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The Greatest Diarist
George Templeton Strong was not a public man, and he is not widely known today. But for forty years he kept the best diary—in both historic and literary terms—ever written by an American.
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Gradually, however, the humanitarian superseded the lawyer. The slavery system, Strong charged in 1856, told three million people that they had no legal rights, no right to improve themselves morally or intellectually, that they were and would remain “three millions of brutes.” Strong still insisted that slaveholders were “infinitely better than their system,” but, he added, “It strikes me that this institution—slavery as it exists at the South with all its ‘safeguards’ and ‘necessary legislation’—is the greatest crime on the largest scale known in modern history; taking into account the time it has occupied, the territory it covers, the number of its subjects, and the civilization of the criminals. It is deliberate legislation intended to extinguish and annihilate the moral being of men for profit; systematic murder, not of the physical, but of the moral and intellectual being; blasphemy, not in word, but in systematic action against the Spirit of God which dwells in the souls of men to elevate, purify, and ennoble them.”
At this juncture Strong’s irritation with the South, steadily mounting since the Mexican War, hardened into hatred. For him the South had always been the nursery of violence and lawlessness, but he had regarded Southerners as more comical than sinister, especially the gasconading “great nation of South Carolina,” always “restless and vituperative.” After Preston Brooks’s caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, Strong denounced the so-called chivalry of that “retrograde civilization” as “a race of lazy, ignorant, coarse, sensual, swaggering, sordid, beggarly barbarians” and thereafter reserved his choicest epithets for the “nigger-breeders” and “woman-floggers.” By 1861 the New York gentleman who had defended the Fugitive Slave Law, who had declared John Brown justly hanged, who once doubted that blacks were worth saving, found himself on the fringes of the abolitionist camp.
Out of the welter of fascinating detail Strong crammed into his diary between 1861 and 1865, four themes are dominant: his work on the United States Sanitary Commission, which brought him close to battlefields and hospitals; his response to the war on the civilian front; his changing attitude toward the Negro; and his running commentary on Abraham Lincoln.
Soon after “this treasonable inflammation— secessionitis,” as Strong called it—erupted into war, he donated money to equip a regiment and joined a projected rifle corps, but he judged himself too old and too nearsighted to fight. He was to find his most useful role as a civilian soldier on the United States Sanitary Commission, organized in June 1861 to safeguard the health of the Union troops in camp and on the field.
Diary entries during the next few years reveal how very real the war had become for him. He visited hospitals filled with mangled soldiers who lay “on straw, in their bloody stiffened clothes.” He captured the pulsating chaos of Grant’s headquarters and the surrounding landscape in an almost Homeric vision: “Looking still farther, you make out dimly through the yellow dust-saturated air the outline of a long series of pavilion hospitals, where 6,000 sick and wounded men (too sorely hurt or too ill to be on transportation) are stifling as they breathe the sluggish, heavy current of dust that keeps pouring in upon them. High up against the blue sky stand great columns of coppery dust, hardly moving and shifting their vague outlines slowly; like thunderheads as a storm blows up.”
Or again, still obsessed by the dust, he adds painterly detail: “Every horse raises a convoluted cloud of ropy smoke that comes up to his belly and steals away behind him for half a mile. A drove of cattle or a mule-train creates a fog so dense that in passing them this afternoon, our leaders were invisible. Though our teamster knew the ground perfectly, he had to stop within a mile of City Point, on the boundless area of naked yellow dust limited only by the circumambient haze and traversed by wagon ruts in every direction, and ask which way City Point lay....”
Strong welcomed these excursions into the battle area. What discouraged and exhausted him were the snarl-ups behind the lines. Harassed by incompetence and skulduggery and enraged by pigheaded bureaucrats, cowards, and crooks, Strong poured his frustrations into his diary. When read in retrospect, his observation that between April 13, 1861, and May 29, 1865, “We have lived a century of common life” is almost an understatement.
It seems nothing short of remarkable, then, that a man so engrossed in the great battles and their consequences and ridden by family and business anxieties would have found time even to glance at the scenes behind the war. That he did so is a tribute to his skill and industry, but the real reason, of course, was that Strong saw the war as a vast totality, its civilian and military aspects in constant interaction.