In 1861, Louis Leon was 19, a clerk in a dry goods store in Charlotte, North Carolina. He joined the Charlotte Grays, Company C, First North Carolina Regiment to fight for the South. His brother Jacob joined up at the same time. Louis was a private, and he would remain a private through the duration of the Civil War.
Fifty-two years later, now an old man, Louis decided that if generals and other officers could publish their diaries about the civil War, he could, too. In 1913, his war-time diary was published as Diary of a Confederate Tarheel Soldier.
Rather than grand strategy and the description of great battles, Leon’s diary focused on what the vast majority of soldiers were focused upon during the war: food, marching back and forth, action during battles, the discomfort of riding a troop train, and kindnesses by local citizens (especially young ladies). As his words indicate, much of the war was tedium – waiting, marching forth only to be called back, chores around camp.
Yet Leon was in major battles, including Gettysburg (July, 1863) and the Wilderness (May, 1864). The Wilderness was the first major effort by the newly appointed general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, to take the Confederate capital at Richmond. It didn’t succeed but neither side could really claim victory. For Leon, however, the battle had a major impact: along with hundreds of others, he was taken prisoner and eventually sent to a prison in the North. His accounts of prison life are terse and sometimes funny; it doesn’t appear that he unduly suffered, like many other prisoners of both sides did at different prisons and prison camps.
Leon, being Jewish, makes note of Jewish holidays like the Day of Atonement and the occasional anti-Semitic comment, which he did not seem to take personally. His fellow soldiers didn’t seem to care about his religion or background, if he was ready and willing to fight. He was able to get letters to his parents in New York, usually through the help of a friendly Union picket. (Leon offers no explanation as to why his parents were in New York while he and his brother fought for the South, but it does make one realize how the Civile War often split families.) And he speaks of Robert E. Lee is almost saintly terms; the general was revered by his soldiers.
Diary of a Confederate Tarheel Soldier is the Civil War as seen from the bottom. Leon was a soldier who followed his orders, no matter how non-sensical. He maintained his sense of humor and his sense of stoicism, reporting the death of friends in short, factual statements. The book is an articulate look into the daily life of the soldier during the Civil War.
Top illustration: Battle of the Wilderness by Kurz and Allen, via Wikipedia.