Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Alexander G. Downing.

Downing’s Civil War Diary


Reminiscent Introductory Note.

During the months of July and August, 1861, the country was greatly aroused over the prospects of war. Excitement rose high when the news of the battle of Bull Run, July 21st, was flashed over the wires. I was then almost 19 and living at home on a farm near Inland, Cedar county, Iowa. Naturally I was deeply stirred over the question of war. Some of our neighbors and friends had earlier opposed the use of force in preventing secession, but I distinctly remember that my father and many neighbors and friends entertained no doubt as to the righteousness of such a course.

During these days we were at work in the harvest field. We had finished cutting our wheat and oats and during the first two weeks of August were engaged in stacking the grain. Everyone had some part in the work. Father did the stacking, while John was on the stack with him, placing the sheaves at his right hand. Albert and George drove the teams to and from the fields, while Paul and Andrew attended to watering the stock during the day.1 Tom Toly, a strong Irishman, who had worked for us three or four summers, pitched the sheaves to father from the wagon, and Dave Cole pitched the sheaves from the shocks in the field to me on the wagon, while I arranged them on the load.

There had been some talk of raising a company of troops at Inland, but nothing had come of it. At Tipton, the county seat, a company of one hundred men was raised when the first call for volunteers was made. But as they were not then needed, they went out under the call of July 23, 1861, and became Company A of the Fifth Iowa Infantry.

I had been pondering in my mind the matter of going to join the army. On the evening of Saturday, August 10th, news came of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and that General Lyon had been killed. The First Iowa Infantry was in that battle and made glorious history for itself and for Iowa. That fact, with the excitement over the battle itself, stirred us boys in the neighborhood, and I practically reached a decision as to what I should do.

The next day was Sunday, and everybody was talking about the battle of Wilson’s Creek. Ministers spoke of it in their sermons and prayers. It was the all-important topic of the day and for the next three days—the 12th, 13th and 14th of August, it was the topic of conversation while we were finishing our work in the harvest field. On the next day, my birthday, I began my diary and shall now let it speak.

A. G. D.


1The five boys, John, Albert, George, Paul and Andrew, are Mr. Downlng’s half-brothers. They are all living at this time (March, 1916) and all reside in Iowa.—Ed.

(August. 1861)


In presenting Downing’s Civil War Diary to the public, the editor wishes to set forth the exact nature and character of the work. In the first place it should be said that it is not a verbatim reproduction of the original text. This statement no doubt is enough, according to the accepted tenets of historical criticism, to condemn the work without further consideration; no attempt will be made by argument or brief to defend so gross a breach of the historical sense. However, a brief description of the original diary and an account of its publication in its present form, may both justify the course pursued and explain the true character of the published diary.

The original diary with other papers and commissions of Mr. Alexander G. Downing have been presented to the historical Department of Iowa, at Des Moines. The diary consists of two small note-books, one containing the daily entries from August 15, 1861, to the close of 1862; the other from the beginning to the end of 1863; a larger note-book for the year 1864; several large sheets of writing paper, dated and numbered consecutively, from January 1, 1865, down to the mustering out of the young veteran and his return to the harvest field in July of that year.

Another manuscript of the diarist must be mentioned as a step in the evolution of this published diary. Upon learning of the existence of the diary, the present editor suggested to Mr. Downing the desirability of preserving it in printed form. With characteristic modesty he responded that certain friends had urged the same, but that it was hardly worth it, and in any event he meant first to re-write it as it was not in shape to be printed. He thereupon set for himself the task of re-writing his diary and completed the work in the early months of 1914. This revised diary together with the original he then delivered to Curator Harlan for preservation, at the same time expressing the wish that if his diary were ever published, it should be the revision rather than the original. In fact he felt that with the revision the original was no longer of use, and it was only through Mr. Harlan’s sympathetic interest and earnest solicitation that Mr. Downing consented to its preservation. Arrangements were at once entered into by Mr. Downing and Mr. Harlan for the undersigned to edit the diary for publication.

This revised manuscript is a faithful piece of work, neatly bound, which by accurate transmission, omission and amendation, is a most worthy effort at writing “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” of a soldier’s experience, after the lapse of fifty years. But it will readily be seen that there was a fundamental problem to solve before entering upon the work of preparing the diary for publication, viz.; how to make use of both the original and the revised manuscripts. It was finally determined to edit the original diary and draw upon the revision for such additional matter as would serve to enrich the simple, crude, but manifestly faithful fact-presentation of the original and so construct the material that the reader might have the advantage, without confusion, of Mr. Downing’s reflections of fifty years upon his original writing. In doing this it was necessary to re-write the diary. Great care has been exercised so as not to obscure the diarist’s point of view and change the spirit in which he originally wrote. The method thus adopted has had from the first the full approval of Mr. Downing.

There were entries in the original which Mr. Downing regarded of no consequence, others which he thought improper and which he consequently omitted from his revision. But all such, with his consent, have been religiously included in this volume. On the other hand, some things which he wrote in the revision have either been omitted entirely or excluded from the body of the text and placed as footnotes or included in the appendix. This is particularly the case with such reminiscent or explanatory statements which in their nature could not have been in a diary, or which would tend to discredit the work as a record of fact. The work is thus preserved as a diary. Only such material from the revision has been drawn upon as would clear up facts and make the whole more readable. It is thought that the added descriptions and experiences give a more perfect picture of the routine life of a Civil War soldier, and yet in no way change the recorded events and the currents of feeling.

The original diary was written, much of it, under the rather unfavorable conditions and trying circumstances, attending the hurry and excitement of war. Often the diarist was unable for several days, or even in a few instances for a week at a time, to set down the daily entries. Sometimes he would jot down the barest facts in a “sort of short-hand fashion,” as Madison says of his “Journal,” and then when he found respite from his duties, would more fully write out the entries. This he makes known to us when home on his furlough in the spring of 1864. After reaching home and being shut in upon a rainy day, he takes the opportunity, as he says, “to bring my diary down to date.” Some portions of the original were much better written than others, a good example being the movements during the siege of Vicksburg, as will be seen by observing the facsimile page for June 7, 8 and 9, 1863, opposite page 120. The spelling is quite original and the writing somewhat shy in punctuation, capitalization and the use of words. Of these shortcomings in his diary, the author, Mr. Downing, was quite conscious, and on that account was unwilling to have it published in the original form.

This printed edition then, lays no claim to being what it is not, the publication of the original text without change. It is an edited edition which retains to the fullest possible degree the original in the essentials of fact and spirit. That this is so, is due to the fact that the editor had the valuable aid of the diarist himself. Every daily entry has had the approval of Mr. Downing as to matters of fact and of feeling. Every item has been cast in terms and point of view of the original writer. Thus there is preserved the spirit and thought of the youth who tho he had little opportunity for schooling beyond the merest rudiments, and handicapped in giving expression to his vision, he nevertheless wrote from the highest sense of personal honor, duty, and moral courage. These characteristics crop out all thru the diary. One reads with the feeling that this boy is a truthful and reliable witness.

In the preparation of the manuscript for publication, the editor wishes to express his great appreciation to Mr. Downing for his patient help and appreciative concern, without which the task would have been difficult indeed and the completed volume of far less value. The editor also wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Mr. Edgar R. Harlan, Curator of the Historical Department of Iowa, both in his wise counsel as to the general plan and his critical reading of the proof sheets. Acknowledgment is due Miss Ida M. Huntington, Assistant Curator, for her scholarly criticism in reading the manuscript.

The editor feels that for a work of its kind, it is as worthy as it is rare and entertains the hope that it will be received as a valuable contribution to the literature of the Civil War. The author of the original diary is deserving of high praise for his foresight and conscientious work in setting down what he saw, what he experienced, and what he thought as a youthful participant in that memorable struggle.

Olynthus B. Clark, Ph. D.

Professor of History, Drake University