Social Education 66(2), pp. 130-132
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

Preserving Civil War Diaries


John Michael Priest

The Students Interpreting and Preserving Soldiers’ Stories program, which I began more than ten years ago, helps students learn about the American Civil War and engage in history firsthand. Since 1990, more than twenty students in grades 9-12 in South Hagerstown High School, Hagerstown, Maryland, have used their time before or after school to transcribe, edit, and publish primary source documents of Civil War veterans. They analyze, interpret, and investigate multiple historical viewpoints to validate primary source documents while preparing the documents for publication. Because we found that we could not recruit the requisite fifteen students for a class each year, and we could not integrate the class content into the Washington County Social Studies Essential Curriculum, the program is voluntary and occurs during nonschool hours.


Historical Diaries

In 1990, we published From New Bern to Fredericksburg, the Civil War diary of Captain James Wren (Company B, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers). Our second book was One Surgeon’s Private War, the Civil War memoirs of Surgeon William W. Potter (49th and 57th New York Volunteers). Our most recent project, which began in March 1999, involves Sergeant William H. Relyea’s The History of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers. This is the third in a series of publishing projects at South Hagerstown High School.


James Wren

James Wren’s diary covers the war from March 1862 through December 1862. During that time, the captain, an iron manufacturer from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, saw action at New Bern, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The students produced this work from an undated, typed manuscript that I found at Antietam National Battlefield. The students worked on all the footnotes, the map, the artwork, and the photography for the book. They also wrote the appendixes, which include a glossary of Wren’s unique spelling and a copy of his letter of resignation from the army. The students also indexed the work.

The unflappable James Wren decided in early 1863 that he had done his duty in the war and had to return home to attend to his business. A phonetic speller who used only three punctuation marks in the entire manuscript, Wren wrote about what he lived as he “heared” it and “seen” it. He wrote in a distinctive dialect, which the students preserved. The product of a segregated and class-conscious society, he poked fun at the Irish and at the Germans. The students had never considered ethnic groups other than African Americans or Native Americans as being the victims of prejudice and racism.

The captain used his authority to sober up a drunken enlisted man by having him strapped to a board on his back for a day. He also commandeered houses for hospitals and for his personal quarters. In another instance, he stole a genera#146;s Thanksgiving dinner. His men pilfered houses in Fredericksburg, Virginia, for flour and luxury items. Students thought that Wren was a contradictory, uneducated “character,” to say the least.


William W. Potter

William W. Potter served in two Civil War regiments between 1861 and 1864: the 49th and the 57th New York Infantry. His recollections, which my daughter transcribed from his original 1888 typescript copy, contain vivid accounts of the Peninsula Campaign and the fighting around Petersburg. William Potter grew a beard (a mark of adulthood) and developed into a self-assured officer who was always watching out for his own betterment. He spent a great deal of his time “rubbing elbows” with his superiors to secure his best interests. Every inch the officer and the gentleman, he seldom mentioned enlisted men by name, and he never spoke of them as his equals. When his cigar maker was killed, Potter griped about the loss of the man’s services but could not recall his name (the students identified the man as Private James Kris, age eighteen, of Company F). As a surgeon, Potter performed an early version of plastic surgery on a man whose face had been destroyed by a shell fragment. Another time, he refused to work on an enlisted man whom he suspected of having shot himself to avoid active duty. The students did all of the preparation for this manuscript, except the transcription of the working document from the original.


William H. Relyea

Our current project, William H. Relyea’s unpublished regimental history, has allowed the students to do all the manuscript preparation—from transcribing the photocopy of the handwritten original document to the final proofreading. They are editing the draft prior to submission to the publisher, which includes footnoting, and preparing photographs of many of the men mentioned in the book for publication. Once we produce this draft, we will submit it to a final read-through, then submit the third draft to the publisher. The final step, after we receive the corrected galley from the publisher, will be to index the book. The book should be available by June 2002.

This manuscript follows the course of a new Union regiment from its baptism under fire at Antietam in 1862 through its capture at Plymouth in 1864. During that time, the author describes how the war and its surrounding circumstances change his own life and those of his comrades. A product of his time, like James Wren, he openly mocked the Germans and the Irish, and he did not consider African Americans his equals in society. We discussed that the United States in the mid-1800s was prejudiced against all “foreigners,” Native Americans, and African Americans.

All one has to do is read the sections in the book about the 16th Connecticut trying to mutiny because it had not received its back pay, and how it exercised its armed might over the civilian population in the South, to understand how the military created its own power base. Like the U.S. soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, the men expected to be paid on time. And also like armies throughout history, the men looted towns and houses. Relyea’s stories about how men obtained food, tobacco, and other items at the expense of the original owners are a prime example of the supply-and-demand theory at work. He also described how the soldiers in North Carolina manufactured their own gunboats for river warfare, built bridges, and burned houses to achieve military objectives.

In his waning years, Relyea became introspective and decided to preserve for posterity the most important years of his life. He described the society in which he lived, sparing no one, particularly not the officers under whom he served, the federal government, and his own “family”–the regiment.


The three authors were not very concerned about the world outside of their own. Nevertheless, they shared similar experiences with soldiers throughout the world and throughout history. Soldiers have all had constant quests for shelter, food, the basic comforts, and the means of securing them. The personal hardening that these three men experienced kept them from breaking down emotionally from the trauma of war. They were not men who allowed themselves to cry or feel compassion for the enemy or for cowards. All three shared an abiding, deep sense of duty to their country and its war aims–the preservation of the Union.


Students in Charge

These projects have been student-run from the ground up; I work only as a facilitator. Students have used their historical knowledge as well as English skills. They are also familiar with the word-processing and the chart-making skills required for desktop publishing. Just as important, they have applied concepts such as time, chronology, and change by analyzing and connecting patterns of history. They have watched the individuals in these books, all of whom survived the war, transform from civilians to seasoned soldiers. The students have reconstructed and interpreted the past by verifying and validating the credibility of the sources and expanding on the soldiers’ original works. Some students have been so dedicated to the project that they have worked on segments of it at home.

From the project’s inception, the students have done most of the work. They developed teamwork skills: One student might read footnote material, for example, while another might type it into the manuscript. By reading the text out loud together, they managed to decipher several seemingly unintelligible passages. Oral editing also has allowed them to better analyze and interpret the authors’ intent and tone.

Many resources have helped in the project. Students have used CD–ROMs of the Southern Historical Society Papers and of The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. In Relyea’s case, we contacted Scott Holmes, whose relative served with the 16th Connecticut. Holmes sent us extensive material and photographs related to the regiment. Kelli Nolin of the Connecticut State Historical Society made the manuscript available to us, and Nancy Shader of the Connecticut State Library gave us permission to use the photographs of the 16th Connecticut. The students have learned to use the Internet as well to locate materials. As a result of their efforts, each student who has participated in the project is listed in the front of the book as a coeditor and researcher.

I wish I could have recorded all of the “ah-has” when the students discovered material that interested them as they followed the exploits of the authors. During the work on Wren’s book, for instance, one student found the letters of a lieutenant whom Wren promoted—the fellow did not credit Wren for any of his success. In Surgeon Potter’s book, the doctor wrote about literally reconstructing a man’s shattered face; the students verified his description by finding that soldier’s medical records. In Relyea’s book, one student learned about a soldier who survived primitive brain surgery only to be hit by a train after he had reached home on a medical discharge.

Along with the rich learning from the project, our work has also been used and lauded by historians. Reviewers in nationally distributed Civil War magazines have praised the excellent editing and proofreading. From New Bern to Fredericksburg was also reprinted by Berkeley Press and distributed nationally in paperback. Civil War historian Reid Mitchell has also cited the book in one of his works. Royalties from the books go into a Social Studies Research account; we use these funds to purchase Civil War books for the school library.

As stated earlier, all of our projects (with the exception of two field trips for research) have occurred on our own time after school. We could neither fit the program into the essential curriculum nor recruit enough students to justify creating an elective course. To incorporate a project such as this into a “regular” classroom, a school would have to give the instructor more academic freedom than the average classroom teacher usually has. It would require a solid manuscript or manuscripts relating to some aspect of American history. It would require a differentiated type of grading system unique to that class, a flexible curriculum, a gifted faculty member, and students who genuinely wanted to be in the class. I would gladly take suggestions from readers on how to incorporate this unique historical experience into a classroom.




Billings, John D. Hardtack and Coffee. Boston, MA: George M. Smith and Co., 1887. [Reprinted by Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1982].

Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay Co., 1959.

Connecticut AGO. Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion. Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, Brainard, 1889.

Jordan, Weymouth T., Jr. (Comp.). North Carolina Troops 1861-1865: A Roster, VII, 354. Raleigh, NC: Division of Archives and History, 1977.

The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1991.

Sifakis, Stewart. Who Was Who in the Civil War. New York: Facts on File, 1988.


The Students Interpreting and Preserving Soldiers’ Stories: Publications

Priest, John Michael et al., eds. Captain James Wren’s Diary: From New Bern to Fredericksburg. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1990.

Priest, John Michael et al., eds. One Surgeon’s Private War: Doctor William W. Potter of the 57th New York. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1996.


John Michael Priest is a social studies teacher at South Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, Maryland. He has led the Students Interpreting and Preserving Soldiers’ Stories program there since 1990. He is also a historical consultant for Walt Disney Productions.

Preparing a Historical Document for Publication


The Students Interpreting and Preserving Soldiers’ Stories program is divided into five stages. Students:


• Produce a typescript document from a photocopy of the holograph original.


• Proofread and edit the first draft.


• Type the second corrected draft.


• Edit the second draft for writing mistakes and footnote and verify the authors’ statements.


• Submit the final draft to the publisher and work through the galley reading, indexing, and final editing.