Spencer, Edward – Civil War Diaries

Edward Spencer Civil War Diaries

courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions

The Diary of Edward Spencer is copied (in part) into the current volume from memory and notes in 1864, the first of two volumes of Spencer’s diary includes brief and breezy comments on the early months of his service, but he reserved space for the events leading up to and including the Battle of Thompson’s Station, fought near Franklin, Tennessee. A well-educated young man, upstanding and proper, Spencer expresses himself well and displays an awareness of battlefield tactics and attention for the critical details in the engagement that are seldom found in private soldiers. His account includes the following: our brigade with the 4th Ohio Battery was sent out toward Columbia on a foraging and reconnoitering expedition, when about 6 miles from Franklin found the rebs in force preparing to dispute our progress opened upon us with a ten lb. battery shelling quite smartly for a couple of hours, injuring no one…. After a quiet night, they ran into the enemy again the next day, with two Indiana regiments moving forward, leaving the 19th Michigan and 22nd Missouri behind. In a few moments heavy firing was heard on our right where the Ind. regs. went out. At the same time a section of the enemy’s guns opened upon us from the right dropping shell very close. Our guns replied but without effect. We were then ordered to the right of the road as the enemy were flanking our present position. We were to take a position on top of a hill, the rebs seeing our object advanced toward the top of the hill from the opposite side & the two parties met at the top. We charged and drove them back down the hill and then fell back under the brow of it as protection from their guns which were shelling us lively. In a few moments they charged again and again were driven back. This was repeated four times, the rebs being driven back each time with great slaughter.

Seeing that they were being outflanked, the brigade fell back to another hill, where they came under an immediate assault. Col. Coburn, commanding the brigade, then said our only chance of escape was to charge their lines with bayonets fixed and force our way through. This we were preparing to do when another line of cavalry was discovered, a charge then would be insanity and the col. in order to save the lives of his men concluded to surrender. Accordingly the flag of truce was raised and the Johnnies flocked in upon us from every side. Canteens, haversacks, and clothing were taken from the men and swords and pistols from Officers. Upon the whole it was an indiscriminate robbery of private as well as govt. property….

Marched to Shelbyville, the prisoners were given a bit of bacon as large as two fingers, then marched to rail cars, bound for Richmond on a scarring trip, cramped into cars with too little food and too much cold. It got worse: While on the road to Richmond engine gave out leaving us on the track amid one of the most severe storms of the winter. Snow fell one foot deep. Impossible to keep fire as it stormed continuously, feet badly frozen as boots were given out. Some of men thinly clad, trying time indeed….

The regiment’s stay in Richmond was brief, as they were almost immediately paroled. Spencer was sent to hospital to recover from his ordeal, but he suspended his diary keeping until picking up again during a furlough in February 1864, and only resuming in earnest after he reached the front near Dalton, Georgia, in June, the Atlanta Campaign in full swing. Spencer’s description of the scenery on the first day back tells the story of Sherman’s forces. This has once been a fine country town but is now about destroyed. It is situated 39 miles from Cha[tanooga] and at the junction of the Cha. And Cleveland R.R. In this wanton destruction of property the Rebels are reaping the bitter fruits of secession. Good for them.

Spencer’s description of the Battle of Peach Tree Creek (July 20, 1864) is a good example of where the destruction originated, and includes an excellent account of routing the rebels with a fearsome charge. No one but those who have had actual experiences, he wrote that day, can comprehend the feelings of a man when engaged in deadly strife with his brethren or the peculiar sensations of after thought from going over the bloody field, strewn with the dead and dying. A battlefield at night is peculiarly terrible and possesses a horrid sort of fascination to the survivors. Never can I forget the field of the 20th as appeared by moonlight. The stiffened gray forms of friend and foe almost covering the ground, each victim weltering in his own blood, face turned upward in most cases, the pale uncertain light of the moon revealing the expression of countenance which on some was fierce defiant and in others almost the calm repose of sleep…. In the light of the next day, he added that the dead rebs as a general thing were badly mangled. Our fire was so close that several balls took effect in some rendering decomposition rapid this hot weather. A bad stench arose from the bodies before they could be interred….

Two days after Peach Tree Creek, Spencer was detached to serve as dispensing clerk to the regimental surgeon George Martin Trowbridge. The fall of Atlanta and the carnage Spencer witnessed left an impact. Witnessing the flocks of families fleeing Atlanta, following the retreating Confederate army, he wrote, It does seem hard after passing through the trials and deprivations of a siege and presence of an army in their midst with all its attendant evils, to be obliged to leave home for the uncertain support and protection afforded by a retreating army even if friends are there. This is one of the features of the war, sufferings of the innocent, oppression of unprotected women and innocent helpless children. Their situation calls for sympathy if they are Rebels, many of them and I believe most of them, believe their cause to be just and holy.

Spencer’s diary includes insight into the mood of the Union army in Georgia. Despite his deep sympathies for the civilians, the first rumors of the conditions at Andersonville, the reports of prisoners dying at the rate of 130 a day and the dead stripped by Negroes previous to burial, thrown into holes, then covered like govt. mules turned his sympathy into vengeful anger. God help the poor victims of Secession and Treason, he wrote, hasten the day when their wrongs may be avenged in the overthrown and total extermination of the foul conspirators. Their existence and memory should be blotted from the annals of history forever. Like a poisonous reptile crush out life and with it, all power to execute their hellish designs. Other entries include comments on national politics; the election of Abraham Lincoln, family and home, the officers’ lyceum (debating society) held in the regiment, the conduct of the war, sermons attended, his sleeping conditions, and a description of a field hospital of the XX Corps ingeniously heated by underground brick flues.

When XX Corps left Atlanta on Sherman’s March to the Sea in November, Spencer, of course, adopted a small, tight hand to cram more words onto every precious page. His reports indicate that the reputation that followed Sherman’s bummers was well-earned. On November 18, for example, he wrote: passed Social Circle & R.R. Station today. Station burned. Families left very destitute. [Nov. 19] marched about 3 miles and went to tearing up R.R. destroyed about one mile reaching to the town of Madison. [Nov. 19] Conversed with several young ladies found them intelligent and accomplished but thoroughly Rebel. Saw here great numbers of slaves nearly white… People often left destitute, great quantities of cotton burned…. The entries continue in a rich and detailed fashion through fall of Savannah and Sherman’s triumphant review of XX Corps on December 30.

Although Spencer began on the March through the Carolinas, he was soon sent back to Savannah, sidelined by a bout of diarrhea. He remained there working in the hospitals until the last white troops were sent to reinforce Sherman in March, leaving only “Colored” troops to garrison the city. (Not coincidentally, he reported that the Inhabitants of the city very much exasperated at the idea of colored troops doing provost duty in the streets.) By the time Spencer caught up with his regiment, his sympathies appear to have hardened further, and while he reported that most of the citizens near Wilmington, North Carolina, had been pretty well cleaned out already he added, Most of them profess loyalty as a matter of policy but they are not to be trusted. There are able bodied men at nearly every house, perhaps bush whackers as soon as we pass.

Spencer’s diary is slightly less dense for the remaining weeks of the Carolina’s Campaign than it was for the March to the Sea, but includes mentions of the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, and the assassination of Lincoln (mentioned in oddly brief terms). After Johnston surrendered, the 19th moved northward through Richmond, where he caught another glimpse of his former prison and the city surrounding: Old Libby looked very natural and caused a good many remarks – streets filled with people of both colors wishing to see Sherman’s Greasers. The general led the column. Fires have been very extensive throughout the city the ruins still remaining. Cotton and tobacco warehouses suffered the most severely…. He later includes excellent accounts of traversing the old battlefield at Spotsylvania (witnessing the bones of men from both sides still littering the ground and cutting a ball from a tree as souvenir); a nice, unusually lengthy account of the Grand Review in Washington; and an even longer account of a tour of the capitol building. Although he returned home in June, Spencer continued to enter sporadic entries in the diary until 1871.

The first diary, transcribed into this volume in 1864, is part narrative at first, composed largely (he writes) from memory, but after August 1864, his diary becomes a true, straightforward diary, with the detail and emotional depth one hopes for in the best. Expected wear, but an excellent account of an underling’s life in a Civil War medical unit, with great content on the Battle of Thompson’s Station, Spencer’s imprisonment, and Sherman’s war-closing campaigns. An exceptional opportunity to gain insight into the mind and heart of a sensitive Midwestern man thrust into the maw of war.

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