A Personal Window into History
(written by Cole Nelson, Archives intern)
It seems that very often, archival research is done through impersonal public documents, scattered clippings from publications, and (if you are lucky) photographs of the topic. Newspaper clippings frequently offer a more personal viewpoint, but it is not as often that you get the opportunity to read about a person’s life through their own words... especially when that person lived 150 years ago. We now have this opportunity with the La Crosse Public Library Archives’ new acquisition, the diary of civil war veteran Simeon L. Downer.
Simeon Luther Downer was a farmer who lived in Farmington, a town located a few miles northeast of Holmen and directly north of West Salem. He was likely the son of the Luther Downer who settled in the area in 1848. The diary is a bit of a jumbled mess at first glance. The first few pages are filled not with memories but with notes on letters sent and received. If you pay close attention though, you’ll notice a few names reappearing later. For example, there are many letters sent to and received from Mrs. C. Downer (likely Simeon Downer’s mother, Clarissa Downer) a Miss Beckah Harris, who would after the war become Downer’s second wife.
The diary then jumps into Downer’s departure for service in the 8th Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army. Much of the daily remarks are short descriptions of the weather and the miles marched each day. They are marked with spelling errors that, while at first frustrating for the reader, become endearingly unique to Downer. After a few pages of logistics the real action begins. Downer, normally terse and concise in description, randomly breaks into long and almost poetic depictions of battles and scenery. On the 31st of March 1865, Downer writes that “The enemies firing today was directed and deadly... killing and wounding many... We opened with all the artillery we could get... on the enemy and our fire was well directed... the Rebs charged... but were repulsed.” The next day Downer gets more figurative, writing “Cannonading, some marches, gunboats, siege guns, and lite artillery. All join the band... of death.” A few days prior to this battle, Downer showed his loyalty to the union despite feeling severe homesickness when he stated, “The scenry [is] delightful, so much so that I am almost homesick but could not bare the thought of going home yet. I wish all my friends could behold the lovelyness of nature today...” His travels took him down the Mississippi, through many of the southern states, and as far south as New Orleans and Mobile Bay in Alabama.
For much of the war, Downer appears to have been ill. Many days he remarks on having to “lay in camp”, and was often visited by his friend “Rat,” who may have been Erastus Harris, father of Beckah Harris. After months of marching, fighting, and building fortifications while ill he finally visited a hospital in May of 1865, near the end of his service and recovered around the 23rd. A few days later, he casually relates receiving “a letter from Beckah.” They would be married in September of that year.
The end of Downer’s service mirrored the beginning. He returned to Cairo, IL, the city where he first embarked upon a steam ship towards the battlefields of the south. He ends his military tale with his usual combination of brevity and poetry, mixed with a quiet wit over an unnamed island he recalls from his first visit to Cairo. “At 6 I am bound for Cairo,” he writes, “with a pleasant night and a pleasant day... we passed the memorable Island No. 10 about sunset 40 miles below Cairo.”
The latter half of the diary skips through time, jumping from notes on credit and loans in 1866 to a couple pages relating what seems to be a family move in 1865. Downer’s wit comes out again in a note scribbled among expenses and creditors that writes, “Charged fort Leather Britches took 2000 prisoners & four yams then repeated the charge capturing 6 yams &... 100 men...” But perhaps the saddest part of this diary is written on the final page, where Downer writes about the deaths of his daughter and first wife in 1864. They died within a month of each other, the mother likely from complications due to pregnancy, for as Downer writes with sad expectancy, “[rest] in peace sweet babe, your mother [will] soon follow...”
Perhaps this was part of the reason for Simeon Downer’s eager enlistment in the war. We can never know exactly how these memories and observations connected to the seemingly witty and yet down-to-earth man who wrote them, but they do offer us an intensely personal insight into his experiences during a war that shaped our country’s history.