When it comes to putting words on paper, Charles Lewis was unquestionably his harshest critic.
“Much is nonsense and perhaps absurd sentiment,” the Schenectady native wrote in 1879, referring to the diary he kept from 1862-1865 during the American Civil War, “and if in the future any one should look it over and experience a feeling of nausea they can readily effect a cure by shutting the book.”
In fact, Lewis’ writing gives readers a fascinating and authentic trip back in time to one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history. An 18-year-old Union College student when he joined the Union army in 1862, Lewis fought with the 119th New York Regiment at Chancellorsville, where he was wounded, and during the Atlanta campaign of 1864. And, on April 15, 1865, he was at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he witnessed John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Witness to history
“He was a Schenectady guy who witnessed quite a bit while he was in the Civil War, and he was there at Ford’s Theater the night the president was shot,” said Schenectady County Historical Society curator Ryan Mahoney, who has documented Lewis’s story in an exhibit titled “Through His Eyes: Charles Lewis and the Civil War.”
‘Through His Eyes: Charles Lewis and the Civil War’
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: Reception from 6-8 p.m. tonight; exhibit will be on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-0263 or www.schenectadyhistory.net
“He saw a lot and he wrote about it, making references to the Lincoln assassination and the viewing of the body, as well as many of the battles during the war. It has a very personal touch.”
An opening reception for the exhibit will be held tonight from 6-8 p.m. at the society’s Dora Jackson House at 32 Washington Ave. in the Stockade section of Schenectady. “Through His Eyes,” designed to help Schenectady County residents commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, will be on display through October.
Along with excerpts from the diary and interpretive panels with background information to help visitors better appreciate Lewis’ story, the exhibit will include the 1879 bound book that Lewis produced to replace his original diary.
“Diaries kept by me during a portion of the time I was in the Army, and since have become very much faded and torn, and as there are many items interesting to me contained in them, I have determined to make in a measure of copy of them,” Lewis wrote in his 1879 introduction.
As best as he can tell, Mahoney feels that Lewis tried to re-create his diary as accurately as he could.
“He rewrote it in 1879, but he says that he copied it from the pages of the diary,” said Mahoney. “Reading it, I really feel that he didn’t embellished things.”
Union professor, Zouave
Featured in the exhibit is Elias Peissner, a Union College professor and Lewis’s brother-in-law. Peissner was killed at Chancellorsville.
“Peissner played a key role in the formation of the Union College Zouaves and was basically their commander,” said Mahoney. “He was killed at Chancellorsville, and that’s when Lewis really starts writing his diary. He was recuperating from his wounds at Chancellorsville, and that’s when he started his reflections on the battle and his brother-in-law. He puts Peissner in a reverent light. He was evidently a great leader and everyone who knew him looked up to him.”
Peissner was born in Bavaria in 1825 and showed up at Union College in 1854 as an instructor in Latin. He later became a professor of German language and literature before raising his own regiment — many of them Union students like Lewis — during the summer of 1862. Peissner had married Margaret Lewis, Charles sister and the daughter of Union College professor Tayler Lewis.
Peissner was shot in the head at Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), and remains the only member of the Union College faculty to die in military service.
Lewis, meanwhile, had a much happier life after the war. He married Katherine Rosa Smith of Niskayuna and the couple ended up living in Washington, D.C. for 32 years. In 1896, they moved back to Schenectady and lived at 704 Union St. Lewis served as special inspector for the post office and died on March 6, 1905m at the age of 61. He is buried in Vale Cemetery.
“He had been discharged in 1864 because of sun poisoning [a severe form of sunburn], so he came back to Schenectady for a while, but then he was offered another position leading a black regiment and was about to take it when the war ended,” said Mahoney. “He didn’t like civilian life. He really wanted to get back in the army.”
Before he was wounded at Chancellorsville, Lewis had advanced to the rank of second lieutenant with the 119th in less than two months.
“He obviously was a smart guy, and had had some training with Peissner while he was at Union,” said Mahoney. “He mustered in as a private but he was promoted pretty quickly.”
While Lewis might have enjoyed military life, his diary is filled with references to Schenectady and how he would love to return back home.
“He talks about the letters he received from his parents, and he’s constantly writing about how his thoughts are back home in Schenectady,” said Mahoney. “There’s quite a lot in the diary, and what we did was narrow things down a bit and put on display some of the more exciting entries.”