|Unit History Project|
The Henry O. Nightingale Diaries
The Diaries of Henry Oliver Nightingale – An Introduction.
From the perspective of the twenty first century, the personal civil war writings of Henry Nightingale do not really deepen one’s understanding of the civil war nor do they contribute much to the history of the Rochester Regiment, the 108th New York Volunteers, of which he was a member. In fact at times, it could be wondered why he even bothered to write the diaries. He was a member of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays’ staff until March of 1864 but almost nothing is conveyed about the experience, except meeting Mrs. Annie McFadden Hays, the general’s wife and that the general owed him some money for cartes de visite - a debt that seemed to remain unpaid. Other people whom he met or dealt with are often not clearly identified. He will mention an event then simply move on without detail, reaction or second thought. For example on December 24th 1864, he casually mentions that a hospital burned to the ground the previous evening and then adds nothing. Were there injuries or worse? Where was the hospital? Was it arson or burned intentionally for whatever reason? After exhaustive and exhausting research of Washington and New York newspapers for Dec. 24, 1864 no record of any hospital fire could be found. Other examples abound in the diaries. He will mention soldier friends, usually ignoring any regimental clue and simply throw out a name such as “Miller” which of course is untraceable due to the overwhelming number of such names in the Soldiers and Sailors Database of the National Park Service. Finally the historically valuable highlight of the 1865 diary, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, provides no insight. In fact the daily entry for the 14th begins with how pleasant the weather was. Over the following pages, he resorts to the standard response to describe the deed as well as the usual mythic comparisons of Lincoln. Not once does he reveal or attempt to verbalize his personal reaction to the murder. When read, it reads almost as what should be said about the death of a president, closer to social convention than real emotion. Therefore if anyone reading the diary is expecting useful historical data or discussion of contemporary events or even details of everyday life in a civil war hospital, they will be disappointed. Now obviously the previous comments raise the question of what value if any does the diary possess?
The American Civil War and the individuals in the armies involved provided for the first time a personal literate record of the struggle, either in letters or diaries or newspaper accounts by soldiers serving as news correspondents for hometown papers. These are not official government sanctioned accounts such as were compiled after the war but rather records of personal responses written while the stink of battle was just beginning to dissipate. Napoleon remarked that the ideal soldier was one who could neither read nor write and perhaps the little Corsican may have been disturbed that the overall level of literacy was probably higher in this war than any before. These armies were volunteer armies made up of ordinary citizens, a large number of whom could read and write and they did so. Official government publications during and after the war may have helped to place these individual responses into a larger context but the individual response to war belonged to the men on the battleground. In the 1870’s and 1880’s the appearance of the numerous regimental histories along with the carefully orchestrated rise of the Lost Cause myth helped to soften the brutality of the war and turned the war away from the slavery issue to the more noble euphemism of States Rights, where both sides were noble and honorably motivated- a belief still popular today.
As mentioned earlier from the perspective of the 21st century it is imperative that a 19th century man cannot be judged by modern criteria of behavior or expectations and Henry Nightingale was a 19th century man. His diaries were probably mostly written at the time specified 1864 and 1865 while the war still burned and grinded the men of both armies. The time of composition needs to be qualified since Nightingale had the habit of re-writing in his various diaries. It would appear he had an earlier diary but there is no evidence that it still exists. As a literate man Henry recognized not only the historical importance of the war but realized its major influence in his personal life and future. At war’s end approximately 600,000 soldiers who had been robbed of their youth or young adulthood would never see or even understand fully the results of their sacrifice. The survivors had to put their life back together and move on but nothing would be the same. Henry’s war wound in his left arm was a lifelong reminder of his sacrifice. The older he got the more it hampered him and thus he took every opportunity to petition for a pension increase. Frequently the wounded arm disabled him in the performance of his printing job and he was forced to lose days and weeks of work at a time. He received his last increase shortly before his death on May 12, 1919 at 75 years of age.
Henry Nightingale’s diaries are typical of the era in which they were written. Not surprisingly these diaries are frustratingly short on details for the modern reader. His diaries are not self-reflecting explorations to study personal growth or intellectual development but rather conform more to the travel book genre where day to day events were recorded and not necessarily reflected upon. Consequently Henry Nightingale consciously reveals very little of himself and what he does reveal, he does not comment on. While in the field, he understandably preferred a neutral voice since capturing and reading enemy diaries was a great source of campfire humor and entertainment. Both armies took an almost morbid delight in the captured private letters, writings or photos of the enemy so the less personal revelation the better. As an aide to General Hays, he noted what interested him not the reader. The daily routine of Headquarters he found not worth writing about unless something out of the ordinary occurred and like most of his contemporaries the details of battle eluded him. Any account of the fighting was usually heavily self-censored to protect loved ones’ sensibilities but a great deal of the time the men had no idea of the battle beyond their visual radius.
His wounding at the battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864 graphically portrays the plight of the wounded and the horror of the battlefield where wounded men were left to die in the flames that engulfed the area. Although his journey to Washington was painful, the arrival at Stanton Hospital really marks the end of active service for Henry. He will spend the last 13 months of service at Stanton. However even in hospital, when the threat of capture is not a factor, he continues the depersonalized approach. His views on abolition are never expressed. He is joyful over the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865 but other than that nothing. He will often write about how interesting discussions, sermons or books were but leave it at that. His love of romantic poetry is clear since he sticks poems in all over certain entries, yet he chooses not to comment on his selections. After his furlough home in the late fall of 1864 when he obviously won the hand of Judith Underdown, his cousin and future wife and all through the diary of 1865 his entries center on his “betrothed” and how often she writes him. He goes so far as to keep a running count of her letters. Typically Henry is concerned with receiving mail. He writes letters constantly and becomes upset when not answered as quickly as he would like. To keep in touch with home and have home remember them was of great concern to these men. They had to be assured that someone cared and that there was normalcy somewhere in the world. So Henry’s diaries are not treasure troves of historical data or new insights, but they do provide the reader with a limited window into 19th century America Not much on detail, perhaps the diaries were a method for Henry Oliver Nightingale of the 108th New York Volunteers to cling on to a sense of reality during the insanity of civil war and that is something that will always be valuable.
A Note on Sources.
The diaries of Henry Oliver Nightingale took about two years to transcribe and to annotate and since this is an informal transcription then bibliographical citations will follow suit. Sources were numerous, some are forgotten but the most often used are in the following list:
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History