THE MAKING OF A CIVILIAN SOLDIER IN THE CIVIL WAR
The First Diary of Private William J. McLean Along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Affair at Edwards Ferry
by Dennis D. Urban
Pub Date 08 Oct 2019
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Much more than a simple diary transcription, this book describes the early family history of a young man, a brother, and a father; all who answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers. A must read for Civil War enthusiasts. This well-researched work is built around the first diary written by Pvt. William J. McLean, 34th New York Infantry, beginning with his enlistment. William records his wanderings, adventures, and thoughts from the time he leaves Fairfield, NY, through his traveling to Washington, DC, his adventures there, and while picketing along the C&O canal in the Great Falls and Seneca areas. He writes of the first death of a soldier in his regiment, the excitement over Bull Run, and an incursion into rebel-infested Virginia. Much more than a simple diary transcription, the work describes the early family history of a young man, a brother, and a father; all who answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Researched over many years, this work adds significant new information to the history of the storied 34th New York Infantry.
The opening chapter is the intriguing search to identify the diarist. Another early chapter describes antebellum Herkimer County, NY, the town of Fairfield, and the academy in which William was a student and teacher. The diary chapters are the entries between May and early October 1861. William mentions many of his regimental friends and back home acquaintances. Chapter notes provide specifics of each individual which lend context to the reader. His detailed descriptions of camp life, adventures in camp and on picket duty, paint a clear picture of everyday life for a young volunteer soldier in Montgomery County, MD. Additional annotated information includes never before published first person accounts of several startling incidents of war. The concluding chapters review the actions of the 34th at Edward’s Ferry (part of the Balls Bluff debacle), McLean’s effort to correct his military and pension records, and finally the post-war years of William, his brother, and his father. A must read for Civil War enthusiasts.
“The Making of a Civilian Soldier in the Civil War is exactly what it says. And, because of that, it is a fine example of that branch of Civil War writing which shows the human side of the war. Urban has made a useful contribution to the literature by bringing Private McLean's ruminations to a modern audience.”
—James A. Morgan, III, author of A Little Short of Boats, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861
“Dennis Urban ably weaves diary transcriptions with meticulous research. Civil War scholars, enthusiasts, and general readers will enjoy and learn from Private McLean’s first-hand accounts of everyday camp life, conflicts, and occasional heart-warming stories of camaraderie between Union and Confederate troops. At the same time, Urban leads the reader behind-the-scenes for “stand-on-the spot” stops for family homes, farms, and cemeteries, and for research visits into local, state, national history, and genealogical records.”
—Cherel Henderson, Executive Director, East Tennessee Historical Society, Knoxville, TN
“Civil War soldiers’ diaries are all highly prized. However, the early war time period described by William McLean along the Potomac, coupled with Dennis Urban’s meticulous presentation, makes this diary a true treasure.”
—David P. Krutz, author of Distant Drums, Herkimer County, New York in the War of Rebellion
“While William McLean’s story is an interesting one, his experiences are not unlike that of many Civil War soldiers. It’s the backstory, the filling in the blanks that brings McLean’s experiences alive. McLean’s diary entries tell part of a story, but the annotation completes that story.”
—Jim Doncaster, Past President and current Program Director, Knoxville (TN) Civil War Roundtable