- Two Civil Wars: The Curious Shared Journal of a Baton Rouge Schoolgirl and a Union Sailor on the USS Essex ed. by Katherine Bentley Jeffrey
There is the fog of war, and then there are the coincidences. Take the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were both born in Kentucky. The war began on Wilmer McLean's doorstep and ended in his parlor. Katherine Bentley Jeffrey has uncovered another coincidence in the form of a journal shared by a Louisiana Catholic schoolgirl and a Scottish-born Canadian serving in the Union navy. Jeffrey faithfully reproduces both journals along with a copious introduction and extensive appendixes documenting the lives of the principals and their loved ones after the Civil War.
The child, Celeste Repp, attended St. Mary's Academy in Baton Rouge. Her "journal" was in fact a French composition book into which she dutifully recorded a series of exercises relating the small pleasures of life (gardening); gems of moral instruction (do not lie; be grateful to your teachers); and affectionate salutations to her headmistress, Matilda Victor, and her priest, Father Darius Hubert. The entries are uniformly charming but in no way remarkable for a nineteenth-century white southern schoolgirl.
In 1862 Baton Rouge was overrun by Union forces, and the school was seized and converted into a makeshift hospital. Here begins the story of William L. Park, who had enlisted for three years in the ironclad fleet engaging the enemy along the Mississippi River. Most of his service occurred on the USS Essex. While being treated in the improvised hospital for typhoid fever, Park appropriated Repp's abandoned journal and decided to use it to document his own wartime record—a minute if poignant example of the spoils of war. Over the next two years, Park wrote about life aboard the ironclad fleet, consisting of weeks of inactivity punctuated by days full of the horrors and frenzy of war, including death from battle, disease, and—in the age of boiler explosions—scalding. Again, there is nothing remarkable here, including the fact that Park, as an ordinary tar, was neither aware of nor concerned with the greater course and grander causes of the struggle. For him, as for millions of others who served, the war was all about survival.
Of greater interest are Park's occasional depictions of the sailors' interaction with those whom he called "contrabands"—that is, enslaved people fleeing bondage (p. xi). Formerly enslaved people came aboard the Essex to offer intelligence on the Confederates' floating of torpedoes and the evacuation of Port Hudson. Park's journal entries show plainly that Union sailors had little regard for the enslaved, viewing them as a curiosity and a nuisance at best. He and his comrades had no identification with the cause of emancipation or sympathy for the plight of African Americans. [End Page 433]
As useful as Jeffrey's volume is, there are a number of small problems. The text is plagued by a surfeit of footnotes often taking up half a page. Furthermore, there is nothing "curious" or atypical about the way Park came upon or seized the schoolgirl's composition book. Still, the coincidence of the Repp and Park journals serves as a reminder of the sad ironies inherent in all war.