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This previously unidentified Civil War diary spent years tucked away in our Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection. With a little detective work, the author of the diary is determined to be Captain George Douglas Wise, a Confederate officer, and a relative by marriage to the Miller family of Morristown. Born in 1831 on the Eastern Shore plantation of a prominent Virginia family, Wise was educated in Indiana, and studied law at the College of William and Mary.


Browse the Confederate Civil War Diary


When news broke of Virginia's secession from the Union in 1861, Wise abandoned his Richmond law practice to join his five brothers in service. Confederate President Jefferson Davis commissioned him a lieutenant in the Confederate States Army. Assigned first to a Kentucky infantry regiment and then as aide to his uncle (a former Virginia governor), he spent the bulk of his military career on the western front as adjutant to Major General Carter L. Stevenson. The first few pages of the book are possibly records of general orders issued to troops of the 1st Kentucky Infantry. Wise served in that Regiment. The diary begins on February 15, 1864 and ends with the collapse of the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee's farewell address to the troops on April 10, 1865.

Although nepotism may have gained Wise his coveted appointment to a general's staff, by all accounts he proved to be an excellent soldier. Promoted to captain, he gained the trust of his superiors who valued his quick mind, discreet manner and attention to detail. He intuitively grasped the mechanics of the battlefield, without losing sight of the greater ambitions of the vast Confederate army. Drawing up the orders of his commander, Wise was privy to troop movements, military strategies and officer's locations. Entrusted with ferrying confidential messages between camps as battles raged around him, he slipped undetected through enemy lines to deliver vital communications, including most famously, the last desperate dispatches of General John Pemberton to General Joe Johnston, begging for aid as the siege of Vicksburg wore down his troops. Pemberton wrote, "My men have been thirty-four days and nights in trenches without relief; and, as you know, are entirely isolated. What aid am I to expect from you? The bearer, Capt. G.D. Wise, can be confided in."

In official reports, superiors describe Captain Wise as gallant, bold, intelligent and endowed with the energy & ability to overcome great difficulties in missions. His diary-simple, forthright and compelling-testifies to the veracity of their words. He made vivid the ebb and flow of life in the midst of war: the horrors of the battlefield, details of combat, daily life in camp, troop morale, interactions with superiors, the ever-present gossip, and an abiding bitterness toward the enemy. Honor and duty figure prominently in his account, and the casual bravery exhibited by him and his comrades is astonishing.

Following the war, George Wise returned to Richmond where he built a successful criminal law practice and entered local politics. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1880 where he served fourteen years. An eloquent speaker who never feared an adversary, he was arrested at least twice in his political career: once to prevent a duel with a rival politician, and later for assaulting a newspaper editor. When he died in 1908, his obituary identified him as "one of the best-known characters in recent Virginia history."


Some transcription highlights:


First person descriptions of historic events are linked to the original handwritten entries from the diary below:


March 1, 1864 The enemy drew off, & the fight dwindled down to sharp-shooting & occasional firing of artillery ... we laid down to sleep by our bivouac fires-expecting a more general engagement on the morrow. No doubts now disturbed, but tired & worn soldiers slept soundly the night. The cowards had skulked off.


May 5, [1864] near Dalton [GA] The Yanks left a note signed Kilpatrick [Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, an 1861 West Point graduate, addressed to Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, an 1859 West Point graduate] which runs as follows 'I came out to meet you on Friday with five hundred men, which you declined. To-day I came out with a 1000. The next time I will come with my whole command and annihilate you & your minions.'

[Signed] Your Classmate - J.H. Kilpatrick Brig. Genl. U.S.A.


Dec. 5th [1864] Our loss at the battle of Franklin in killed, wounded & prisoners not more than 3,500, seventeen general officers lost. Witnessed upon the field a scene which touched my heart: as I rode among the dead I heard a soldier lamenting in tears the fall of his comrades - his words as I remember them - were 'here they lie cold & dead; my colonel - the best in the world & my Brigadier General are both dead" - tears ran down his cheeks & he called out in tones of sorrow to his passing comrades "my brave colonel is dead." He called the name of Col. Young: a gentleman of that name commanded the 10th Texas Regt. in Granbury's Brig.

April 11th, [1865] Tuesday On the Hillsborough road 3 miles from Raleigh [NC] Arrived here about 3 o'c. after a march of about 15 miles, starting at 6 am. Passed through the capital of North Carolina - beautiful city. Gloomy rumors afloat in Raleigh - such as that Lee has been compelled to capitulate. Bad rumors always fly about on swift wings. The evacuation of Richmond & the fact that we receive no tidings from our great chief are enough to give birth to a batch of just such stories. I fear that many noble fellows have fallen, but I cannot believe that our noble leader with his army is lost to us.

April 26th [1865], Greensboro [NC] Wednesday Tuesday 18th heard that Mr. Lincoln had been killed in Ford's Theatre Washington City by a person unknown, who, after the deed leaped upon the stage & cried sic simper tyrannis, Its South is avenged. The killing occurred 11th April & Johnson was inaugurated 12th in his private room at the Kirkwood house. Same night Mr. Seward was attacked in his own room & stabbed several times. Two of his sons wounded same night, one supposed mortally. It is reported that Mr. Seward will recover. Ordered to move to-day at 10 o'c. am - will march ten miles to-day. Genl. Lee surrendered at Appomattox C.h. 9th April - paroles dated 10th. Richmond evacuated 2d April. The officers & soldiers were paroled to return to their homes, there to remain undisturbed.


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