Sit alongside a disabled teenage Southerner as he records his experience in The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865
(Savas Beatie, 2018). This unique document—rare for its teenager’s perspective, rare for its register of daily pain across five years—is a testament to what it means to watch the world of the Confederacy slowly fall as one’s body fails, too. LeRoy Gresham, from Macon, Georgia, began writing his diary at twelve years old. His leg had been smashed by falling rubble from a chimney of a burned-out house that he and friends were exploring. LeRoy writes daily, most often from a reclined position and with a mind full of good humor and acid wit. Snark lurks quietly in his words. He covers the goings on of his home, family, slaves, and the people who pass through town and his house, as well as what he reads in newspapers and in a never-ending stream of novels. The war proceeds with fits and starts, and he adds his cheers for the Confederacy, until, finally, the dream of that nation comes to an end, and he also dies, at the age of seventeen. The cause, it is today decided in a detailed medical afterward written by a specialist in nineteenth-century medicine, was spinal tuberculosis, something much more insidious than a broken leg.
Janet Elizabeth Croon
—recently retired from teaching International Baccalaureate History in Fairfax County, Virginia—has transcribed, edited, and annotated the diary, and provides detailed information about the people around LeRoy, as well as the results of battles and the realities of his ailments at which he could only guess. Listen to my conversation with Janet as we talk about how the not so trivial details of food and weather and playing chess become momentous in his felt understanding of the world. Although he could see his body deteriorate, the point of LeRoy’s own written record is that the experience of pain is never completely localizable. The more his body was down, the more his ears were perked, receptive to the latest vagaries of the time. One of the ongoing themes in our conversation is that LeRoy’s physical separation from the fight opened a wider space to consider it, inciting much laughter at his own predicament (and the country’s), and a deep absorption of the trials and joys around him. Eventually his thoughts on the talents and blunders of the war’s commanders and his thoughts on his daily pain become one. He comes to an end, and the world has changed.
Michael Amico holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation,
The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: A History of the “Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy” of the American Civil War, is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He will be a Researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions in Berlin beginning this fall. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.