Saturday, August 23, 2014

One More Time: Diary of an Enlisted Man

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that one of the trans-Mississippi classics is Lawrence Van Alstyne’s, Diary of an Enlisted Man (1910). Although it does show some signs of postwar embellishment, his account has a number of strengths. Van Alstyne enlisted in August 1862 and was assigned to Company B of the 128th New York Infantry. In December 1862, the regiment was transferred by sea to Louisiana, and a few months later they participated in the Port Hudson campaign. In the fall of 1863, Van Alstyne received a commission as 2nd Lieutenant and became part of the 90th U. S. Colored Infantry. Although he served in the Port Hudson campaign, he was in a commissary role at the time and did not often come under fire. The 90th was in the Red River campaign but saw little active duty. The lack of combat duty, though, does not mean the diary is boring. His entries about camp life are well done such as the following snippet about a common soldier complaint:

“July 18, 1863….One of the boys borrowed a pair of shears and I guess they will wear them out. The best thing though was a fine-tooth comb, which has been in constant use to-day. That too was borrowed. I am ashamed to tell it, but when I got the comb I pulled out five lice from my hair the first grab….Body lice we don’t care for. We just boil our clothes and that’s the end of them. Their feeding time is when we are still for awhile, but at the first move they all let go and grab fast to our clothing” (p. 155).

My favorite chapter was his account of traveling back to Louisiana after a leave. The ship he traveled on was loaded with conscripts, and some of them proved to be pretty tough characters. Van Alstyne, along with other soldiers, helped bring the situation under control. At one point, he wrote, “I grabbed the tough by the collar with one hand and with the other jammed the muzzle of a cocked revolver against his ugly face, telling him to climb that ladder or die. He was a coward after all and went on deck as meek as you please, where I handcuffed him to the rigging and went back after more” (p. 278).

Descriptions of the country he traveled through and the civilians that he encountered are well done, and his recruiting duties in Louisiana for the 90th U. S. Colored were sometimes lively. Many of the African-Americans that served in the unit were bilingual, knowing both French and English. Diary of an Enlisted Man is a fine read, and it’s a shame that a modern edition of the book has never been published.

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