1863: 1863 Civil War Diary: James M. Hart, 7th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, edited and compiled by Jerry M. Easley
In many ways, this book is somewhat disappointing. It is unfortunately all too common for a book like this one to attempt to praise and talk up a writer as being particularly articulate and knowledgeable for this age, only for the book to end up being full of commonplace and dull statements that seem to be present only to lead to the praise of the editor for bringing another civil war document to light. That is to say that while this book is by no means a bad book and it certainly is worthwhile to read, it does not reach the level of the best civil war diaries that exist. Most of the famous diaries of the period are famous for good reason–they are especially dishy and succeed on a literary level. This book is not really a literary diary, it is in fact a very straightforward diary of a busy year in the life of an enlisted soldier from Indiana who had quite an exciting year that may have turned out badly for him but ended up working out alright. And this book has something to offer largely because of the perspective of its author.
This book is a short one at only 25 pages in length. Making the main contents of the book even shorter is the fact that the book contains a historical introduction before the main material, which is the collated 1863 diary of one enlisted Indiana soldier who spent a fair part of the year dealing with the logistics and repercussions of skipping from his unit to make sure his family was okay. The introduction includes some discussion about the material in the book as well as the record of service of the regiment as well as a brief history of the regiment’s service in Port Republic and Gettysburg, two of the more notable battles that the regiment was involved in. The diary itself is very brief and straightforward, much of it connected to letters written to and from the author, which, if added, would likely have made this book a much fuller count. The author’s story of his experiencing skipping from his regiment and dodging Union and Confederate cavalry while seeking transportation home and his discussion of what happened when, after he got his affairs in order, he turned himself in, is certainly worthy of interest as well.
To be sure, this book would have been a lot better had it been a full civil war diary and not just the diary of one of the years within the war. Hart’s regimental history throughout the course of the Civil War was in the Eastern front and included quite a lot of notable battles. Unfortunately, or fortunately, his service in 1863 led him to miss much of the battling that his regiment had that year, and are precisely the reason why this particular diary is interesting and noteworthy. One of the more interesting aspects of this book, and certainly one of the more compelling reasons why the diary exists and continues to be read today, is that it tells the story of the author’s desertion from his regiment because of the serious illness suffered by his wife and children that he had heard of. The author’s willingness to endure the penalty for desertion, which at any rate he did not suffer because of his voluntarily turning himself in and the understandable reasons for his absence without leave (a status that he later received when the military reviewed its records later on) allowed him to return to his unit with the rank of private, and at least based on the information that we have, he served well.