Jesse Johnson was born May 2, 1842, and joined the Union Army at the age of nineteen. He served as a corporal in the West Virginia 2nd Cavalry, Company L, and saw fighting in western Virginia at Lewisburg, Sinking Creek, Princeton, and Wytheville, where he was wounded during a fight to take the town. Upon completion of his three years of service, Johnson returned to his home in New Salem, Pennsylvania.
The West Virginia 2nd Cavalry originated in November 1861 and served predominantly as a scouting outfit in western Virginia, where it engaged the enemy in several skirmishes. The cavalry also fought in other parts of Virginia, as well as in South Carolina. After Johnson was wounded and separated from the regiment, the West Virginia 2nd Cavalry fought under General Philip Sheridan and later joined General George Custer's division and fought at Five Forks, Sayler's Creek, and Appomattox.
Scope and content
Jesse Johnson's diary begins on November 1, 1861, and continues until July 31, 1864, eleven days after he left the army to return to life "once more a freeman and a Citizen." The collection contains Johnson's diary entries, written on loose sheets of paper, as well as an accurate typed transcript of his diary.
Johnson's diary serves as a chronicle of his time as a corporal in the West Virginia 2nd Cavalry. His entries range from brusque to poignant and from concise to detailed, but all serve to provide insight into his experiences, which ranged from mundane daily camp chores to fighting along the front lines. Many entries are as succinct as the one that reads "Another Court martial was convened at these Headquarters today." Some are longer, eloquent descriptions of the countryside or reminiscences of his past. On November 6, 1861, he wrote: "As I was watching the falling rain, my thoughts naturally reverted to the scenes of by gone days when I was roaming over the prairies of Illinois or teaching school husking corn one year ago." Most often, no matter the topic of the entry or its length, Johnson provided an account of the weather.
Johnson's writings provide a glimpse into the life of soldiers during the prolonged intervals between fighting. It was during these times that he mentioned receiving a new coat (of poor quality), receiving pay from the paymaster, turning in clothes, receiving mail, watching horse races, fishing, and fraternizing with Confederate soldiers. His duties included foraging for food for the men and horses, delivering or picking up mail, and serving on picket duty. Some entries, though brief, provide interesting details, such as the entry for November 18, 1861, when Johnson stated that he received $42.40 for three months and eight day's work and stood in line for two hours before receiving it.
Johnson's regiment moved frequently. His diary provides not only an account of the moves, but also imparts how southern civilians sometimes provided food and shelter to Union soldiers during these movements. Such entries illustrate that a clear division between North and South did not exist, and that loyalties crossed sectional and state lines.
One such move was to Wytheville, Virginia. On July 19, 1863, Johnson was wounded during a skirmish in a successful attempt to occupy the town. The entries that followed provide an account of Johnson's ordeal. Although he did not describe his injury or any treatment he received, he provided a glimpse into the life of a soldier on the mend, a life that was boring and at times trying. Johnson spent a month in the hands of the Confederacy, in civilians' homes, hospitals, and a couple days in Lynchburg Military Prison, after which he was paroled and returned to Union officials. He spent the next two months reading books and recovering before returning to service.
Johnson indicated in his diary that after his return to the Union Army, he was stationed in the Washington, D.C., area, where he spent the remainder of his term. Regimental histories, however, indicate that the West Virginia 2nd Cavalry continued to move about. Although he did not indicate so, it appears that Johnson may have served out his term in a convalescent camp. Such camps existed outside Washington, D.C., to help protect the nation's capital. In addition, on November 17, 1864, Johnson noted that President Lincoln reviewed a brigade of the Invalid Corps.
The return to service also meant a return to routine and Johnson soon lamented the boredom he suffered, often writing "Nothing of importance took place today." He mustered out on July 23, 1864, and continued his journal for another week, documenting his transition back into civilian life. The final entry finds Jesse at home in New Salem, Pennsylvania, on July 31.
Johnson remained reticent through most of his diary. There was occasion, however, when he wrote some personal thoughts about what was going on around him. As early as November 21, 1861, he questioned the competency and conduct of superior officers, who he referred to as tyrannical and abusive. His voice comes through most strongly not in his entries for days when fighting occurred, but in entries for days when he passed through areas where fighting previously transpired. On November 9, 1861, he wrote, "When I look over this farm and the fences all destroyed, the stock running about, uncared for grain being wasted and, last but not least, no man left to take care of them, I am truly thankful that this war was not waged on Northern soil. This place presents a sad picture of the direful effects of civil war."
Perhaps more telling is his entry for Friday May 2, 1862: "I spent my birthday rambling over the ruins of Princeton [Virginia]. Nothing but chimneys and a few scattered houses remain of that once beautiful town." He conveyed the wretched conditions in Lynchburg, but not his thoughts on his situation. On the day he was mustered out, he succinctly wrote that he felt like a new being. Although he continued to write for several days, it was the last personal thought Johnson wrote in his Civil War diary.
The collection is open for research.
Gift of Evelyn Abraham.
Cite as Jesse Johnson Diary (Collection 1299), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Processed by Steven Smith, August 2003.
Processing made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Dyer, Frederick H. Compendium of the War of the Rebellion: Compiled and Arranged from the Official Records of the Federal and Confederate Armies. Des Moines, IA: Dyer Publishing Co., 1908.
Hewitt, Janet B. ed. Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1999.
Union Army Illustrated. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1998.