The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Diary Offers a Unique Glimpse of the Civil War

Searching for material to include in the Civil War Monthly Document feature on the MHS website, I came across the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch. Within this extensive diary--described in more detail below--Bulfinch gives an (almost) month-by-month account of the Civil War. Sometimes spending just a few lines on the national conflict, sometimes dedicating an entire entry, Bulfinch provides commentary on many of the most important events in “public affairs” from the divisive election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to the status of reconstruction after the war. 

Discussing the diary with Elaine Grublin, who oversees the Civil War Monthly Document project, we concluded it would be too difficult to choose just one entry from this rich diary to include in that project.  Instead we decided to share all of Bulfinch’s Civil War entries through the Beehive. These snippets from Bulfinch’s larger diary entries offer a unique perspective on the war.  By both reporting and reflecting on events Bulfinch provides his views on themes such as the conflict’s division of families, the role of women and children in the war, public opinion as events unfolded, religious leaders going into battle, and the cost of war -- in human life -- felt by his own neighborhood.

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch was born on 18 June 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts to architect Charles Bulfinch and his wife Hannah Apthorp. The youngest of seven children, Bulfinch graduated from Columbian College in Washington, D.C., and Harvard Divinity School.  He proceeded from there to preach as a Unitarian minister. He was married twice, first to Maria Howard, who died in childbirth, and later to Caroline Phelps.

The MHS holds two volumes of Bulfinch’s diaries in the Bulfinch Family Papers. The first volume contains intermittent descriptions of the Bulfinch’s travels between 1827 and 1830. The second volume covers of his settled life in Massachusetts,  containing entries from 23 December 1856 to 31 December 1865, with some gaps. This volume details various familial events such as the death of his brother Charles and his constant worry about his sickly daughter, Maria. Bulfinch also discusses his struggles with the Unitarian Church’s doctrine and his resignation from his preaching position after concluding that he believes in the Holy Trinity. The diary then turns to Bulfinch’s attempts to find work, as well as his renewed passion for completing a work of fiction he had previously started.  He sees this work, Honor, or the Slave-dealer’s Daughter published in 1864.

Transcriptions of the Civil War focused diary entries will be published to the Beehive providing both an objective timeline of the Civil War and offering a unique perspective on the events as seen through a civilian’s eyes.  Starting with a number of entries in quick succession to bring Beehive readers up to September 1861, in September we will add a post the first of each month, so be sure to follow the Civil War series to stay current with Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch’s diary. 

permalink | Published: Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 8:00 AM


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