Georgia teen’s Civil War diary published after 150 years
ATLANTA (AP) — The news article crossed Jan Croon’s Facebook feed a few times before she clicked on it. Written in 2012 by a reporter from the Washington Post, it told the story of LeRoy Gresham, a disabled 12-year-old from Macon who documented the unfolding of the Civil War, mostly from his bed.
In 2012, select pages from the diary were included in a Library of Congress exhibit marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war. But unlike other famous Civil War diaries -- from Mary Chestnut of South Carolina’s high-society to New York attorney George Templeton Strong -- the pages of little LeRoy Gresham had never been published.
“It is an incredibly complete piece of work. He only misses three to four days throughout the entire Civil War,” said Croon.
Croon, who teaches International Baccalaureate History to high school students in northern Virginia, spent a year doing genealogical and property research while transcribing the book. Gresham’s writing, save for some punctuation and cumbersome references to weather, was left intact.
“We wanted to leave it as authentic to LeRoy as possible,” Croon said. “We didn’t do a lot of editing which with spelling errors, as a teacher, is hard.”
In 2014, the Library of Congress digitized the pages of Gresham’s diary enabling Croon to work from the digital manuscript.
Gresham, she said, was a precocious teen well-versed in the classics, math and chess. Having been confined to bed after an unknown accident crushed his leg at the age of eight, Gresham connected to the outside world by reading newspapers, books and talking to the adults around him.
When he was able to venture out of bed he rode in a wagon pulled by a slave around his age who was designated as his companion. On at least one occasion, he was taken to the roof top where he witnessed the rapidly approaching war.
In seven different journals, Gresham documents his family life, his increasing illness (he was unaware that he had a form of tuberculosis) and the Civil War from the celebration of Georgia’s secession from the Union in January 1961 to the Confederacy surrenders through May 1865. His last entry, dated June 9, 1865 was an undecipherable fragment dictated to his mother who seems to have been unable to commit to writing whatever words he spoke, Croon said. Nine days later on June 18, Gresham died.
Much like Mary Chestnut, Gresham was a member of the Southern upper class and his diary comes from the perspective of a privileged white teenager. His father had twice been elected mayor of Macon and the family owned slaves to work their plantation outside of town. Materially, they had everything they needed, Croon said. “You get an excellent glimpse of what daily life was like at that time in Macon at least for a family of their standing,” she said.
The teen’s journals -- first begun during a trip to Philadelphia to record a doctor’s findings on his broken leg -- would become his lifeline. His family knew how important journaling was to him and made sure, even during wartime shortages, that he was equipped with all he needed to document his thoughts and observations, Croon said.
Gresham sometimes wrote three times a day, meticulously recording everything from the mundane to the dramatic impact of war on the region.
“He writes about the slaves coming back and forth. They were a part of his every day life. He had a lot of affection for these people,” said Croon of the individuals he referred to by first name only. Later he writes of the moments when those slaves would be freed.
“Howard and Eaveline, being the only servants now, do all the work. My ‘valet’ Bill left this morning . . . (I) am very unwell today and will miss Bill the more,” writes Gresham on May 30, 1865.
Despite chronic pain and a constant parade of treatments which Croon calls “pharmaceutical roulette,” Gresham writes with wit and a sense of humor that grows more sophisticated with each year. In October 1862, he offers this account of robbers breaking into the family home:
Last night Mother was awakened by the slam of a door and she arose + called Thomas to make a reconnaissance. They made a suitable noise to scare the robbers and on coming down the house had been entered + the rogues fled. Still Later Intelligence! The house was entered via Mother’s room + they went in the pantry + took sugar, coffee, soap, + horror of horrors! My wine. In their hasty exit they dropped 7 bars of soap + part of the coffee. Of course false keys were used.
Of the war, Gresham reports the battles and the toll on the South. Though he doesn’t at first realize it, the information he is getting is often false illustrating the manner in which false news became a thing long before it was resurrected as a 21st century phenomenon. ?
“He learns later that you can’t turn to the initial reporting, you have to wait awhile to see what really happens,” Croon said. “That gives you a flavor for how the media was impacting the people. They didn’t find out that Lincoln had been assassinated for more than a week.”
It is not until the end of his diary entries that Gresham realizes he is dying, most likely from Potts Disease, a form of spinal tuberculosis. Croon said it was important to add Gresham’s voice to the diaries from the Civil War era for several reasons.
“He gives us a vision of the of the Confederacy and the more (voices) we have the better off we are as a whole society,” she said. “These are people with real feelings and emotions. They are not monolithic. It is difficult for people but we have a tendency to take our own contemporary values and impose them on people of the past and that is a real danger. If we do that, we lose the nuances of the past.”