Off the Northway: Soldier’s diary tells tales of Civil War

Union Army soldier William B. Howard kept a diary, which was recently donated to the New York State

We don’t know whether William B. Howard was from Schenectady, but it’s where he enlisted in the Union Army early in the Civil War.

Howard was assigned to the 48th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which fought a series of under-recognized battles along the Georgia and Carolina coasts from 1861 to 1865, as the Union sought to seize ground control of the entrances to important Confederate harbors.

Howard, a corporal, was wounded and then captured during the unsuccessful July 1863 attack on Fort Wagner — perhaps the campaign’s best-known battle. It was an effort to close Charleston’s port. Black troops fought for the Union under the Massachusetts banner, an event that was chronicled in the Denzel Washington movie “Glory.”

Howard kept a diary, which was recently donated to the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. At 85 pages, it’s “lengthier and richer” than most soldier diaries from the period, museum manager Michael Aikey said.

“Howard’s descriptions of camp life and naval engagements, his comments after battles, and travels in the South are lengthier and richer than the typical Civil War diaries,” said Aikey.

The campaign to enforce the blockade of southern harbors lacks the spectacle and casualty totals of the famous battles between Robert E. Lee’s soldiers and the Army of the Potomac, but it was nothing to nap through.

The expeditionary force landed at Port Royal, S.C., in October 1861, and for 10 weeks that winter laid siege to — and then captured — Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of Savannah’s harbor. In garrison there in June 1862, Howard recounts how soldiers responded to a nearby shipwreck. It came with benefits. I’ll quote him, and preserve his spellings:

“The crew was signalizenig from the wreck. A boat put off in the storm and rescued them from a watery grave. It proved to be a sutler’s schooner loaded with stores. Claret wine, Champagn, and lager bier floated ashore in abundance.”

Even with misspellings, astute readers recognize that intoxicants have arrived. What happened next was predictable. The guard house and dungeon filled, Howard said.

It likely upset the regiment’s commander, Col. James Perry, a teetotaling Methodist minister from Brooklyn. Maybe it even killed him — he died the next day.

“Perhaps the events of yesterday had something to do with the death of our Col.,” Howard wrote. “James H. Perry died suddenly in his quarters, 3 P.M., disease of the heart. Sick only a few minuits.”

In the attack on Fort Wagner, the 48th New York saw 54 killed, 76 go missing (including Howard) and 112 wounded.

Records show Howard was captured, and later paroled — released on condition he not rejoin the fighting. The army discharged him on disability in April 1864.

The diary was donated by Jim Livingston and Sherry Penny, an academic couple in Massachusetts. Penny, a history professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtained it some years ago and realized it had value, according to the state Division of Naval and Military Affairs.

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