Archive to be Available Online Next Month.
"December 12, 1861. Left home in the morning early for the depot. It came hard to leave home I can tell you. I left Belchertown at 2 o'clock to go to Camp Seward at Pittsfield… It was my first riding on a rail… I was homesick enough on my first night in Camp. I had to sleep on a board and only one blanket for three of us. I caught a cold that night that never went off till I was far down in Dixie."
This excerpt from the diary of twenty-year old R.F. Underwood of Belchertown is just one of scores of Civil War diaries, letters, and personal recollections of members of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment recently discovered in the archives of the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. Next month, the documents are slated to be made available online to the general public through funding from the Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission of the American Civil War, which was formed to plan events and activities across the commonwealth to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Known as the "Western Bay State Regiment,” the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the first unit to enter New Orleans in 1862 and remained stationed in and around Louisiana until the end of the war. The regiment was primarily comprised of men from Western Massachusetts towns, particularly Ware, Belchertown, and Pittsfield.
The documents came to light after a request made to the Museum by Louisiana-based historian Frank McGlothlin for documents related to the 31st Massachusetts. In searching the archives, Margaret Humberston, Head of Library and Archives, and Cliff McCarthy, Archivist, discovered a trove of more than seventy manuscripts painstakingly compiled by Lewis Frederick Rice, the unit’s historian, for the purpose of publishing a regimental history. After years of transcribing diaries and collecting remembrances, Rice was unable to complete the project, and in 1929, the documents were donated by the dwindling regimental association to the Connecticut Valley Historical Society. Later the documents were absorbed into the Springfield History Library and Archives in the current Wood Museum, where they have remained unpublished for decades.
Thanks to the grant from the Sesquicentennial Commission, the Museum was able to enlist the help of Larry Lowenthal, a former historian for the national parks, and intern Stan Prager. The two worked closely with Humberston and McCarthy to prepare the documents for online distribution.
Some of the more than seventy manuscripts are simply transcripts of the day-by-day diaries kept by the soldiers at the time. Most, like the Underwood transcript, appear to be edited reminiscences based on actual diary entries or personal recollections written retrospectively. All combined, they draw a vivid and insightful picture of Civil War camp life in and around Louisiana from 1862 through 1865.
These manuscripts will finally be made available to the public through a new website that is sure to generate interest from Civil War buffs, local historians, descendents of regiment members, teachers, and others. The website will feature maps, an image gallery, and an easily searchable database of the writings in the collection.
The site will be officially launched at a ceremony at Thursday, August 14 at 3:30 pm in the Wood Museum’s Springfield History Library. Invitees include descendants of some of the soldiers featured in the manuscripts. Admission to the event is free – visitors should use the main entrance to the Wood Museum.
For more information about the project, please call 413.263.6800, ext. 308.