The War Outside My Window - A Review
Janet Elizabeth Croon, ed., The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, Savas Beatie, 2018
One would be recklessly bold to underestimate the utility of Civil War diaries. Within such volumes a student of history is likely to find the least “enhanced” versions of personal observation precisely because diarists tend to write for themselves - not an audience. Of course, diaries are often burdened with bias formed from personal perspective. But I find it unlikely that an individual diarist with no intended audience would intentionally or maliciously distort historical events for personal ends. I cannot say the same about those writing specifically for public scrutiny. Diarists - whether we agree with them or not - tend to illustrate their worlds with more than a perfunctory nod to honesty.
The War Outside My Window is a spectacular example of such a diary. The young diarist, LeRoy Wiley Gresham, is an invalid (the result of a severe leg injury and a somewhat mysterious additional illness, which was almost certainly consumption) living in Georgia chronicling the heady days of secession and war and the rise and fall of the Confederate cause: 1860-1865. Gresham is unusually insightful and witty for his age…which is at least partially a reflection of his limited mobility and his corresponding desire to find useful pursuits: reading and investigation. The publisher suggests we read this volume slowly. I tend to agree…you will want to digest Gresham’s words and let them roll over in your mind before rendering an assessment. Gresham’s diary offers an unapologetically white, southern, privileged, and paternalistic worldview. And though readers might find his opinions and use of language at times disagreeable, it is such discomfort that challenges a reader to broaden his or her understanding.
Gresham’s observations confirm the intricate connections between the home and battle fronts. Historians have long investigated Confederate civilians and their commitment to the national cause as a reflection of the ebb and flow of military achievement. Some have come to the conclusion (erroneously, I contend…as do many others) that the Rebels did themselves in from behind the lines. Though one can detect sincere disappointment with each entry of bad news, Gresham remains resolutely Confederate until the end - revealing, even as late as January 1865, an “abiding Faith that we will yet be a free people.” (285)
Readers interested in the war narrative as understood through the mind of a young man behind the lines will find Janet Elizabeth Croon’s editing accomplishments worthy of celebration. Her exhaustive work helps the reader negotiate the many obstacles that emerge from Gresham’s pen as fact, rumor, and pure misinformation. As such - a sophisticated and detailed war narrative unfolds in the footnotes as Gresham reflects on the events from his perspective. I am less enthusiastic about the index, which - in a somewhat frustrating manner - includes entries for important historical actors and family members followed by scores of uncategorized page numbers. Some entries include over 300 (yes, that’s right) associated pages the are not broken down according to various thematic points of inquiry. A reader looking for Gresham’s father’s thoughts on 19th century medical care, for instance, would have to dig through hundreds of entries before striking pay dirt. But my problems with what appears to be a hastily compiled index aside - I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
On a final note, The War Outside My Window is a remarkably revealing investigation of life as an invalid, the agonizing experience of consumption, and the slow painful march toward death. In this sense the book is heartbreaking. As I read along, I knew full well the outcome of the story - and as such felt a pang of guilt after soaking this individual for all he knew before his untimely demise…hoping he would reveal one last insight before darkness. And I felt all the more pained precisely because he was not entirely aware of the severity of his illness. Readers may have a similar experience - I would love to know. Purchase the book, read it, talk to me in the comments.