p.83.
16. James I. Robertson, “Houses of Horror: Danville’s Civil War Prisons,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 69 (July 1961): 329-45; digitized article, JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org : accessed 17 August 2015).
Ohio Infantryman Photo Credit (This is NOT a photo of Victor, but looks exactly how I’ve been picturing him. And the kid’s from Ohio.): Portrait of a Federal Soldier From Ohio circa 1860-65, Selected Civil War Photographs (1861-1865), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.; digital image, Library of Congress (www.loc.gov : accessed 27 August 2015).