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William R. Townsend Civil War Diary: Home

EXCERPTS from the Civil War diary of William R. Townsend, 42nd Illinois Infantry, Co. E -- plus contextual narrative.


  Much of William Townsend’s diary, as with many Civil War diaries, focuses on his daily routine.  It is surprising, when one thinks about the violent nature of hand-to- hand-combat, that soldiers had the time, energy, or inclination to write a daily diary entry.  But many soldiers did.  A large portion of a Civil War soldier’s life was taken up with marching, waiting for orders, and marching some more.  Even so, with sickness an ever-present companion, and low rations much of the time, we can only imagine the effort it must have taken to write in the field.  Possibly, a daily diary entry helped a soldier wind down at the end of a long day.  Or, maybe a diary provided a welcome diversion – something to look forward to – a purpose that made sense.  Whatever the reasons for their creation, historians and students alike reap the benefits of these diaries which provide unique windows into the past. 

By way of introduction, a post script written by Townsend more than twenty years after the diary, penciled in at the bottom of his October 1863 entry, provides an interesting glimpse into his thoughts as a mature man looking back on his life and the war:


Chicago, Sept. 12, 1885: “Found this [journal] in some old rubbish in the cellar and as I shall keep it for Lena [daughter] as a relic of the war of which she knew nothing but what history tells and true so much it don’t tell.  40 years old today.  The time when we must turn down a corner of the leaf of life whether we feel like it or not.  Life would seem to have been a failure if one drew the line of comparison by those whose good deeds already place a crown of glory over them.  But who can tell when nature makes us all so differently  surrounds us so unlike?  When influence and natural opportunity is so far reaching   who it is that carries the heaviest burden to those only whome God has given grace to bear what life has for everyone  “Both happiness & trouble can live without fear xxx”

But as a young Union officer, William Townsend did not have time for reflection.  He began his diary with his typically straightforward, spare entries:

April 11th and 12th, 1863:I was paroled [from Libby Prison] with twenty others at nine Oclock this Eve and ordered to be ready to start at 5 Oclock tomorrow morning” . . . “We started from Libby Prison at 5 Oclock this morning and marched to the Rail Road . . . when we went on Board the Flag of Truce Boat, as many Confed Officers coming off    there was quite a contrast in our appearance as they all had new uniforms and we had nothing but rags on us . . .” 

          Townsend did not elaborate on his time in Libby Prison [Libby Prison: A Confederate prison in Richmond, VA during the Civil War which gained notoriety for the harsh conditions under which Union prisoners were kept]Since the diary starts after his parole, we can only speculate that Townsend didn't have the opportunity or proclivity to write in a diary during his imprisonment.  Prisoners were sometimes paroled [A pledge by a prisoner of war or a defeated soldier not to bear arms. When prisoners were returned to their own side during the War (in exchange for men their side had captured) the parole was no longer in effect and they were allowed to pick up their weapons and fight], as was the case with William Townsend.  Officers like Townsend were worth more in trade for prisoners from the opposing side. 



This LibGuide was created by Cary Harvengt, including diary transcription and contextual narrative.

Complete Diary

To view all page images in this diary, along with searchable transcriptions of every page, please refer to the following CONTENTdm link:


There were challenges in transcribing this diary due to page fading, peculiarities of 19th century penmanship, and lack of punctuation.  Transcriptions replicate originals as closely as possible, including misspellings. Brackets [] are used to denote text added by transcriber for clarification.  "xxx" indicates undecipherable text.  Great care was taken to ensure accurate transcription.

Millett Collection

        Millett Collection

Dr Richard L. Millett
Emeritus Professor of History -- SIUE

In August 2007, Dr. Richard L. Millett donated the use of William R. Townsend's Civil War diary and various letters from his private collection pertaining to the Civil War Era in Illinois, as well as many early 19th century letters that give voice to the pioneer experience along the Mississippi River Valley.  His hope is that students and researchers will utilize this Libguide as a valuable learning tool.

Dr. Richard L. Millett received his B.A. with honors from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. He did postdoctoral work at Ohio State University and is a graduate of the Air Force War College. He has taught at SIUE since 1966.  He has also taught at the University of Miami, St. Louis University, the Air Force War College and four universities in Colombia.  Dr. Millett also served as a Fulbright Professor at the Center for the Study of the Americas in Copenhagen, Denmark.