James H. Hougland’s 1862 Civil War Diary

Today I received via interlibrary loan a transcription (in book form) of James H. Hougland’s 1862 Civil War diary. I requested it for some research I am doing on the Battle at Bayou Cache. It was unfortunately a disappointment for my research as he barely mentions the event. At first glance the diary appeared to be a huge disappointment as there are no more than three to four lines of short and simple notes per day of the events unfolding around him. At first glance, his entries appeared to lack the quality, depth, and reflection that most historians seem to look for. But then I started reading and a half hour later realized I had read every word.

Hougland was born in 1836 in Indiana. He served in Company G of the 1st Indiana Cavalry. What his diary offers is a very interesting character study of a Civil War soldier and of daily life in the cavalry. The daily routine of soldering, feeding and grooming his horse, but also the habits, thought processes, and interests of Hougland are presented in a very economical fashion. His entries are concise and to the point. No wasted words. Hougland was an intelligent man who mentioned books and newspapers he was reading and issues debated. However, if we were to judge his diary by the standards outlined in Robert C. Luskin’s “Measuring Political Sophistication” article in the American Journal of Political Science, as Joseph Allan Frank and Barbara Duteau did in their Civil War study, Hougland would be classified as a very “unsophisticated” (read unintelligent) observer of politics and the issues of the war in general.

Hougland was anything but unintelligent. He noted on more than one occasion his “writing letters for the boys,” as apparently several could not write. He records, very simply, “[debated] negro question” at the close of one entry. He lists the daily events, from first to last and rarely gives extraneous details. His narrative is clean and compact. Early on, in January and February 1862, there were several noted debates, one with the “Doctor” of the regiment. There was much talk about the war and it is reasonable to assume the debates he mentions centered squarely on political issues. Houghland was politically active and aware, especially during the early months of 1862.

He was a fairly prolific writer. Not only did he keep his diary, but he penned letters home to his wife, father and other relatives. Early on these letters were written almost daily, but as the war progressed and his regiment was sent to Missouri and Arkansas they grew less frequent. Though he still seemed to manage one or two a week no matter the situation.

He was a fairly religious man noting at times, almost nightly, that he had read scripture and often “singing” followed these lively events. But he was well rounded as well, he loved his wine and on one occasion partook with other men in the drinking of a “keg” of beer. He enjoyed good health and mentioned with remorse the passing of comrades from disease. Camp life in 1862 was at times a joyous thing for him with lots of singing, laughter and games. He usually had plenty to eat and “well and hearty” was often his estimate of his condition.

There were horse races, baseball games, card playing, and checker matches. They also enjoyed “pitching horseshoes for amusement.” He enjoyed his time in camp and was also a fairly good trader, trading horses, watches, and knives and turning them for a profit.

As his regiment descended deeper into Rebeldom he mentions the hatred of “Secesh” women, some of whom were captured disguised as men and taking rifle shots at the soldiers. As the hot summer arrived, along with long marches and hard skirmishes and a hard battle, the daily entries of singing and scripture slowed and eventually ceased for days and weeks on end. Hougland noted the increase of violence in camp, soldier fighting soldier. Drinking became prominent, though it was always there. Men were constantly placed under arrest. Some were kicked out of camp. As death from diseases, fighting, and exposure mounted the morale of the men plummeted.

As the weather changed in the fall and the hardships of the summer were a distant memory, his entries of singing, reading, and playing returned. The men were “lively” again he described. The ebb and flow of soldiering, as one can image, presented a roller coaster of emotions and responses to the hardships. I found Hougland’s short commentary very interesting and enjoyed my afternoon with it immensely.

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