Palmyra diary offers a firsthand look at the Civil War

Posted: January 14, 2014

On the way to his execution, William Johnson was paraded through camp to a large open field where 10,000 Union soldiers waited.

This was a warning to them. Desert, as Johnson did, and suffer the same fate.

"Saw man ride by in a wagon," Capt. Charles Hall of the Fourth New Jersey Volunteers wrote on Dec. 13, 1861. "Preceeded by his coffin & the 12 men that were detailed to shoot him."

Eight men fired, and when Johnson still showed signs of life, four more opened up. "Heard the Report & then marched round & saw the dead man lying on ground," Hall, of Palmyra, wrote.

The description of Pvt. Johnson's execution in Virginia is part of Hall's multivolume diary, passed down through his family, then donated a few months ago by his great-great-granddaughter Virginia Harding to the Palmyra Historical and Cultural Society.

The society is transcribing the cursive writing and hopes eventually to publish the tattered diaries, which cover the period before, during, and after the Civil War, members said.

"I stored them in a fireproof box in the back of a closet," said Harding, 71, a retired Lockheed Martin secretary who lives in Cinnaminson. "But I was scared to death something would happen to them."

She was fascinated by Hall's chronicle of garrison duty at Camp Seminary near Alexandria, Va., part of the defenses surrounding Washington during the Civil War.

"The diaries were difficult to read because of the handwriting and the style of writing," she said. "But I liked it because I enjoy behind-the-scenes stuff. It sparked my interest in reading more about the Civil War."

Hall's narrative gives a rare glimpse at the life of soldiers who protected the capital from attack, said Jay Howard, a professor at the Community College of Philadelphia who has been researching the diary.

"I'm interested in the personal side of history, getting beyond the dates and places to individual stories, even the mundane," said Howard, a member of the Palmyra War Memorial Committee, which maintains a memorial for local Palmyra veterans - four marble slabs and bronze plaques with the names of those who served.

The diary "gives a picture of life during the war, what a soldier did each day," he said.

Hall was born in 1816 and served in 1861 and 1862, when he received a medical discharge, said Genevieve Lumia, a member of the executive board of the Palmyra historical society who has been transcribing the captain's account, which was accompanied by muster rolls listing those who served. Hall died in 1899.

"Some of [Hall's] writing was done when he was sick," Lumia said. "He described conditions at the hospital, and they were not all that sanitary.

"Back then, they didn't know a lot about germs," she said. "Hospital workers went from one patient to another without washing up."

The Civil War portion of Hall's diary began with an entry on Aug. 15, 1861. Hall, then 45 and a carpenter, was leading new recruits to Washington.

"Marched . . . 68 men from Moorestown, took wagons to Palmyra and then [railroad] cars to Trenton, had the men examined and sworn in to the service of the U.S.," he wrote. "Marched from thence to camp Olden, pitched our tents and remained there when we were ordered to leave for Washington."

Hall and 98 soldiers headed to Philadelphia, where they received refreshment and a "perfect ovation along our Route through the City." They passed through Baltimore, "with loaded muskets and caps on Ready for immediate action" because there were so many Southern sympathizers there.

Arriving by train in Washington later, Hall and his unit marched on to the encampment of the New Jersey Brigade at Fairfax Seminary, where they quickly got a taste of violence.

"One of our troop was killed on picket duty last night," he wrote Aug. 25, 1861. "he was completely riddled with balls, his Captain was taken prisoner and 2 men with him.

"the Body of dead man was brought into Camp this afternoon, also 3 rebel prisoners and one Sesession horse," he said. "the Rebel Ladies are here begging pitiously for the relief of the prisoners, but they will not be able to obtain them."

Serving in the military "can be 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer terror," Howard said.

Sgt. Maj. Thomas Bonney "was shot this morning and instantly killed by one of our pickets who hailed him and he did not answer and the picket fired twice," Hall wrote on Oct. 18, 1861.

"Although it was in the wood and perfectly dark and Raining, and the pickets fired only by hearing the noise yet a ball struck him in the neck & cut the bone in two, he jumped nearly 2 feet high and fell dead," Hall's account said.

The diary entry "sets the historical record about Bonney straight," Howard said. "It was clear that this was friendly fire - an issue that exists in all wars."

Hall also described drills and dress parades in summer heat and winter cold; camp visits from his wife, Harriet, and leave time in Palmyra and Moorestown, where his mother lived. Many entries mentioned sickness, colds, and probably dysentery.

Hall left the service in 1862 because of ill health; one of his eight children, Charles, also served in the Union army and was killed in 1864.

For Hall's great-great-granddaughter, the diary is a window on another time, a connection to the past, Harding said. "It has always gotten to me when I touch something that is very old. Just touching this diary is exciting."

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