Newly Discovered Diary of Union Soldier Charles M. Jenkins

By Paul R. Spitzzeri

In early 2015, after having its headquarters for 50 years in the Lummis House in Los Angeles, the Historical Society of Southern California vacated the historic landmark.  With a great deal of business records, books and journals, historic artifacts and other materials to take, the Society decided to place the historic objects on temporary deposit with the Homestead Museum while it plans for its future.

The initial move of a select number of artifacts was in late January, but a subsequent review of Society papers revealed that there was a great deal more.  In many cases, objects were mixed in with institutional papers and a basic sort was undertaken to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Among the many discoveries was a gift from 1954 by Clement J. Gagliano of a diary from January through September 1865 by Charles M. Jenkins, who was the only resident of Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of Confederate sympathy, to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.  It does not appear that this diary has ever been displayed or made available to the public or researchers since.  In fact, an article on Jenkins by Rancho Cucamonga high school teacher Louis DiDonato, published in 2006 in the Southern California Quarterly, the journal of the Society, makes no mention of the diary.

This is the first of a series of posts that will, for the first time, get this fascinating and important artifact out to the public.  We’ll start with a bit of background on Jenkins, largely thanks to DiDonato’s article.

Born in Circleville, Ohio in 1839, Jenkins was the youngest of three children born to Richard Jenkins and Elizabeth Myers.  After his father died when Jenkins was three, his mother married British-born George Dalton, also a widower.  Dalton’s brother, Henry, was a prominent merchant and rancher in Los Angeles and the eastern San Gabriel Valley and encouraged George to join him.  In 1850, the Dalton-Jenkins clan migrated from Ohio and settled in Los Angeles, where Charles worked as a printer for local newspapers until just before he headed off to join the army in spring 1863.

Jenkins first went to San Francisco to join a California volunteer battalion and then headed east when it was decided to merge that group with the 2nd Massachusetts Calvary.  As a private with Company E, Jenkins entered the theater of battle in Virginia in the summer.  Among others, he fought in the battles at Leesburg, Goose Creek, Annandale, Fairfax Courthouse, and Gooding’s Tavern.  At the last, on 24 August, Jenkins was captured.

He was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and then transferred to Belle Island in the midst of the James River.  After several months there, in March 1864, Jenkins was sent to Camp Sumter, otherwise known as the notorious Andersonville in Georgia, where nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war died.  Jenkins somehow survived the abysmal camp and was released on 21 November.

A week later, on the 28th, Jenkins wrote a letter to his mother that was found, in four pieces with its envelope, tucked into the diary.  Written from the army’s Parole Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, this remarkable missive is striking for its depiction of the dehumanizing suffering Jenkins and his fellow POWs underwent at Andersonville.  Here are some excerpts, with the original spelling intact:

“I arived hear yesterday after fifteen mounths Imprisonment suffering everthing but death, but I am thankful that I have my life and good health at presant, had I not had an Iron constitution I should not lived in through, for there was over forty-thousand prisnors dide in the time that I was heald prisnor.  I persume that you thought that I was dead but you cannot get ridd of me so easey as that.” 

“I can surmise your feelings, in regards my behaf for we have viserters ever day inquiring for ther sons and Brothers.  There are a great meney tears shead for those that remain behind for languge can not exprss the suffering in the differint prsons in the south.”

“I heard from the Regment since I have been here my Captain has been killed and all of my company but eight or nine, we numbered one hundred and four men when we com out.” 

“I Should like to go to the Regment soon for revenge is sweet and if I should have to lay here untill the war is over I shall not get square with the rebs.”

In addition to the content of this amazing document, there is the striking vignette of the Parole Camp that is shown here.

CM Jenkins letter 28Nov64 p1
Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.

 

Jenkins was able to rejoin his regiment much sooner than he speculated in the letter and certainly to his liking, so that he could “get square with the rebs.”  By the end of 1864, he was transferred from the Parole Camp and back to the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry.

Finally, he was able to pick up a leather-bound pocket diary for 1865. Published by a Boston firm, it had space for a few lines each day, as well as memoranda pages, a calendar, pages showing postage rates, stamp duties, eclipses, moon phases, and the times of sunrises, sunsets, moon sets and high tides for both New York and San Francisco.

On New Year’s Day, Jenkins began the keeping of his diary and that’s where we’ll pick up this fantastic story in the next post!

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