Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Overlooked Gem: Diary of an Enlisted Man

Bell Irvin Wiley’s classics, The Life of Johnny Reb (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank (1952) were based on a solid foundation of unpublished manuscript sources, printed correspondence, printed diaries, unit histories, and printed memoirs. His “Bibliographical Notes” at the end of each book highlighted the best in each category, and that is how I learned of Lawrence Van Alstyne’s Diary of an Enlisted Man (1910). Wiley wrote that the book “gets off to a slow start but the author’s style, like that of some other diarists, improves with practice and the end product of his efforts is an absorbing book. The account is a memoir rather than a diary for the period after June 15, 1864” (page 440). Another plus is that Van Alstyne served in regiments that were stationed mostly in the trans-Mississippi. 

Before writing about some of the topics covered in his diary, I think it’s worthwhile to quote a part of Van Alstyne’s poignant preface. He enlisted in August 1862 in the 128th New York Infantry; only 23 years old, he promised his parents to keep notes of his experiences. For most of his service, he wrote his diary entries in “small notebooks” and sent them home after he filled them up. When he returned home, he bundled them all up “and put them away in an unused drawer of my desk, where they lay, unread and undisturbed for the next forty-five years.” As the years passed and more and more veterans passed away, “It was with a feeling of ever-increasing loneliness that I untied the bundle and began to read the long-forgotten diary. In a little while I was a boy again, one of that great company that helped to make history read as it does. Almost half a century had suddenly rolled back and I was with Company B—‘Bostwick’s Tigers’ we were called, not altogether on account of our fighting qualities, but became of the noise we sometimes made….
I was never so absorbedly interested. I even forgot my meals. For weeks I thought of little else and did little else than read and copy those dim old pages. I read from them to any who would listen, and wondered why it did not stir their blood as it did my own.
But the reason is plain. To the listener it was hearsay. To me it was real. So it may be with the diary now it is printed. In the nature of things it cannot be to others what it is to me. It is a part of my life. My blood would not tingle as it does at the reading of another man’s life. It is what historians had neither time nor space to write, the everyday life of an enlisted man in time of war” (pages v-vii).


  1. I enjoyed Van Alstyne's account, but I suspect he embellished the diary, at least in one spot. I'm thinking of the entry where he mentions seeing an unassuming officer lounging on a steamboat deck, and the next day he hears that it was U.S. Grant! Why would he have bothered mentioning the officer the day before?
    Will Hickox

  2. Yes, I agree with you that there might have been some postwar changes/embellishments to the diary. In another entry he mentions seeing a Wisconsin regiment with an eagle mascot during the Port Hudson siege. Now, as far as I know, the 8th Wisconsin was the only regiment from that state with an eagle mascot, and they were at Vicksburg at the time. That entry led to several questions in my mind: did he embellish the entry for his parents? or was it a postwar addition? did he really see a regiment with an eagle mascot at Port Hudson? In spite of all of this, though, I thought it was a great read, and his diary is probably reliable overall.