I was browsing through recommendations on Amazon when this book caught my attention. As one would expect, the words Civil War stuck on the cover. However, the name LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) did not sound familiar at all. My interest peaked and I decided to see why the book had earned a five star rating. And to say that it is a hidden gem would be an understatement. It is indeed special and the author did a remarkable job of putting it all together.
Janet Elizabeth Croon admits early in the book that she had no idea who Gresham was. I would wager that a majority of Americans are unaware of him as well. He was never mentioned in any of the history books I studied while in school. Nor is he mentioned in literature regarding the Civil War. But I firmly believe that this journal is one of the most overlooked accounts of the war from the point of view of the Confederacy. The story is told from the Gresham family home in Macon, Georgia. LeRoy is what we would call an invalid, having survived a dangerous accident in 1856 in which his left leg was severely broken by a falling chimney. Following the injury, he developed a dangerous and persistent cough in addition to other symptoms that were later diagnosed as tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”. LeRoy is never told of the diagnosis and the journal was written by a young man who did not think death was coming for him until his very last moments.
Readers will notice instantly that Gresham is highly articulate for a young man of his age. It becomes obvious early on that his mobility is limited and he does not get out often. However, he is a keen observer of the news and those around him. His awareness and understanding of the raging conflict between the Union and Confederacy speaks volumes about his level of maturity. And although he was not always correct in some of his observations, that can partly be attributed to faulty reporting in a time before social media and live news broadcasts. In fact, news moved so slowly at times, that it could be an entire day or two before information reached its final destination. Regardless, LeRoy follows the war closely, offering detailed insight into the war’s progression.
As I read through the journal, I did notice that most of his days were actually quite eventful with relatives and friends coming and going constantly. Games are played, the weather detailed, various foods eaten and plenty of conversation takes place. Sadly though, LeRoy’s illness does not let up and he comments on his own physical condition nearly every day. Readers have the benefit of the doubt in knowing what was wrong with him but he was unaware of his terminal diagnosis. He mentions old medicinal treatments common during the time and some of the names will be foreign to some readers. The reports of the war’s battles may also be unfamiliar to those that are not Civil War buffs. But the author provides a ton of invaluable footnotes at the end of the chapter to explain almost everything contained in the journal for each year. Without these footnotes, the journal would have assuredly been a far more challenging read.
As a Black person, I could not ignore the “elephant in the room”. LeRoy’s family were slave owners and supporters of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). As I started the book, I did feel a bit of uneasiness about what I would find. I did not find anything extreme in the journal but I did notice he was not averse to using racial terminology that was commonplace at the time, in particular for a slave owning family. However, he does not lace his journals with it and refers to family slaves by their first names in describing the day’s events. But I was under no illusions that he believed in the abolitionist movement. LeRoy believed in the Confederacy and was no fan of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), but as the journal progressed, I did notice a few changes in his beliefs that will cause the reader to take notice. And had he lived, perhaps his views might have changed over the course of time.
The journal only covers between 1860 and 1865, so we do not know all of the details regarding the accident that caused him to break his left leg . The author explains the accident but LeRoy does not talk of his leg much in the journal. In fact, his back is the main focus in addition to his hacking cough and the abscesses that would plague him as the tuberculosis raged through his body eventually reaching his spine. As a bonus in the book, the author was able to get a doctor to examine what was known of LeRoy’s medical history, the medications he was taking and the care he received to render the most likely diagnosis. At the end of the book, the doctor takes a very detailed look at the medications which explain even further exactly what LeRoy’s condition was and why he would have been given them. Reading the journal did make me grateful for modern medicine.
I strongly advise and recommend that anyone interested in the Civil War to read this book. It is by no means an authoritative source on the war but it is a very intimate look at the conflict through a very different set of eyes.