— from the diary of William Morgan Davies, private in the 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
My mother first showed me my great-great-grandfather’s Civil-War diary when I was fifteen. I was impressed by the faint, angular writing in the cardboard-covered copybook, but I was bored by the account of miles marched and letters written, complaints of fatigue and ague and tight boots.
Recently the diary came into my possession after my daughter asked to read it. I put it in a shoebox with other family treasures.
My friend Glenn Leisching of Chichester, who had been initiated in the Dagara tradition by West African elder Malidoma Somé, was offering divinations in September 2010, and he did a reading for me on the subject of my desire for a change in my work. He offered several suggestions, none of them directly relevant to my query, including the idea that I set up a shrine to my ancestors. One of Malidoma’s reasons for teaching in the U.S. is that he considers the West spiritually impoverished — and in danger of destroying the world — due to our failure to honor and connect with our ancestors.
So I set up a cloth, a candle, and a photo of my father, who had died the year before. After a few days, I added the shoebox. And I peeked inside.
On top was the typewritten transcript of the diary of William Morgan Davies, beginning with the lines:
June 6th  Commence keeping company with Louisa, M, Dickerman
August 5th Enlisted in the 95th O,V,I [Ohio Volunteer Infantry] Com, A
Aug, 21st The 95th left Camp Chase for Kentucky
(Note: I have preserved Davies’ punctuation, capitalization — or lack thereof — and spelling in these quotes.)
I was immediately riveted. What kind of man writes so sparsely about such significant events? I know only a few facts about my great-great-grandfather.
Davies was born in Pontardulais, Wales, and emigrated to the U.S. as a child. According to family lore, he was brought here by his brother, a sea captain. Several siblings settled in Columbus, Ohio, and he was living in Ohio when the Civil War broke out.
Although Davies was literate and had breathtakingly graceful handwriting, he does not seem to have been highly educated, and he never made it past the rank of private. The majority of diaries I have found were written by officers, articulate men who discuss their motivations, experiences and reactions in detail. My ancestor’s spare accounts stimulate detective work, as I comb through the words, striving to understand his nature and his life.
I wonder why he began to keep a journal. Perhaps his sweetheart gave him the blank copybook, and he wanted to please or impress her. Louisa Maria Dickerman had attended Ohio Wesleyan Female College, founded in 1853 in the small town of Delaware, where she grew up.
At first, Davies seems to have little interest in his journal, writing in it rarely. He dispatches the battle of Lexington, Kentucky, in a single line and notes on January 6, 1863, “Got married to L.M. Dickerman.”
The entries gradually increase in frequency and length. In May 1863, as General Ulysses S. Grant’s army was heading toward what was to become the siege of Vicksburg, a turning point in the war, Davies suddenly begins to write whole paragraphs, almost daily.
May 11th …the 95th was ordered to reconnoiter Baldwins Ferry on the Black River…on reaching the Ferry we was fired on by a Rebel picket on the other side we soon drove them away Com A stood picket that night I was weary and sore foot
They reach Jackson as the Confederate army is retreating, and the 95th captures six guns and 50 men. The troops are in high spirits as they march west. They pause at Clinton, where they can hear the cannon booming at nearby Champion Hill in a battle won by Union forces. By the time Davies gets to Vicksburg, the city is under siege. Grant decides to storm the defenses.
On May 19, the 95th takes up position within 500 yards of the Rebel line but protected by a string of hills. Davies writes:
many were killed and wounded in the Brigade in crossing a ridge to the position and some owing to their eagerness to look over the hill on the columns strugling through the brush and falling timber and their withered branches towards the work it was a hot day we had to lay down in line amongst undergrowth and branches exposed to the hot sun all the afternoon the perspiration oozing out at every pore one man showed the white feather he turned tail and went back excuse that he was sick
That day’s entry ends with the passage quoted above, describing the men dragging their wounded and dead from the battlefield.
Most of the diary is not nearly so dramatic. Grant’s attacks fail, and his troops settle down to the siege. On July 4, the Confederates surrender Vicksburg, giving the Union forces control of the Mississippi River. For the next eight months, the 95th marches back and forth across the state, hunting guerillas and standing guard over roads, railroad lines, provisions, bridges. Here is a typical series of entries:
July 7th …march 8 miles to the town of Bolton on the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad this was the hottest day so far in the campaign it rained hard all night I did not sleep any…
July 10th March 5 miles I did not feel well yet
July 11th March 3 miles and nearly up to the Rebel line of fortifications uncommon hot weather horses and mules dying from the effect of the heat…
July 13 th This is a better place than before Jackson we get plenty of green corn and peaches to eat Company A was on picket the Welsh Squad with Sergeant T Humphrey as our sergeant was posted by ourselves on one of the crossroads the squad consisting of T Humphrey, myself, John Jones, S. Gales and Evan Evans
On November 28, John Jones dies of “Nieumonia of the lungs”, and the company scrapes together $97 to send him home in a metallic coffin. Davies does not write again for more than two weeks.
By March 1864, the regiment is based in Memphis and making forays into northern Mississippi, playing cat-and-mouse with the cavalry of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a daring and crafty commander regarded by Union generals as a formidable opponent.
Wednesday April 6 The Reville beat at 4 a,m, fearful lest Forrest who is supposed to be in West Tennessee somewhere will make an attack on Memphis wrote a letter to Lou [his wife, Louisa] & one to Jno. Morris Jr.
The National Park Service website has a page devoted to the Brice’s Crossroads National Battlefield Site, near Guntown, Mississippi. In discussing the strategy behind the battle, it explains that General William T. Sherman was trying to bisect the South with his drive through Georgia to the sea, but his supply lines were vulnerable to the kind of attacks that Forrest so expertly carried out with his cavalry. General Samuel D. Sturgis was instructed to take troops stationed around Memphis to try to draw Forrest westward, away from the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad that was supplying Sherman’s army.
The distraction worked. Sherman made it to the sea, but the battle at Guntown was a disaster for the Union forces. Forrest’s 3500 cavalrymen routed Sturgis’s army of 8100.
Friday June 10 Was captured at Guntown Miss, by the Rebel Genl Forrest our Army was defeated with great loss 19 of my Co was captured and 137 of the Regt…
Tuesday 21 Arrived at Andersonville Prison [in Georgia], where 32,000 of our men prisoners confined in 22 acres of land
Monday July 11, 1864 11 of our men was Hung on the same scaffold & at the same time for robbing & murdering their fellow Prisoners
That’s all Davies has to say about his three months of incarceration at the most infamous Confederate Civil-War prison, where it’s estimated 100 men died each day from disease, starvation, and exposure. The execution of “the raiders,” a band of Boston toughs, is well-documented by other writers.
Here’s the next entry:
September 19 Got out of Prison with men to be exchanged between Sherman & Hosa [?]
Wednesday 21 When within 15 miles of our lines near Atlanta myself & Wakeman Bell made our escape into the woods…
Thursday September 22 Got safe to Sherman’s Army
Davies’ health was broken, and he spent the next few months in hospitals. He was honorably discharged on August 15, 1865.
Twenty years later, when he took a horsewhip to his wife, the family attributed his rages to the effects of his war experiences, especially his time in Andersonville.
Louisa’s brothers helped her get a divorce, and his daughter Mary, my great-grandmother, learned stenography and typing at the age of 14, so she could support her mother and younger brother. But that’s another story.
I’m wondering how the trauma of the Civil War is handed down through the generations. Along with the suffering of imprisonment under more or less intolerable conditions, did the stoical Davies experience survivor guilt as men around him died every day? What did he have to do to stay alive in that hell? Does my own tendency toward exaggerated anxiety and guilt have any relationship with his pain? And it’s not just about my family. The more I read about the war and Reconstruction, the more I think about the trauma that underlies modern U.S. politics.
Of course the Whig party failed to arrest the onward rush to secession. [Compromise] was now dissolved and blotted out forever; secession sealed its doom through out the South. Abolition and Freesoil stole its jewels in the North, and now, fragments of a broken constitution, it lays deep buried under the crushing weight of a ‘Union pinned together with bayonets’.”
-- from the autobiography of Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, Governor of Mississippi from 1865 to 1868
Jackson, Clinton, Bolton, Vicksburg, the Black River — where are these places? As soon as I opened my atlas to the map of Mississippi, I realized I had to go to the South and trace my ancestor’s path. I don’t know what kind of resonance is waiting for me, but something important is there.
I explained the plan to my friend Sara Shinbach, who lives in Shandaken. “He writes how many miles he marches every day and names the little towns he passes through: Rocky Springs, Raymond, Fernando —“
“Hernando,” said Sara.
“Not Fernando — it’s Hernando.”
“You know Hernando, Mississippi?”
“My mother grew up in Mississippi. My great-great-grandfather was the last governor of Mississippi before Reconstruction. I’ve been planning to go to Jackson and look through the materials our family donated to the historical archives....”
I’ve already made tons of notes and researched other members of my family, and I’ve been reading Civil-War history to get an understanding of the diary’s context. I’m hoping to write a book about my discoveries, which brings me back to the original purpose of my divination with Glenn — a new direction for my work. I am realizing that the ancestors have tremendous power for us.
By the time you read this, I will have flown to Mississippi. Sara is meeting me there on April 7. I’ll spend a week pursuing traces of my ancestor’s experience and delving into the archives with Sara. I’ll report on our adventures. ++