Invalid boy’s diary focus of Library of Congress Civil War exhibit
By Michael E. Ruane,
On a blazing Wednesday in July 1862, an invalid teenager from Macon, Ga., opened the journal he was keeping to make his daily entry. “Terribly hot,” he wrote. It was so hot that beads of his sweat fell onto the page.
He tried to rub them off, but they smeared the ink. Mindful of his readers, he explained, “notwithstanding we have just eaten a nice melon . . . perspiration pours off me and drops on the book.”
A century and a half later, LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s smudges still mark the page, in a kind of communion with students of his remarkable record of the Civil War, the collapse of the Old South, and the last years of his privileged but afflicted life.
It is a chronicle — in neat, legible handwriting — of the excitement of the war’s early months, the seeming endlessness of the conflict and the approach of the dreaded Yankees as they steamroll through Georgia.
From his rooftop, LeRoy sees the smoke and hears the booming of cannons in the distance. At night there is the glow from burning houses.
The Library of Congress is featuring selected pages of Gresham’s little-known diary as part of an extensive display of its voluminous Civil War material to mark the sesquicentennial of the war years.
The exhibit, which opens Monday, is called “The Civil War in America,” and includes more than 200 items — maps, song sheets, letters, photographs and the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the night he was assassinated.
But Gresham’s apparently has never been published, the library said, and it offers a unique view of the war and an intimate personal story. The library acquired it in the 1980s from family descendants.
The diary also speaks about slavery and its demise — about “servants” and “valets,” always in the background and almost always referred to by first name only, Howard, Eaveline and “Mammy Dinah.”
And it is the saga, in seven volumes, of a precocious, delicate boy who was a voracious consumer of books and newspapers, but who was often confined to a special wagon that was pulled about town by slave.
Crippled by a broken left leg years before, and tormented by what sound like bedsores, and a host of other infirmities, LeRoy is exposed to a full range of Victorian remedies — opiates, whiskey, syrup of lettuce, spirits of lavender, and various powders, plasters and poultices.
Little of it works.
From his wagon, he can only watch the other children play “town ball,” a precursor to baseball. He has to be carried at times — he weighs 63 pounds — and in one case his mother drops him. He is often despondent.
“I feel more discouraged [and] less hopeful about getting well than I ever did before,” he writes on March 17, 1863, at the age of 15. “I am weaker and more helpless than I ever was.”
And on Feb. 7, 1864: “It seems to me that as I grow older, the dreary, monotonous life I lead seems more burdensome. If I just had some regular employment I could get along better.”
Occasionally he writes, “saw off my leg.”
But the war seems to sustain him, said Michelle Krowl, Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the library’s manuscript division.
“The war is interesting, and there’s a lot for him to follow,” she said. “He only dies a few months after Lee’s surrender and not much longer after the Confederacy completely collapses.” He was 17.
He is keen observer of nature, noting comets, eclipses and the weather. He describes thunder “like the grumbling of some demon,” and a night when “it rained sweetly and musically after we went to bed.”
There are flashes of humor.
“And now dear reader, pause one moment and drop one tear over the memory of an honest, faithful cat,” he writes on June 6, 1864. “Poor kitty had one of her hard fits yesterday . . . from which she could not rally and at 6 1/2 p.m. she died . . . Requiescat in pace.”
There are adolescent doodles, entries penned in cherry juice and a fictitious battle at “Pokehistailandhewillgo.” And between two pages in June 1863 there is the elegant insect wing he probably placed there almost 150 years ago.
LeRoy is refined and courteous. He reads Dickens and Shakespeare and plays chess. He refers to his parents as Mother and Father. An old ambrotype of him shows a fair-skinned youngster with light eyes and pleasant features.
“We just fall in love with this kid,” Krowl said. “He’s so interesting, and he’s engaging, and . . . he’s legible and he’s literate and he’s all these wonderful things that you want in diarist.”
But he is a partisan Southern youth.
Abraham Lincoln is “the royal ape.” A Northern general killed in an early battle is a “red-mouthed abolitionist.” And Lincoln’s famous second inaugural address “is a hypocritical praise God barebone piece of puritanical fanaticism.”
LeRoy Gresham was born Nov. 11, 1847, the son of John Jones Gresham, who had twice been mayor of Macon, owned a manufacturing company and a plantation south of town, according to the diary and a history of Civil War Macon by Richard W. Iobst.
LeRoy had a younger sister, Minnie, and an older brother, Thomas, to whom he was very close.
At one point, “Father” buys Thomas a sparkling Confederate uniform for $500. But as the war goes badly, the elder Gresham frantically pulls strings to get him out of the trenches at Petersburg, and finally goes there himself to bring Thomas back to Macon.
‘War! Thou demon that ravishes fair countries’
The diary begins in June 1860, when LeRoy is 13.
He and his father are sailing to Philadelphia to see a renowned physician, Joseph Pancoast, about his broken leg, which seems to have never healed right and is now “drawn up.” The diary does not say how the leg was broken.
There is no resolution, and LeRoy is told to go home and remain “lying down for the summer.”
What follows is his account of the war, viewed from his fine home on College Street, as well as a look at the experience of an upper-class, slave-owning household in the 1860s.
With the fall of Fort Sumter, in April 1861, LeRoy writes: “War! Thou demon that ravishes fair countries, stay thy mad career.”
He records the great battles at Bull Run, Shiloh and Antietam. He writes of a visit from “Cousin Helen,” who is traveling north to search for the body of her husband, Col. William F. Plane, of the 6th Georgia Regiment , who had been killed at Antietam.
He notes the Emancipation Proclamation — “Lincoln has declared slaves of rebels free” — and makes no further comment.
Near the end of 1862, he writes:
“I close this record with the earnest hope that ere another Christmas is gone we may have peace and prosperity, and . . . the crisis of my disease may have passed and I may at least be released from constant confinement to a horizontal position.”
The year 1863 brings the Battle of Chancellorsville and the death by friendly fire of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. “The pride of the nation is gone,” LeRoy writes. “Dearly was the victory won at such a price.”
As 1863 closes, he writes, “the year goes out weeping, weeping. We might well think over the blood that has been shed and the fiery trials this poor country has been called upon to undergo.”
‘The town is in a furor of excitement’
All this time Macon had been geographically distant from the front lines, but with the approach of the Union Army under Gen. William T. Sherman, things start to change.
Slaves are impressed and put to work building defenses in Atlanta. Men between 17 and 50 are liable for military service. LeRoy’s father is summoned to the militia. The town fills with wounded.
Suddenly, Yankee raiders show up outside town, and his father, taking a slave, Howard, with him, joins his company to do battle.
“Shells have fallen over this side of the river,” LeRoy writes on July 30, 1864.
“I went upon the top of the house but could only see the smoke. Every man in town is under arms. . . . We sit anxiously waiting for news, too excited to read or do anything but think of Father . . . and listen to the booming of the cannon. . . . A thousand wild rumors are afloat.”
When Yankees retreat and the elder Gresham returns home safely, LeRoy writes, “I felt so thankful to eat our supper safely and in peace again and Father with us covered with the glory of a right severe campaign.”
But inglorious events come next. On Aug. 6, 1864, he reports that one of his cousin’s slaves was hanged for “insubordination” and other slaves were “paroled” for “joining the raiders and declaring themselves free.”
The reader can fairly guess what he meant by “paroled.”
On Nov. 11, 1864, he writes, “this is my 17th birthday and I am old enough to be in the reserve forces of the C.S.A. . . . What a farce!”
With the approach of Sherman’s entire army, panic in Macon sets in.
“We do not know what to do or think,” he writes on Nov. 17, 1864. “We have no place to run to where we could be safe, and we feel awfully about it. The town is in a furor of excitement.”
His father has gone to Virginia to bring Thomas home. In his absence, his mother decides to send sister Minnie out of town for safety.
“I was never so perplexed and I determined to do all I could to settle the question of running or staying,” he writes on Nov. 18. “Mother and I will stay till further developments.”
In the end, Sherman bypasses Macon, and the emergency eases.
In February 1865, near the close of the war, LeRoy reports that a new slave has been brought from the plantation to pull him in his wagon, because his previous “valet” is “played out.”
The new slave is Gulielmus, “vulgarly termed ‘Bill,’” he writes. LeRoy takes a liking to him. “I have been trying to clothe ‘Bill’ in the garments of civilization . . . and have improved his appearance.”
April 9, 1865, brings the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox, all but ending the war. But LeRoy in isolated Macon does not hear about it right away.
It is not until April 20 that he records, with “great excitement,” that the Yankees are on the outskirts of town, and as Macon is “under an armistice no resistance will be made.”
Union forces duly occupy the town, and on April 22, he writes:
“When we awoke this morning . . . it was hard to believe that we were under U.S. rule. But the clanking sabre and the tramp of the horses teaches how stern is the reality. The capitulation of Lee is believed to be true; if so, good-bye C.S.A.”
He doesn’t hear of Abraham Lincoln’s April 14 assassination until April 25, and notes it without comment.
By May, his health begins to falter, and the family’s slaves begin to leave.
“It is supposed that all the negroes will be declared free in a day or two,” he writes on May 22. Eight days later, he records that slaves “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.”
LeRoy’s last complete entry is on June 8, 1865. “Nothing definite from Bill as yet, doubtful whether I will ever see him again,” he records.
His final entry, on June 9, is just a fragment, “I am,” followed by a word that is indecipherable.
Beneath that, in someone else’s handwriting, is written, “LeRoy Wiley Gresham, author of this diary, died in Macon. Ga. June 18th 1865.”
The Civil War in America
Monday through June 1. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. 202-707-5000. www.loc.gov.