Long-lost diary illuminates Civil War-era life in Tennessee
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Its marble-printed cardboard cover made the journal look ordinary – like something you could pick up at Barnes and Noble today – hiding the brittle, yellowing pages covered with fine script inside.
A penciled inscription on the front page was retired science teacher Andrea Shearn’s only clue to its origins.
“Captured at Fort Henry, Stewart Co., Middle Tennessee Feb. 6 1862 by Captain M. Wemple Co. H 4th Ill. Volunteer Cavalry. Presented to Mrs. Sue Wemple.”
Like a bunch of old stuff from her parents’ house in Cincinnati, Shearn shipped it home to San Francisco. She wasn’t sure what else to do with it.
But now, about two years later, the contents of the diary are set to be published in Tennessee’s historical quarterly as part of what historians say is one of the most illuminating Civil War-era accounts of life in the state.
And Shearn’s unlikely discovery, it turned out, was the key.
The diary itself is stored in an acid-free file folder alongside eight other diaries written by Randal William McGavock, a Confederate officer, Democratic politician and member of one of the region’s most prominent families of that time.
Most of his papers have been at the Tennessee State Library and Archives since 1960, with one glaring omission, historians said. Missing was the slim book in which McGavock detailed his life from Oct. 1, 1860 to Feb. 5, 1862.
That was the day Confederate soldiers fled Fort Henry as Union troops closed in. As was common, the victors picked over the belongings left behind.
McGavock was an unusually rigorous record-keeper, State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill said as he leafed delicately through the newest addition.
“He was obviously very disciplined about sitting down at his little lap desk every day,” Sherrill said.
And as a member of the region’s political class – the Harvard-educated lawyer served as mayor of Nashville from 1858 to 1859 – his writings provide clear insight into Tennessee’s shift from conciliatory to secessionist.
“Watching the progression of his thinking during the period in that diary gives you a window into how a lot of other Tennesseans were thinking at that time as well,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill said that because it includes the critical period surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, the diary is of particular historic interest.
In early October 1860, before Lincoln was elected, McGavock wrote that, “all parties in Tenn. were lovers of the Union and opposed to secession.”
By mid-December, his views had changed. He described reading a senator’s letter published one day in the Union and American, a local newspaper.
“He says that it is certain that five of the cotton states will be out by the 4th of March and he thinks the other three will follow soon,” McGavock wrote. “Tennessee and the other slave states will have, he thinks, to go with the South or form a separate confederacy. Thus dividing the Union into three parts.”
McGavock continued: “I oppose his plan in toto. I desire to see the South unite and demand of the north a rigid compliance with our compact of confederation.”
To be sure, much of McGavock’s writing centers on the routine.
He mentions visiting his relatives at Carnton Plantation in Franklin, for instance, and calling on an official for tea in Tullahoma.
“Occupied the day in the Courts and in my office,” he wrote on Dec. 7, 1860. “No news.”
Sherrill said that if you read closely, you can learn about the minor romantic intrigues and spats among family members.
Skim through and there’s also a dark side to the writings, at least through the lens of history and to a modern reader.
Days of entries will pass without a mention of the era’s fundamental conflict – slavery.
And then a chilling reminder.
“The excitement of the times has reduced the price of negroes one half. Mr. Shaffer offered me today two No. 1 negro men for $1800, which would have sold for $2800 six months ago.”
Sherrill said that primary, handwritten sources like diaries create a more visceral sense of life during a given time period – for better or worse.
“You get a much more personal connection,” he said.
McGavock died on May 12, 1863, killed in battle at Raymond, Miss.
Shearn, who has lived in California for years, said that she was never much of a history buff.
She had, however, recently gotten into genealogy when she stumbled upon the diary in a wooden box on a shelf.
That’s why the name Wemple rang a bell, even if McGavock meant nothing at the time.
“My dad’s family, the Wemple family, has been in the U.S. since 1620,” she said. “It was pretty funny to follow that all the way back. I used Ancestry.com.”
An auction house told her she might get a couple hundred bucks for what appeared to be another of many soldiers’ diaries, pocketed by a Union soldier and quietly passed down through her family.
She hung onto the diary, and eventually, idle curiosity turned into a months-long endeavor.
Shearn slogged through a transcription, typing slowly with frequent pauses to Google places and people.
“If I’d found it 20 years ago, I couldn’t have made any sense of it,” she said.
She figured out that the diary’s author was from Middle Tennessee, so she looked up a genealogist from the area and asked her for help.
The genealogist told her she should reach out to the state library and archives. Shearn offered to donate the document.
Shearn also got in touch with Roderick Heller – a Franklin preservationist who counts the McGavock family as part of his own ancestry – through what she described as a “fluke” mutual acquaintance.
When Heller got the call, he said, he was shocked.
“I literally was silent for a minute and said, ‘You have the missing McGavock diary,’” he recalled on a recent afternoon.
The two agreed to co-edit the volume and Shearn and her husband arranged to visit the area.
“We were just blown away when we saw McGavock streets and McGavock High School,” she said. “Who would have ever thought?”
By JILL COWAN, The Tennessean
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