The Homestead Blog

Sharing the History of the Charles M. Jenkins Civil War Diary at Chapman University

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight at Chapman University in Orange was the last of four presentations offered since June covering the remarkable story of Charles M. Jenkins (1839-1933), the only Los Angeles resident of the time who fought on the battlefield for the Union Army during the Civil War, and the discovery of his diary, which had been in the possession of the Historical Society of Southern California since 1954 and which was forgotten.

For a little over a year, the diary has been on temporary deposit at the Homestead along with many other historical artifacts the Society sent there after leaving its headquarters of a half-century at the Lummis Home in Los Angeles.

Since its reemergence, the diary, which covers Jenkins’ activities with Company E of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, his mustering out of Army service, and his return home to Los Angeles from 1 January to 24 September 1865, has been the topic of talks in Redlands, Newhall, Wilmington and, tonight, at Chapman, a private university in Orange.

I’ve been privileged to have worked on the presentations with Wayne Sherman, who owns a remarkable collection of Jenkins’ war memoribilia and has done a tremendous amount of research on Jenkins and California volunteers who fought in the war, and Louis DiDonato, whose own in-depth study of Jenkins yielded a fine 2006 article in the Southern California Quarterly, published by the Society, at a time when the diary was in its possession, but unbenownst to those involved in the organization.

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The Leatherby Library’s Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange was the venue for tonight’s presentation on the Charles M. Jenkins Civil War diary, co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Southern California. 

Tonight, Wayne shared with an audience of about 30 persons the remarkable circumstances of his acquisition of the Jenkins material, including photos, his certificate identifyimg him as a survivor of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, documents, and much more.  Wayne’s explanation of having the bones, or the basic structure, of the Jenkins story through these artifacts is an apt metaphor.

Louis’s presentation summarized the life of Jenkins based on the article and provided more of the flesh that filled out the story.  This talk began with Jenkins’ origins in Circleville, Ohio; his family’s migration to Los Angeles in the early 1850s and his years in that rough-and-tumble frontier town; his enlistment for Army service; his capture and imprisonment for fifteen months; his release and return to his unit; and his varied and remakable later years, up to his death at age 93.

My role was to relate the finding of the diary, the process of transcribing it for publication in the two recent (fall and winter) issues of the Southern California Quarterly (click here for more on the journal), and reading some excerpts from the diary.  This latter, hopefully, gave audience members a vividly personal insight into the life of a Union soldier in the waning days of the terrible conflict that rent the United States apart.  Material shared dealt with camp life, relationships with women, accounts of battles, the surrender of the Confederates, the assassination of President Lincoln, the mustering out of service, and the long trip back to California.

There were many interesting questions from the audience about how the collection was acquired, some of the themes in the diary, and more.  It felt, as it has in the other presentaitons, that those present were truly engaged with history through an artifact that is the usual hallmark of a successful experience of a direct connection with a historical object.

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Part of the display for tonight’s event included rare artifacts from Charles Jenkins collected and owned by Wayne and Pamela Sherman, on the left, as well as the acrylic case featuring Jenkins’ diary and a 2-page letter found within it, these being owned by the Historical Society of Southern California.  The diary has been fully transcribed and published in the fall and winter issues of this year’s Southern California Quarterly, which are in front of the case.

The folks at the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman put together a well-planned and finely executed event, which included a nice selection of food and drink, and some special displays, including loans from a local woman of war letters and documents from the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

In fact, the university’s Center for American War Letters, where the event is held, is little known in our region, but it is a remarkable collection of documents from every American-involved military conflict from the Revolution through the current conflicts in the Middle East.  More about the Center can be read here.

Incidentally, the library is also the home of the archive collection of artifacts and papers relating to Huell Howser, the late host of the very popular California Gold series on public television.  The archive is located across the hall from the war letters center and more can be learned here.  Another notable element of the library is the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library, dedicated to Holocaust survivors who were the parents of Henry Samueli, the founder of Broadcom and owner of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team.  See here for more on the library.

It was a great evening enjoyed by all and, while the round of presentations is completed, Wayne, Louis and I are open to doing more of these.  If anyone out there is interested in the Jenkins diary presentation, contact me at p.spitzzeri@homesteadmuseum.org.

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