Iowa Civil War diaries on display

BY LUKE VOELZ | JUNE 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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The University of Iowa Library’s collection of Civil War diaries showcases the triumphs, losses, and emotion of more than a dozen Iowa soldiers, nurses, and civilians.

“Now do not let your courage fail for I have faith I shall come home and my faith I think is nearly as large as a grain of mustard seed,” wrote Iowa soldier Thomas Sterns to his family in 1865.

Sterns died four months later on a steamer en route to his wife and 2-year-old son.

Dating from the 1860s, the archives have risen from the library’s depths as part of an anniversary, informing the public on a war long past.

Researchers at the UI began the Civil War Diaries Transcription Project in January, three months prior to the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. More than 20 records of wartime soldiers, nurses, and civilians were uploaded to a library website for public perusal.

Many of the archived pages are worn by age, written in spidery handwriting on faded yellow pages. While researchers have transcribed some of the collections onto modern paper, they opened their efforts to the public in hopes of speeding up the hundred-page process.

“By getting the public involved, it gives people a new insight into history by being able to read through these [diaries],” said Meagan McCollum, the Johnson County Historical Society education & outreach coordinator. “The fantastic thing is they’re going to be searchable for the public as well. They’re helping out future researchers by enabling them to become searchable.”

Bruce Krueger, a State Historical Society archives associate, said physical Civil War manuscripts provide a more personal account of the conflict.

“They are important records, so if [researchers] are able to get access, that’s great,” he said.

The diaries provide candid insights into the lives of soldiers separated from their home.

“I am at present a little under the weather on account of being a little lame it was caused by my getting wet the day we started back to the country … without having a chance to dry myself,” wrote Sterns one month before his death. “But I am on the gain now, and I think in a few days I shall be all right again.”

McCollum said Iowa City was a central location for the state’s Civil War efforts due largely to Camp Pope — once located near what present-day Longfellow Elementary — serving as a major outpost for training and gathering Union forces. Iowa’s governor during the war, Samuel Kirkwood, also lived in Iowa City.

State Historical Society member Bryan Bauer said spreading Civil War historical efforts through different state organizations helps draw from a broader pool of resources than isolated researchers.

“[It’s] just a good way to really use more of a grass-roots approach to producing things,” Bauer said. “Spreading out all the different activities rather than trying to have one entity do everything.

[Crowd sourcing] is a great approach to really involve a community of Iowans — being a part of defining and documenting what our heritage is.”

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