Reading Handwriting from the Civil War

January 23rd is National Handwriting Day each year, so let’s talk about Civil War handwriting. Men who served the Union or the Confederacy were of varied educational backgrounds. Some could read and write well, but others were illiterate. The latter came from rural areas that lacked schools or where keeping the family farm going left no time for schooling.

In Daily Life in Civil War America, the statistics given were about 90% of men in the north could read and 70% in the south.

In searching for your Civil War ancestor, of course you’ll check the 1860 and 1870 census records. In 1860, one of the questions asked if the person was 20 years of age but cannot read or write. In 1870, the census separated that into 2 categories: cannot read, cannot write.

Below is a sample of Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting. Obviously he could write well with his training as a lawyer. For my Civil War ancestor, Abraham Bates Tower of Leavenworth, Indiana, I have no idea of what schooling he received, but the census lists him as able to read and write.

President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card
President Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby Post Card by famousdocuments

In our family papers is a Abraham Tower’s pocket diary that he appears to have purchased at mustering out time. The first few pages of the small book lists the men of Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. In later years, he filled the rest of the diary with family births, marriages and deaths, similar to what one sees in family Bibles.

Spencerian was the style of penmanship popular in the 1850s and 60s. Reading the handwriting of this era can be tricky with faded ink, water damage, archaic words and unfamiliar abbreviations. Here are some tips for reading Civil War letters and diaries.

There are quite a few diaries from this period available for reading online. Getting yourself familiar with the handwriting of that time is easier when you have the original and a transcription side-by-side. Here are links to Confederate, Union and also women’s diaries from the war.


Is There Another Diary?

Recently I had an email from a great-uncle. I’d told him about my research on my civil war ancestor. He asked if I knew about the diary from Andersonville. My heart skipped a beat…

I have a very worn pocket diary that belonged to Abraham Bates Tower, but it starts at the time of his mustering out. In it, he recorded the names of the men in his company and later added family births, marriages and deaths. I’d always wondered if there were earlier diaries. I assumed that if there was one that it was lost as he became desperately ill in that horrible stockade.

Now I had a clue and was ecstatic at the idea that such a diary might exist. The email gave a name of a lady in Oklahoma and said he would try to find her contact information for me. Impatient for that, I started casting about on the Internet. The lady proved elusive. I’m still working on it.

Pipe Smoking Detective Postcard
Pipe Smoking Detective Postcard by itsmyjob
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Treasure Chest Thursday: My Great-Great-Grandfather’s Diary

A treasure that our family possesses is the well-worn pocket diary that belonged to our Civil War ancestor. He must have bought it right before being mustered out. At the top of the first page, he wrote August the 4 1865.

The first few pages list the men in Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Probably he wanted to note all their names so he would remember them. After three years together, I imagine they all felt very close. The first name in the list is Jerome Spilman, Capt.

The names fill the first twelve pages of the diary. He breaks it down into officers, enlisted men, those that died, those that were discharged, ones that were transferred and ones that deserted.

I sure wish the diary included details from all the years he was in the Union Army. Maybe he had an earlier one but it was lost while he was in Andersonville Prison. You can read more about Andersonville here.

The diary that Abraham Tower recorded the names of the men he served with in the Civil War

The diary that Abraham Tower recorded the names of the men he served with in the Civil War