Meet my great, great, great grandfather Axel Hayford Reed. On August 5, 1861 he enlisted as a private in Co. K, Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and fought in “the war of the great rebellion” as he termed it. The history books show that he was placed under arrest, lost his right arm in battle, and is a Medal of Honor recipient, but because he kept a journal and passed it down, I have learned much more.
I’d like share some tips that I have learned from my grandfather that are worth considering when it comes to journaling for family history purposes.
#1: Do not let your imperfections stop you
In the introduction of a larger volume of family history that his journal was added to, he wrote:
I ask the indulgence of the readers of this volume as well as pardon for so much of my own personal matter going into it, as I know that it will only be interesting to but few; but as I had contracted with the publishers for a certain page book, I decided to fill the would-be blank pages with my personal account of the war of the rebellion as kept in my diary daily, generally written up at the close of a day’s march or battle. Expressing the hope that this imperfect work will not be too critically examined and that it may stimulate some future historian more capable than myself to a more successful effort, I trust that such as it is it will be of value as well as of interest to the descendants of our common ancestors.
I do feel self-conscious myself concerning my writing skills (or lack of). When I read these words, I am filled with gratitude to have anything like this from an ancestor at all. I didn’t care about the imperfections and I don’t think my future posterity will either. So although I am aware of my imperfections, I feel a tremendous amount of confidence when journaling.
#2: Every entry is worth it, no matter how small
Some of my grandfather’s journal entries were very long and detailed but others were short like this one:
January 19, 1862
Mill Springs, Ky., where a successful battle was fought.
Others were really, really short:
March 21, 1862
Laid in camp all day.
Then I came across this entry where he seems apologetic for some of these shorter, more mundane entries:
May 10, 1862
Moved camp towards Corinth, ten miles past Monterey, went on picket and laid out in a drenching rain. So much of an army diary is here printed merely to show the daily routine of a soldier’s life.
Each of these shorter entries by themselves are not that impressive and don’t seem to have much value alone. However, when you read entry after entry and see the big picture, they are all important. Think of how many small strokes of paint make up a masterpiece; their significance is only apparent when the whole is in view.
I have come to value short entries, and even those that simply illustrate my daily routine. Every now and then, I like to get really detailed and describe the most mundane aspects of my day. What I had for breakfast, the first thing I do in the morning, my little rituals and tasks that will help the future not only understand me, but the world I was a part of at the time.
#3: Leave in all the gory details
June 19, 1864
…Private Frank Windland of Co. E had a ‘bunk-mate that liked calves’ brains for his rations, and Frank knowing this thought he might like ‘rebel brains’ as well, for making a hasty visit to the evacuated rebel works in the morning found among the slaughtered enemy one whose head had been split open by a Yankee shell, leaving that part of his skull containing his brains separated from any other part. He caught up the rare but ghastly find, sped back to camp, carrying the skull full of brains, greeting his bunk-mate: ‘Pard, I have brought you a fine breakfast.’ But ‘pard’ rebelled at such an offer.
Yes, it is a gross story but I’ll explain why I am glad it is in there. For me this gives tremendous insight into how deeply the war had desensitized these men. Being so comfortable using real human remains as part of a prank makes one wonder what horrors they must have already witnessed to act so casually in this situation.
While I have never been in a war, I have seen some crazy things in my life. I can see the value of giving an accurate report of the events as they happened instead of producing a censored version that betrays the true nature of what happened. When in doubt, I always try to leave in the gory details and put down my real thoughts and impressions as they were at the time.
#4: Include the stories of others
My grandfather was not a fan of slavery, in fact, he dedicates his record “To the mothers” of those that died in battle “in the cause of better government, in blotting out human slavery and maintaining the American Flag” and includes stories that involved African-American slaves and their struggles during the war.
December 9, 1864
During the night the negro men constructed rafts and by tying ropes to each end would pull the raft back and forth loaded with the families of negro women and children. They would ‘bress-de- Lord’ as they landed safely on our side, saying ‘freedom is sweet and they must pass through many hardships to gain their liberty.’
February 6, 1865
At one plantation the women and children congregated by the roadside and danced while our bands played for their amusement, while their owner’s residence was burning. One old white headed negro stood by the roadside with cap off with bowed head, exclaiming over and over, ‘go on brudders—fight de good fight—we know de Lord am wid you—bress you all.’ It was an amusing inspiration as well as serious, coming from this old negro slave, who no doubt spoke the sentiment of nearly every colored person.
How you talk about yourself reveals one facet of your character, and how you talk about others reveals more. Many states had laws making it illegal to teach a slave to read or write, so the individuals my grandfather witnessed probably never passed these stories on to their descendants in written form.
Even though we don’t have their names, their stories were preserved by a witness. While literacy has improved globally since my grandfather’s time, many do not take advantage of it by journaling. Including the stories of others could preserve a valuable legacy for future generations other than your own–just remember to get names and any other significant information if possible!
#5: Don’t let excuses stop you from journaling
November 24, 1863
I returned to camp (in Chattanooga) about 4 o’clock to draw a day’s ration for the men and take out to them. Rainy and signs of a bad night. (The last sentence written with right hand.)
While he was loading his rifle, my grandfather was struck in his right arm by a “Minié ball” which shattered his upper arm and led to an amputation the next day. Losing an arm didn’t stop him from continuing to fight in the war (he declined discharge) or from writing in his journal. After two months of recovery he went right back at it, fighting and journaling as a lefty.
What were my excuses again? Oh yeah, I’m “too busy.”
#6: You never know…
The first time I read my grandfather’s Civil War journal, I was blown away when I got to this entry:
April 14, 1865
Left Norfolk at 6 a. m. on the 13th, and came to Fort Monroe where we had to stop until 4 p. m., when we took the steamer James Brady for Washington and arrived here at 6 this morning. Here Lieut. Graham and myself have stopped at the St. Charles Hotel and have visited the Capitol and other government buildings. Today two papers announce that President Lincoln, wife and Gen. Grant will occupy the State Box at Ford’s Theater tonight. Left on the 6 o’clock train for New York. Gen. Grant and wife came on same train to some point in New Jersey.
If he only knew what he was writing at the time. See, you never know when some passing observation might capture a moment in time that is historically significant to millions or even billions. The next entry recounts what happened the following morning:
April 15, 1865
On our arrival in the city at 6 this morning the sad news of the assassination of President Lincoln is announced. The intelligence fell like a pall upon the whole community. The people have lost a great and good man. This act of murdering our chief magistrate fairly unmasks the spirit of this wicked rebellion. I attended a meeting in Wall Street where a mass of citizens had gathered to hear speeches from such men as Gen. Butler, Gen. Garfield, Gen. Dick, Daniel S. Dickenson, Ex-Gov. Pierpont, Gen. King and others. All were at a fever heat and but a word of encouragement the crowd would have gone and destroyed the World’s office, one of the bitterest copper-head papers in the United States. The speeches of these great men while denouncing the acts of the secession element, advised tolerance. I remember one expression made by Gen. Garfield that struck me as sound. He said that the only way to eradicate secession was to dig it up by the roots and burn up the seed.
I knew many of these facts already so this wasn’t news to me, but reading it through the lens of my grandfather was somehow different. It seemed more real and I felt strangely closer to these events than I had to any other historical account.
#7: Ensure that your journals get passed on
I don’t know where the original copy of my grandfather’s journal is, but because he had several copies published into book form and distributed to family members, several of those copies have survived over 100 years to this day.
This is a key reason that I treasure JRNL’s publishing capabilities. Now there isn’t just one handwritten journal that can get easily lost, misplaced, or fought over by my children, I can publish several and make them available to my children, grandchildren, and beyond. Digital journaling makes it so easy now to preserve and distribute your journals in ways that have never been possible.
I could go on and on with many more tips and I’ll probably have additional insights as the years go on. When it comes to journaling for family history, it is important that we first make the effort, don’t underestimate short entries, look for opportunities to name names and capture intimate details, and most importantly: make sure that it can all be easily passed on.
You can download the entire genealogical record and read the entire journal yourself (starting on page 103) click here to download.
What do you think?
- Do you have any additional advice for those looking to journal for family history purposes?
- Have you discovered any valuable tips from the journals of others?
- What steps have you taken to ensure that your journal(s) get passed on?