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A glimpse into the Civil War experience of Company F

Today’s blog post comes from Mary Burtzloff, archivist at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The black leather-bound journal had water stains and mold around the edges. It looked a bit icky, but the contents of the Civil War journal fascinated me.

One hundred and fifty years after our nation’s bloodiest conflict, we are  reminded of the lives and accomplishments of famous men like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. The experiences of ordinary Americans (31 million or so who are not featured in films and books) are much more mysterious. What sort of people were they? How did they experience the war? George Boardman’s story helps me relate to those missing multitudes.

I began identifying Civil War–related holdings at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library as I worked on a proposed exhibit. Believe it or not, a 20th-century Presidential library may have records from the 19th (and even 18th) century, too!

My favorite find was the journal of George Boardman, a young man who served in Company F of the 22nd Maine Infantry from October 1862 to August 1863. Mrs. M. Hobart gave the journal to President Eisenhower in 1967. It is currently displayed in the exhibit “Civil War: Lincoln, Lee and More!” at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

The diary entry for George Boardman's Christmas dinner in 1862 (click to enlarge). He served in Company F, 22nd Maine Infantry. The diary is currently on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

I researched Boardman’s life using digitized census and military records on Ancestry.com, Fold3, and the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (the records themselves are mostly at the National Archives). I learned that George was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Union Army. He grew up in Calais, Maine, a Canadian border town that thrived on lumber and shipping. In 1860, 17-year-old George worked as a clerk, probably in his father’s shipping business. Back then, on-the-job training substituted for higher education in most professions, and even ambitious young people often finished their schooling at a young age.

When he enlisted in the 22nd Regiment for nine months’ service, George probably knew many of his comrades in Company F. He wrote of many things: the pride and anxiety they experienced as they paraded through downtown Calais before departing for Bangor; his encounter with citizens who did not welcome Union troops; a miserable trip in a dirty coal car; his fear that death would soon intrude on the grand adventure for him and his friends; cold, rainy nights; his excitement at glimpsing the ironclad Monitor. The self-conscious humor and gawking at unfamiliar sights gave way to a more matter-of-fact style as the months progressed.

Although George never became famous, he recorded details of life that stir my imagination. Soldiers gave tongue-in-cheek names to the four-man tents they occupied (Boardman and his pals lived in the “U.S. Hotel”), fired a “National salute” at the enemy on the Fourth of July, and gamely celebrated Christmas with meals (breakfast, lunch, and supper!) of hardtack and salt beef. Did you know hardtack is so durable that well-preserved pieces from the Civil War still exist?

In a sense, Boardman’s journal seems timeless; I am sure our military today can relate to the mix of excitement and boredom, drudgery and novelty that he depicted.

Oh, and remember the water stains and mold? On March 16, 1863, as Boardman camped five miles from Baton Rouge, it “Rained hard all night. Spoiled my photographs and journal.”

See the diary on display though March 31, 2013, in the exhibit “Civil War: Lincoln, Lee and More!” at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

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