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[Detail] The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865

Collection Overview

Washington during the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865 documents life in Civil War era Washington, D.C. as seen through the eyes of Horatio Taft. As Taft's sons were close friends of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie, information about Lincoln and his family is included in Taft's diaries. Also included are descriptions of Lincoln's assassination as described by Taft's son, one of the attending physicians at Ford's Theater, and several of Taft's friends.

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  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877

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Washington during the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865 documents daily life in Washington, D.C., through the diary of an examiner for the U.S. Patent Office, Horatio Nelson Taft. The diary is in three volumes with daily entries from January 1, 1860, through April 11, 1861, and irregular entries from January 1, 1863, through May 30, 1865. The diary provides details about Taft's family and work life and various events in Washington, including the family's friendship with the Lincolns and other prominent political and military figures. Many of the entries refer to his sons' play dates with the Lincoln boys and family visits to the Executive Mansion. The diary entry for February 20, 1862, reports the death of Willie Lincoln, the President's son, from typhoid fever.

Taft included war news as reported in the press and through rumors circulated throughout the capital; the "news" sometimes proved to be inaccurate, such as the report of the alleged death of Jefferson Davis in September 1861. Entries written throughout the war reflect fear of the capital falling into Confederate hands. Taft also reported on visits to wounded soldiers in Washington and field hospitals near the capital.

A short entry on April 14, 1865, reports that the president had been shot. A detailed description of the assassination entered on April 30 is based on accounts from Taft's friends and his son, who was one of the president's attending physicians at Ford's Theatre.

Diary entries on secession, political and economic issues, military campaigns, and the presidential campaign of 1864 offer a unique picture of a crucial period in American history from one individual's perspective. The diary provides a personal reflection on many of the pivotal events of the era and how they affected the morale of average citizens faced with the crisis of war. In addition, the diary serves as a window into family and social life of the period, especially as experienced by a federal employee in Washington, D.C.

The diaries have been transcribed, and the transcriptions can be searched by keyword. The entries can also be browsed by date.


South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, about two weeks before Horatio Nelson Taft's first diary entry, January 1, 1861:

The old year passed away in gloom and sadness and the new one opens today without affording one hopeful ray of light in regard to the future. There seems to be a determination on the part of nearly the whole south to break up the Government. The Comrs [commissioners] from S.C. are still here and little is known in the City about what is taking place betwen them and the President & Cabinet.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865, Volume 1, January 1, 1861"

Even before South Carolina issued its Ordinance of Secession, the state pressed President Buchanan for the transfer of federal forts and arsenals to the state. With secession, Forts Moultrie and Sumter became the focal issue. Major Robert Anderson, commander of the garrison at Fort Moultrie, recognized that it was indefensible and moved his garrison to the more secure Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. South Carolina demanded that Anderson return his garrison to Fort Moultrie and sent commissioners to Washington at the end of December to negotiate a settlement. Although the President originally seemed amenable, considerable pressure from throughout the North convinced him to terminate negotiations. On January 2, 1861, Taft reported that Buchanan had "…refused to acknowledge the Commissioners as being anything more than distinguished citizens from the State of S.C."

  • What was the significance of recognizing the commissioners as nothing more than "distinguished citizens" from South Carolina?
  • Based on your knowledge of President James Buchanan, was that action typical or atypical of his handling of issues related to slavery and states' rights? Explain your answer.

As Taft continued to make daily entries in his diary in the first months of 1861, he reported on secession and attempts to reach a negotiated solution to prevent the breakup of the Union. Tensions were high in Washington and Taft noted on January 9 that the city was "arming for self-protection" until federal troops arrived. He also mentioned that fires and burglaries occurred every night in the capital and that he slept with a "loaded revolver within reach."

On January 10, Taft reported that the steamer Star of the West, sent to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, had been fired upon and that Anderson threatened to bombard Charleston if there were further attempts to prohibit the steamer from its mission. The following day, he recorded that the news was incorrect.

On January 22, 1861, Taft expressed concern over the possible secession of Virginia and Maryland if President Buchanan's administration could not reach a compromise with the five states of the lower South that had seceded (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia). He further remarked that, unless some settlement could be negotiated, "then nothing but a large force will ensure the Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln on the 4th March."

Louisiana seceded on January 26. Three days later, Taft wrote, "Secession seems now a fixed fact and we have to look Disunion in the face." The entry for this date also mentions an attempt to negotiate a settlement based on a plan proposed by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky.

Review all of Taft's diary entries for January 1861 and consider the following questions:

  • According to Taft, what was the prevailing mood in Washington in January and February 1861? Identify some words and phrases that convey that mood.
  • List events related to secession that Taft mentions in his diary entries. Which events tended to improve the mood of Washingtonians? Which made their mood worse? Explain your answers.
  • How did Taft get his news about secession and other political events? Which of these sources do you think were most likely to be reliable? Why?
  • Research the provisions of the Crittenden Compromise. Why did Republicans oppose the plan?

Taft recorded a hopeful sign in his diary on February 5, stating that a Virginia convention had the day before by a large majority defeated a secessionist movement. The diary entry referred to an assembly of moderates that cautioned against "rash action" by the state. He felt reassured that the secession movement had "reached its climax." On March 21, he stated that Fort Sumter would probably be evacuated along with other forts in the South but held the belief that there would be a peaceful separation of the Union.

By early April, however, optimism about a peaceful solution vanished. On April 6, Taft wrote of a suspected coup d'etat in Washington. Three days later, he described widespread fear of an outright attack on the city. On April 12, he wrote, "Treason is in our midst. One hardly knows whom to trust." When he recorded this entry, he was unaware of the bombardment of Fort Sumter that had begun early that morning. His diary entry of April 13 relates news of the attack and closes with the words, "all will soon be compelled to 'show their hands,' for or against the Union." On April 18, the day after Virginia issued its ordinance of secession and reportedly seized arsenals in the state, Taft recorded that soldiers from the North arrived to protect the capital from an expected attack by Virginians.

  • What was Taft's attitude toward the secessionists? Did not knowing "whom to trust" affect how he expressed himself about the secessionists? Cite evidence to support your answer.
  • Find evidence in the diaries of how the preparation for war affected the daily lives of Washingtonians. Consider their work, pastimes, and economic factors.

Early Military Campaigns

Following the fall of Fort Sumter, the states of Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee seceded from the Union. With Virginia's secession and threats that Maryland would soon follow, the capital was in peril. A number of skirmishes occurred on the outskirts of the District of Columbia; on May 24, Taft reported that one such skirmish took the life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a former student in Lincoln's law office, after he had removed a Confederate flag from a building in Alexandria. On the following day Taft wrote:

Another most exciting day. Rumours of fighting on the other side of the river were rife all over the City the middle of the day but were without foundation. The Funeral of Col Ellsworth took place from the Prests [President's] House. . . . During the middle of the day soldiers were seen running with muskets in hand to join their companies, many being ordered out today.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 1, May 25, 1861"

Throughout May and June, as more Union forces streamed into the city, rumors continued to circulate about an impending battle near the capital. On the evening of July 21, 1861, Taft wrote of hearing guns all day from a battle raging near Washington at Manassas Junction, Virginia. The following day he wrote, "squads of soldiers have been pouring into the City all day;" the soldiers were retreating from the battlefield.

Read through Taft's diary entries for May through June 1861, noting news that indicates success for the Union and news that indicates success for the Confederacy. Which side seemed to be having the greatest early success? Can you find evidence that this affected Taft's view on the war?

In February 1862, news from the western theater was uplifting: General Ulysses Grant struck Confederate forces in Tennessee and, with Commodore Andrew Foote's gunboat squadron captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Ten days later, Union forces took Fort Donaldson on the Cumberland River. In early April, Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri, was captured and early news was received of Grant's victory at Shiloh, Tennessee (Pittsburg Landing), near Corinth, Mississippi, prompting Taft to write:

The proud "Southerners" had better strike the word chivalry from their vocabulary. I think they are a race of bombaster cowards and events are proveing it every day. We have had one Bull Run. They have a "Bully Run" every time they meet our troops.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 1, April 9, 1862"

During the same period, however, news from the Eastern front was less encouraging. On April 8, 1862, Taft mentioned General McClellan was having "a desperate time of it at Yorktown" during the Peninsula Campaign.

Taft did not make diary entries between April 11 and December 31, 1862. On January 14, 1863, having once again begun writing daily diary entries in the new year, Taft expressed a sense of doom about the future of the Union:

As gloomy and as dark as two years ago are the days now. When we look into the future for our Country Dark days were those, and it looks dark now for the preservation of our Union. Our vast armies seem to be lying idle or baffled everywhere by our alert enimies. But worse than all there are indications of mutiny among ourselves. The weakness and imbecility of the Govt manifested in the Management of the War has raised a storm in the north and west that looks dark and threatening. People are tired and sick of the war, and now the Political leaders say, and the mass of the people believe, that the object of the war is now not what it was (to preserve the Union). But, to free the Negroes (an abolition War) and they hate abolitionists as well as the Negroes. . . . Well, the War must Continue for a long while yet.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, January 14, 1863"
  • What factors caused Taft to fear for the future of the Union? What events might have caused him to accuse the government of "weakness and imbecility"?
  • According to Taft, how did people feel about the various purposes of the war? What events might have provoked his characterizing the war as one of abolition?

Taft was away from Washington from July through September 1863. When he renewed his diary entries on October 5, he remarked:

Perhaps I might have made it interesting to have continued my diary. But I have been absent some time since my last date, and important events it is true have occurred, great Battles have been fought, and great Victories have been won by our arms. The month of July saw our arms victorious everywhere. Vicksburg & Port Hudson on the Miss River were captured. Over 30,000 prisoners were taken in the first and 7000 in the last place. The Very important Battle of Gettysburge in Penn'a was fought on the 3rd July where the Rebels were signaly beaten and Genl Lee driven back into Virginia.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, October 5, 1863"

Read the reflective entries Taft wrote on December 30 and 31, 1863:

  • According to Taft, what kinds of military operations were occurring at the end of the year? Why was military activity so limited?
  • What thoughts keep Taft from enjoying his solitude on New Year's Eve?
  • How does Taft characterize the mood in the South and North at year's end?
  • Taft cites a quotation from U.S. Naval Officer Stephen Decatur: "May she always be in the right. But my Country right or wrong." How does this quotation from 1815 apply to the situation in 1863? Do you agree with the quotation? Explain your answer.

Economic Issues

On January 12, 1862, Taft wrote that the financial affairs of the nation were in a critical state and noted the rising war debt but remarked that it was "nothing compared to the Value of the Union and the integrity and preservation of the constitution inviolate."

In January 1863, he expressed support for Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase's recommendations "…that all paper money shall be U.S. Money and that all Banking Institutions shall be based upon U.S. Stocks. That would give us a safe and uniform Currency." On March 8, he reported that Secretary Chase had "almost unlimited power" to control the nation's finances and to issue paper currency and "…the probability is that 'green backs' will be our circulating medium henceforth."

In May 1864, Taft remarked that the war costs had risen to two million dollars a day, caustically adding

…it probably takes one Million to pay the legitimate expenses of the Govt (perhaps a little more). The balance is squandered and stolen. Not a very small number of those who have the management of the expenses and the disbursements are knaves and fools. The one have no idea of honesty, the other no idea of economy. But in times of great popular commotion the scum will float on the surface, where the brazen villain and the conceited ass are often found occupying positions of great responsibility.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, May 3, 1864"

Throughout the war, Taft often referred to the rising costs of goods and services. He lamented his economic situation in July 1864 when he remarked, "A 'place' in the Goverment Departments is not worth much now with the old Salaries which were fixed when gold was paid but are now paid in 'paper' worth about forty cents on the dollar."

  • Find evidence in the diary of rising prices. What factors contributed to the rising price of goods and services? Look for evidence of how the rising prices affected the Taft family.
  • What happened in July 1861 that further affected the finances of the Taft family? For several months, Taft "danced attendance" on people in power, even using his acquaintance with President and Mrs. Lincoln in his effort to find a position. Scan his diary entries through November. What was his mental state with respect to the search for a position? What was his family's financial position?
  • What can you learn about the system of political patronage (appointing friends or political allies to office) from reading about Taft's quest to find a position?
  • Conduct research to learn more about Secretary Chase's economic policies. How effective was Secretary Chase in securing a sound economic policy? What was the controversy over Chase's plan to use "greenbacks" to finance the war? How was this issue settled by the Supreme Court after the war?

Slavery and Emancipation

Taft wrote on January 9, 1862, of a split in the Republican Party between abolitionists and those who supported Lincoln's stated goal of saving the Union "…and let Slavery take care of itself." He also mentions that Stephen Douglas Democrats were supporting the President, giving him added political strength. Two months later, April 11, the diary again mentions slavery with reference to the passage of a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.

On January 1, 1863, Taft stated, "The expected Proclamation is 'out' tonight" in the newspaper. A few days later (January 6), he made derogatory remarks about African Americans "contrabands," saying

He will go if you drive him, but is never quite ready or willing when there is work to do. His whole idea of Freedom is, "Nothing to do and plenty to eat."

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, January 6, 1863"

On January 9, 1863, only a few days after the formal declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Taft wrote a terse note illustrating his opposition to fighting a war to end slavery.

There seems to be an increasing desire to see this terrible War ended, Negro or no Negro, Slavery or no Slavery. It does seem preposterous to me that we should be spending Millions, nay hundreds of Millions, and sacrificing scores of thousands of lives to abolish Slavery just now, when we have all we can do to hold our own and hope for success without bringing Slavery into the question.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, January 9, 1863"

Two days later he wrote of "…a great deal of growling among the shirking officers and soldiers…" about a war fought to end slavery. But on this date he appeared to change his attitude regarding the reason behind the Emancipation Proclamation.

…I think Mr Lincoln intended to give the Rebels a hard blow by his Proclamation of freedom, careing less about abolishing Slavery than crushing the Rebellion. Interested and short sighted men declare it is all for the abolition of Slavery.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, January 11, 1863"

Near the end of January 1863, he reported that a "…Bill in the House to authorize the raising of Negro Regiments for the War" created excitement in the chamber which met through the night but adjourned the following morning without coming to a vote. A few weeks later (February 18), Taft wrote of popular opposition to the enlistment of African American troops but expressed his support for any measure that would help bring the war to an end.

…Much opposition has been made to the raising of Negro Regiments for the War. But if the Negroes will fight let us have them. …I go for using all the means that God and Nature has put into our hands to crush out the Rebellion. The moral effect of the proclamation will help us much throughout the world, and that may be its greatest advantage.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, February 18, 1863"
  • To what extent do the diary entries between January 9 and February 18 reflect a change in Taft's personal opinions regarding the Emancipation Proclamation? Cite evidence from the diary to support your answer.
  • To what extent do you think Taft's position on the Emancipation Proclamation reflected popular sentiment in the North? What sources could you consult to determine if your hypothesis is correct?

In early December 1864, Taft mentioned Lincoln's annual message to Congress on the prospects for peace and indicated that the war would not cease until slavery was abolished.

…That I think is a foregone conclusion. The Constitution of the U.S. will be amended to that Effect. This or the next Congress will pass the Act submitting the Amendment to the States and three fourths of them are ready to ratify it. There does not seem to be any prospect of Peace till the Rebels are entirely exhausted. They are fighting for Independence and Slavery. They can have neither.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, December 8, 1864"
  • How accurate were Taft's predictions about Congress submitting a constitutional amendment ending slavery to the states?
  • How would you summarize Taft's views on slavery and emancipation as the war neared an end?

Election of 1864

As the nation approached the presidential election of 1864, Lincoln was unsure of winning his party's nomination. Taft recorded on February 27 that Lincoln seemed to have the "'inside tract' but will find a good deal of opposition in the Republican party." He specifically mentioned the possibility of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase's replacing Lincoln as the Republican nominee. Reporting nearly a month later, Taft mentioned that Confederate leaders were hoping that "Peace Democrats" or an independent candidate would win the election and offer the South acceptable peace terms. He stated that Lincoln appeared to be the favorite of Republicans but speculated about a possible split in the party.

In May, the Army of the Potomac was involved in bloody fighting in the Wilderness Campaign. Taft reported that General Grant's forces, although suffering heavy casualties, were persistently attacking Confederate forces at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Early reports of General William T. Sherman's successful military campaigns in Georgia were encouraging news for Lincoln's bid for reelection.

On June 7, the Republican Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln for reelection; War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, nominated for vice-president, completed the Union Party ticket. On June 8, Taft reported that John C. Frémont, Republican candidate for president in the election of 1856, had been nominated by a convention meeting in Cleveland and was expected to also be nominated by the Democratic Party in its upcoming convention in Chicago. However, the Democratic convention adopted a peace platform and nominated General George McClellan:

…Genl Geo B McClellan was nominated for President of the U.S. by the Democratic Party at Chicago on the 30th August. The "Peace at any price" men and the rebel sympathisers generaly suport him. Altho I believe him to be a good Union man, and have the highest regard for him as a Patriot and man of talents, still I do not think he can be Elected. The character of many of his supporters will ruin his prospects.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, October 3, 1864"

On October 11, Taft predicted Lincoln would easily win reelection. His next diary entry, December 1, confirms Lincoln's reelection; he and Johnson carried every non-slave-holding state except New Jersey.

  • Why was there such concern over the possibility of Lincoln losing the election of 1864?
  • Why would Republicans Salmon P. Chase and John Frémont have considered running against the incumbent Republican president?
  • What effect do you think the military campaigns in the summer of 1864 had on the outcome of the election?

The End of the War

Taft reported on December 25, 1864, that General William T. Sherman had taken Savannah without a fight and praised his military abilities, remarking "Sherman stands far above Grant now in the estimation of the Country and the World." As the war entered into its last days, Taft again complimented Sherman for "having marched his Army from Savannah through the heart of South Carolina and sweeping a road about forty miles wide pretty Clean taking Columbia (the Capital) and other important places in South Carolina."

On April 3, 1865, Taft reported that Richmond had fallen. Three days later, he wrote that Lincoln had toured the devastated city. A few days later, he exulted at General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House:

Genl Lee has surrendered to Genl Grant with his whole Army!! Mr Lincoln has returned to Washington as in fine Spirits at the prospect of a speedy peace. It is thought that Johnson and the other rebel Genls will give up now that Lee has surrendered.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, April 9, 1865"

Conduct Keyword searches using Sherman, Grant, and the names of other Union generals as your search terms. Examine the entries you find. What was Taft's assessment of the various generals? Do historians agree with Taft's assessment?

Lincoln's Assassination

On the evening of April 14, 1865, the Lincolns attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln, mortally wounding him. Within a short time after the President was shot, Taft recorded the following:

April 14th 1/2 past 10 o'clock P.M. O, fatal day. O, noble Victim. Treason has done its worst. The President has been Assassinated. It has just been announced at my door that he was shot a half hour ago at Fords Theatre. Is it possible? I have just come from near the scene, it is too True. 11 o'clock P.M.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, April 14, 1865"

The Read the detailed account of the assassination in Taft's next entry, recorded on April 30, little more than two weeks later. Here Taft gave a description of the event based on eyewitness accounts from his son, Dr. Charles Taft, a surgeon who was in the audience that evening.

  • Think about what you knew about Lincoln's assassination prior to looking at these sources. Where did you get most of your information?
  • How does the drawing of the Ford Theater change your understanding of how the attack on Lincoln occurred?
  • What new information can you gather from the account from Taft's son, Dr. Charles Taft?
  • What does Horatio Taft's personal response add to your understanding of the event?
  • Write a brief statement about the importance of primary sources based on your experience of using these sources to broaden your knowledge of President Lincoln's assassination.

On May 20, Taft remarked on the trial of "…eight persons who are accused of being actors in the Murder, and attack on Mr Seward, or of complicity with the assassins" and mentioned the search for Jefferson Davis, whom Taft believed was implicated in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.

The last entry in the diaries dated May 30, 1865, recounted the military achievements of the last months of the war. It concludes

…But during this period of Six or Seven months, the realy most important events have not been yet mentioned. In the midst of a desolating War, in the smoke and heat of Battle as it were, There has been a quiet Presidential Election and Inauguration, with all its usual attendant excitements. A Draft of three hundred thousand men has been ordered, and the men raised. The Government Credit has been increased at home and abroad a hundred fold and Gold has fallen a hundred percent. Our great and Good President has been assassinated. The assassin Killed. Jefferson Davis has been captured and impeached for Treason. The grand Review & the Trial of the conspirators. Tearfully - and Joyfully have we witnessed these Events.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 3, May 30, 1865"

Day-to-Day Life in Civil War Washington

Taft's diaries describe significant events in the history of the nation, but also reflect day-to-day life in Washington. Thus, the diaries are also a rich source of information on social history. For example, one can read about a variety of pastimes pursued by Taft and his family, from watching troops parade through Washington, to reading, calling on friends, and attending musical performances. Taft also spent time sketching new inventions he hoped to patent and pursuing news and gossip of the day at the Willard and the National (two Washington hotels). As the war progressed, some of the ways in which Taft spent time changed. While early in the diaries he described reading aloud to his wife and children, closer to the end of the diaries he talked about reading in a local bookstore. In addition, in the later years covered by the diary, Taft spent time helping soldiers by bringing them food and other necessaries and by intervening on their behalf with officials.

Choose one of the pastimes described above or another that you remember reading about in the diaries. Conduct a Keyword search to find at least five entries in which Taft talked about that particular pastime. Use information from the entries to create a poster explaining the pastime; your poster should employ both words and pictures to explain what the pastime involved. Do people today take part in this same pastime? If so, what similarities and differences do you note?


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: The Civil War

The Civil War Photographs collection in American Memory includes a detailed timeline of the Civil War. Choose one of the years for which Horatio Nelson Taft made a significant number of entries. Use the Civil War Photographs timeline for that year as a base for a timeline. Expand the timeline by incorporating selections from the Taft diaries corresponding to important campaigns and battles.

  • What do the diaries reveal about public response to successes and failures on the battlefield?
  • What other sources could you check to learn more about public responses to events of the war?
  • If you were to create a timeline about the Second World War or Vietnam War, how much information would you include about public response to the war? Why?

Chronological Thinking: Continuity and Change Over Time

At the end of Volume 2 of his diaries, Horatio Nelson Taft includes some information about his family history. Reflecting on how valuable a diary written by his grandmother would have been, he wonders about the value of his own diary:

The present always looks common place to us because every one around us knows the same that we ourselves do, and in noting down the events of today (if there were no rebellion or anything else unusual to note). We do not realize how interesting it would be for our decendants fifty or a hundred years hence to read the Simple record of our daily life. How and where we lived, and what we did and saw from day to day. In our common self conceit we are apt to think that half a Century hence all things will be moveing on as they are now in the world, that our habits and manner of living and ways of thinking will all be the same to those on the Stage then. That we have nearly if not quite reached perfection as regards improvements &c. Our Fathers thought about the same thing fifty years ago. But Steam Boats and Rail Roads and the Electric Telegraph have all come into use since then. A hundred years ago the Steam Engine (which is Revolutionizing the World) was realy not known. . . . What we now know, our boasted discoveries and improvements, may then [50 years from now] be looked upon with disdain and be left quite in the shade.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, Family History, June 1860"
  • To what extent do you agree that a historical diary is especially valuable in helping one's descendants identify "how and where we lived, and what we did and saw from day to day"? Explain your answer.
  • As you think about what Horatio Nelson Taft did and saw on a daily basis, what evidence do you see of change over time? That is, how is what you do and see on a daily basis different from what Taft saw and did? What evidence do you see of continuity? That is, how is what you do and see similar to what Taft saw and did?
  • List two factors you think account for change between the Civil War era and today. List two factors you think account for similarities.
  • Do you think that today's technologies will "be looked upon with disdain and be left quite in the shade" in 50 years' time? Explain your answer, drawing upon your observations regarding changes since the Civil War era.

Historical Comprehension: Personal Bias

Examine Taft's February 11, 1863, reflection on the formation of the Knights of the Golden Circle and "peace men" that he reported had organized to overthrow the government and his support of the Union League, a secret society to counteract anti-government activity. The following week, when the Senate passed a bill drafting men aged 20 to 45, he contemplated enlistment even though he was beyond the age of conscription. However, he remarked that he had already volunteered to serve by joining the Union League.

  • What fears are revealed in the diary entry of February 11, 1863?
  • Were such threats to government real or imagined? What evidence supports your conclusion?
  • What does the passage of a conscription bill raising the age for draftees reveal about the progress of the war?

Historical Comprehension: Evidencing Historical Perspectives

Read Taft's entries from May 7 through July 4, 1864, paying particular attention to his description of the consequences of General Grant's 1864 offensive in Virginia in terms of soldiers injured and killed. Imagine that you are reporter for a Northern newspaper who has been visiting hospitals with Horatio Nelson Taft. Write a human-interest story using data culled from Taft's accounts of the care of the wounded and fatality rate resulting from poor field surgery. Try not to include modern perspectives or information that the reporter in 1864 could not have known.

  • How difficult was it to describe these events on their own terms (that is, without drawing on your own knowledge and perspectives)?
  • What insight about writing history does this exercise provide?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing Different Stories About an Event

On March 10, 1862, Taft reported on the exploits of the Confederate ironclad Merrimac (re-christened C.S.S. Virginia) at Hampton Roads and remarked, "But the exploits of the little Iron Boat Monitor …eclipsed all as she fairly drove the Merrimac back to Norfolk." Taft reported on the sinking of "the gallant little Monitor off Cape Hatteras" on January 5, 1863.

  • Use reference materials to find another account of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac. According to this account, what was the outcome of the battle?
  • How accurate is Taft's brief mention in his diary of the outcome of the clash of the ironclads? What factors lead you to this conclusion?

Historical Research: Interrogating Historical Data

Read the December 3, 1863, entry on Union soldiers held as prisoners of war in Richmond. It refers to harsh conditions and notes that the Confederacy had refused to exchange African American soldiers: "The general opinion is that they have sold the Negroes, or hung them. They have probably done both." April 1864 entries also mention brutal treatment of prisoners of war after the surrender of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and Plymouth, North Carolina.

  • What evidence supports the allegation that African American prisoners were either sold into slavery or executed?
  • How can you test the accuracy of the accusation that prisoners of war were massacred at Fort Pillow and Plymouth?
  • What do these reports reveal about the brutality of war?

Historical Research: Formulating Historical Questions

Horatio Nelson Taft's diaries provide insights into everyday life in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Take the role of a social historian. Choose an area of everyday life in Washington, D.C., about which you would like to know more. For example, you might specialize in work, the woman's role in family life, church-going habits, or food. Formulate three questions about your area of interest. The questions should be open-ended (that is, not answerable by "yes" or "no").

Search the diaries for information that will help you begin answering your questions. When you have marshaled as much information as you can find, reexamine your questions in light of what you have learned. Refine your questions based on what you have learned and construct a list of the kinds of sources you would need in order to answer your revised questions.

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

Find Taft's diary entries mentioning Fort Sumter by conducting a Keyword search using the search term Sumpter (Taft's spelling). Read Taft's comments on the garrison and its importance.

  • What options did President Buchanan have in determining the fate of the fort?
  • What was the position of the governor of South Carolina?
  • What decision did President Lincoln make regarding supplying the fort?
  • What course of action could he have taken? What were the consequences of his decision?


Arts & Humanities

Diary Writing

Diaries or journals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often served as family and community histories and were intended to be read by others. The writers of diaries and journals commented on daily life, the weather, and events of the day. While they might give their opinions on particular events, they rarely emoted about their deepest feelings. For example, consider Horatio Nelson Taft's description of his granddaughter's death and that of President Lincoln:

In August little Jessie died, the first child of my son Charles & Sallie. She was about 10 months old and a very sweet child. She was much loved by Mr & Mrs Woodward and by us all. Mr W provided rather extravagantly for the funeral, attending to everything himself, the coffin (of the finest Rosewood) cost $45.00. He paid all expenses.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2, October 5, 1863"

Taft's diary entries did change over time. Compare the pages shown below. What differences do you note? What might be the reasons for these differences?

Descriptive Writing: Choosing Adjectives

Adjectives are important tools in descriptive writing. The right adjective paints a picture or brings a person or place to life. Read Taft's brief biographical sketch of Clara Barton recorded on May 24, 1865.

  • What did Taft most admire about Clara Barton?
  • Why did he single her out for praise?
  • What adjectives highlight the qualities he admired in Barton? What adjectives might be more powerful in describing Barton's character?

Based on your reading of his diaries, identify characteristics that define Horatio Nelson Taft. Select adjectives that will help you convey those traits. Write a character sketch using Taft's Clara Barton sketch as a model.

Taft described the weather in almost every diary entry. Read several of the descriptions of weather. What adjectives convey the day's weather? Write a description of the current weather in your community, using descriptive words or phrases from Taft's diaries that you find effective.

Descriptive Writing: Similes and Analogies

A simile is a literary device in which a person, place, or thing being described is compared to something else, using the word like or as in introducing the comparison. The comparison is intended to convey a deeper understanding of the subject being discussed. For example, in the entry for January 3, 1863, this simile describes the devastation of war: "War, like a destroying angel, that has passed over the fair fields, and the hills and valleys of the 'old dominion' [Virginia]."

  • What do you think Taft hoped to convey by comparing war to a destroying angel?
  • What other simile in the same entry describes war? What do you think he hoped to convey with the second simile?
  • In your view, which simile is more powerful? Why?

An analogy is another type of comparison between two dissimilar objects. However, an analogy is more than a descriptive comparison; it is used for logical argument. If two things compared in an analogy are similar in some ways, the writer suggests, then they may be similar in others—or we should think of them in a similar fashion. The February 5, 1863, entry mentions writing an analogy "between a Nation and an individual." Read his description of the analogy.

  • What comparisons does Taft make between a nation and an individual?
  • What conclusion do you think Taft wanted the reader to draw about the similarity between a nation and an individual? In what way might he have been suggesting that we should think similarly about nations and individual people?
  • Do you think this analogy is effective? Why or why not?
  • Develop another analogy for a nation. Try to draw out the comparisons between the two things. How does considering the similarities cause you to think in a new way about what a nation is?

Art and Architecture

On January 4, 1863, Taft describes attending a religious service at the Capitol "…to not only hear the old Chaplin preach and Miss Rumsey sing. But to gaze on Leutz'[Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze] fine picture of the Emigrant Party which decorates the Western Stair Case of the South Wing." He also refers to the painting on January 18, remarking "The more I look at it the more I admire it." Find a reproduction of the mural, titled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, on the Internet.

  • How did Taft describe Leutze's mural? Observe the painting closely and expand on Taft's description.
  • This painting was created in 1861-1862. How did it represent events or ideas of that time?
  • What appeared to be the reason for Taft's fascination with the mural?