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Interpreting Civil War Diaries

In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became fascinated by all aspects of that war. If you're a Civil War buff, check out my topics.


How to Read Diaries, Letters and Other Civil War Writings

There's a wealth of letters, diaries and other hand-written documents from the American Civil War, but it isn't always easy to understand what you are reading. Unfamiliar handwriting, archaic abbreviations, no-longer-used words, faded ink and smudged pencil and place names that have changed can make a Civil War diary difficult to read or to make any sense out of the writing.

Even when someone has conveniently transcribed the letter or diary into print or put it online, there is still the mystery of unfamiliar words and slang from that period. Puzzling it out becomes easier with some background information that I'll provide here.

Photo by Virginia Allain of Abraham Bates Tower's diary).


My Method for Making a Civil War Diary Easier to Read

In working with my great-great grandfather's pocket diary, I struggled to decipher the elaborate handwriting now faded from 150 years passing. Using a magnifying glass was clumsy and I feared for the safety of the fragile diary if I handled it too much.

My solution was to photograph each page with my digital camera. I felt this would be less damaging than mashing the open diary face down on a scanner. I uploaded the photographed pages to my computer where I have Adobe Photoshop. I used Photoshop (other programs can do this also) to brighten the pages up. Experiment with "auto contrast" or "auto levels" to see which makes the writing clearer.

Then I printed out each diary page on a full 8 X 11 inch sheet of paper. Now I had the print large enough to more easily tell what some letters were. I could handle them as much as I wanted, and even make margin notes on these printed sheets.

Photo by Virginia Allain.

How to Read Handwriting from Civil War Times and Earlier Eras - Available from Amazon

This book was recommended by a genealogy site.


Learning a Person's Handwriting Style

from the Civil War Era

In working with Abraham Bates Tower's journal, I found some capital letters puzzling me. Was that a "T" or an "F" or a "J" or an "I"?

Scan through the diary or letter looking for words that are obvious. Sometimes it is someone's name that you know how it should be spelled. Now apply that letter to other mystifying words. Fortunately in my ancestor's diary, he wrote an alphabetical list of the men in Company G of the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. That helped me decipher many of the capital letters.

In addition, I found online a book with the company roster. That gave me a second verification of the names and some of the ornate first letters.

Photo by Virginia Allain of Abraham Bates Tower's diary).

Everyday Language of Soldiers - in the Civil War

It isn't just the old-fashioned spelling and unfamiliar penmanship that can throw a reader off-track. In the military, there are specialized words and slang terms for the equipment, duties and activities. These can mystify a reader unless they have this book at hand.

You can find some terms at this site: Definitions of Civil War Terms.

Reference Books on Forgotten or Obsolete Words

I wondered the first time I read in a Civil War diary that the regiment boarded the "cars." It was obvious from the context that the troops were being moved but I knew there were no automobiles in 1863. I've since found that it is early terminology for traveling by railroad on a train of cars which now we would just say "train."

A Civil War Diary in a Museum

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Check a Timeline for Background Information about a Diary or Letter

Words or sentences that you don't understand, may be clearer once you know about events, places, and people from that same time period.

Learn about Daily Life during the Civil War - for background information for a diary or letter

"His price lists, descriptions of money, and period terms are especially well done and useful," (review by Chrijeff)

Help Transcribe Civil War Diaries

The University of Iowa Libraries have a project to transcribe the Civil War diaries and letters in their collection. They've put the original pages online and are asking for volunteers to transcribe them.

Storing the Civil War Diary - in a museum quality archival box

This box available from Amazon. The site also has archival tissue paper to wrap around fragile items such as an old diary.

More about Civil War Diaries

  • Civil War Diaries Online - The North
    There's something compelling about reading a first-hand account of life in Civil War times. Fortunately a number of soldiers' diaries are available for reading online. Camp life, battles, and more.
  • Women's Civil War Diaries
    To gain insight into the experience of women during the Civil War, read their diaries. Many are online in full for reading and others are published books. This primary source material at its best!

© 2011 Virginia Allain

Have You Run into Problems Reading Old Documents?

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on February 26, 2014:

When I first started researching my ancestors in the early vital land records in Vermont the handwriting was difficult to decipher but after a time I began to find it easier and easier. Two ss in the middle of a word were written like a capital B for example.

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on January 04, 2013:

@AlleyCatLane: How wonderful to have Revolutionary War papers in your family. I'd love to see a lens about your ancestor and the document on Squidoo.

AlleyCatLane on January 04, 2013:

What great advice for genealogists and others studying old documents.Thanks for the source suggestions too. I have some copies of old documents from an ancestor from the revolutionary war. It is so difficult to read the text, I'll have to try your suggestions and see what else i can glean from the documents. Blessed!

waldenthreenet on November 18, 2011:

Valuable Civil War topic. Appreciating your special knowledge of this civil war topic. I cast my vote as "Like" for this lens. thanks so much.

LeCordonDude on November 09, 2011:

Do a lens on Obsolete American Words! :0) It sounds cool to the etymologist in me! GREAT LENS btw! :0) well, not just btw but still!

Tonie Cook from USA on November 09, 2011:

This is an excellent source of information. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Treasures By Brenda from Canada on October 28, 2011:

What a great resource! I wish I had someone's diary to interpret.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on October 19, 2011:

That diary is like a treasure hunt. It is a treasure to have, too.

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on October 18, 2011:

I love Civil War history. Thank you for an informative lens. Great work.

anonymous on October 17, 2011:

neat stuff indeed, I do enjoy our history and thank you for writing about it, here's a 'thumbs up' from this reader.

Close2Art LM on October 17, 2011:

great lens, I love how people wrote back then, with such style...but it is hard to read and the verbage, or slang of the time is different as well, loved the page...blessed...:)rob

gottaloveit2 on October 15, 2011:

You are quite the civil war diary aficionado now! Well done as always.

Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on October 14, 2011:

You are SO good with this stuff...I love how you tell how to save those old pages by copying and using the pages you've copied, with no fear of destroying the originals. This series is going to be the epitome of the Sammy the Squid challenge...wonderful!

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on October 14, 2011:

Great information on how to read someone's writing. That can be tricky with "old time" writing. It sounds like you're having a good time with this series of articles!

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