Family shares year in life of Civil War soldier
A new exhibit at the Carnegie Historical Museum intersects a local family and a soldier who served in the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the American Civil War.
Barbara Kennedy Kistler of Fairfield knew about a diary handed down through the family that was carried by an ancestor in the war.
She became curious to transcribe that diary in 2006, and launched into the daily life — from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1863 — of a 28-year-old cavalry soldier; a year’s worth of tiny, handwritten entries, an average of three days to a page.
The diary itself, truly “pocket-sized,” is part of a tabletop display designed by museum curator Mark Shafer. The diary looks to measure about 2-inches by 3-inches.
“And he wrote really small,” said Kistler. “My first step was copying the pages into 8-by-10-inch pages, and even then, I had to use a magnifying glass most of the time.”
The “he” she is referring to, the soldier/ancestor, is James Hopwood Nesmith, a Union soldier from Union Town, Pa., who mustered into the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1862 and was discharged May 3, 1865.
“My parents are Jim and Rose Kennedy of Fairfield,” said Kistler. “Dad’s mom is Rachel Linkhart Kennedy, and James Hopwood Nesmith was her grandfather and my dad’s great-grandfather.
“I started doing the genealogy and when I found something mentioned in his diary about the war, I corroborated times, places, events, anything I could, with the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
“That was probably the most satisfying of all — being able to match what he wrote about and actual events,” said Kistler. “He’d mention so-and-so soldier deserted today, and I could refer back to the rosters and information from Pennsylvania and find it was so.
“But he didn’t write a lot about battles or combat. Maybe the diary was a way to take a break from all that.”
Entries are more likely to describe the weather, military camp activities and what was going on around the soldiers and with the soldiers. Many pages include the remark “wrote a letter home.”
“Apparently enough homefolk would pass in the vicinity of soldier encampments and bring news from home and likewise, carry letters back home for soldiers,” said Kistler.
“The roster shows he had a brother and a cousin serving in the same unit,” she said. “And his sister Mary Bosley was a nurse, serving on the battlefields. I guess she could do that because she lived nearby. He would write in his diary when Mary came to visit him or he would visit Mary.”
The sometimes faded ink and sometimes scratchy handwriting weren’t the only obstacles to reading, understanding and transcribing the diary. Spellings are very different — yet sounded out phonetically — are mostly readable.
“I tried, very hard, to keep the spelling the way he did it, but I just couldn’t sometimes,” said Kistler.
Her family decided to loan the materials to the Carnegie Historical Museum for a few years.
Shafer was planning to do something for the sesiquentienial years of the Civil War.
Shafer worked his magic, taking photos of the actual diary pages and parts of passages, then printing the same words on the page, for viewers’ reading and understanding. Shafer kept Nesmith’s original spellings and created a wall display of several entries.
“I tried finding entries about various topics,” he said.
A wall plaque with a photo of the open diary proclaims: “Excerpts from diary of James Hopwood Nesmith record the dreary routine of camp life for Union soldiers. The Nesmith Civil War Collection is on loan by his descendants, the Jim Kennedy Family.”
A photo of Nesmith, wearing a military jacket and cap, a flowered “carpet bag” over his shoulder at his side, and his sword crossing his chest, is included on the wall display.
Another copy of the same photo of Nesmith is framed and on the table in front of the wall. Additional authentic items on the table include Nesmith’s rifle and sword, a bullet under a glass dome along with printed information about the ammunition from Shafer shoulder epaulets, a small wicker-covered glass jug missing its long-deteriorated cork — which may have been an early version of a water canteen or for rations of something quite stronger — and a large glass display case showing an 1864 Johnson Family Atlas, open to the page for the state of Virginia, on loan from Gary and Kim Adam. Inside this glass display case, resting on the atlas, is the actual Nesmith diary.
“My next plan is to take a farmer’s diary, from sometime in the 1860-62 time period, from Harper’s Ferry, Va., and compare what a farmer wrote about during the same period,” said Schaeffer.
He also is researching and planning an exhibit about the Underground Railroad in this region.
Kistler said sometime after the Civil War, her great-great-grandfather, Nesmith, moved with his wife and children to Oxford, Iowa. He farmed, more children were born, and he lived into his late 80s or early 90s.
“He had nine children,” said Kistler, “seven of them lived into adulthood.”
Despite what may seem to be bad spelling in the diary, Kistler said Nesmith went on to serve several terms on the local school board after moving to Iowa.
“And my dad’s mom [Rachel Linkhart Kennedy, Nesmith’s granddaughter] and an aunt were both school teachers,” said Kistler.
“This display Mark [Shafer] created is very cool,” said Kistler. “I really like it.”
Shafer said the photo of Nesmith will be part of an advertisement the museum will include in the Iowan Magazine.