One of the ways to best see the Civil War, as through a pinhole, is through the eyewitness accounts of the individuals who lived through it. Much in the history texts is devoted to the great doings of generals, and even much in fiction, as in Jeff Shaara’s “Gods and Generals”. The story of the common soldier takes more work to ferrett out, in diaries and letters, a jigsaw puzzle picture of what the life and times were like, and who the men and women were that inhabited those times.
Leander Stillwell (September 16, 1843 – Sep 10, 1934) was one of those individuals, known mainly for the detailed diary and account of his experiences that he kept. Among a generation where every fifth adult white male died in the war, he survived and lived to a ripe old age, 90 at his death.
His views of the war changed during and after. Here is one account, from June, 1863:
We had become altogether more quiet and grave in our demeanor. We had gradually realized that it was not a Sunday school picnic excursion we were engaged in, but a desperate and bloody war, and what the individual fate of each of us might be before it was over, no one could tell. There is nothing which, in my opinion, will so soon make a man out of a boy as actual service in time of war. Our faces had insensibly taken on a stern and determined look, and soldiers who a little over a year ago were mere laughing, foolish boys, were now sober, steady, self-relying men. We had been taking lessons in what was, in many important respects, the best school in the world.Stillwell, Leander. The Story of a Common Soldier – Of Army Life in the Civil War (Illustrated) . Kindle Edition.
This was written concerning his brigade’s transport to the siege of Vicksburg, traveling down the Mississippi on the steamer Luminary.
An entire generation of young men were soon tested and hammered on the anvil of war. If they survived, they were forever changed.
Regiment Name: 61st Regiment, Illinois InfantryFilm Number: M539 roll 87
Rank In: Private
Rank Out: Second Lieutenant
Service Record: Enlisted as a Private on 3 January 1862 at the age of 18. Enlisted in Company D, 61st Infantry Regiment Illinois on 5 Feb 1862. Transferred out of Company D, 61st Infantry Regiment Illinois on 1 Jan 1865.
Transferred into Regiment U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps on 1 Jan 1865.
Promoted to Full 1st Sergeant.
Promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant.
Promoted to Full 2nd Lieutenant.