CATEGORY: Calhoun County
HED: Civil War diaries see light of day
By Errol Castens
PITTSBORO - "I bid my old school mates farewell & with a sad heart took a last, long, lingering look at my old school room & trudged away determined to lay my life on the altar of my country or see her free."
Thus began the odyssey of 20-year-old Ezekiel Armstrong from Banner, Mississippi, to his eventual death at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War.
Armstrong, who dreamed of making a name for himself in American literature, has finally had his writings published. Editor and annotator Clifton Valentine combined Armstrong's diary with those of Lafayette Countians Ezekiel and Joseph Miller to produce a detailed and poignant volume, "To See My Country Free."
A search for the past
Valentine began his research through a personal interest in the 17th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, in which one of his ancestors served the Confederacy.
"I'm curious about history," the civil engineer from Rossville, Tenn., said. "When I got started with this project, I wanted to know about what my ancestor experienced."
The three soldiers whose works he has brought back to life were members of the Magnolia Guards, a company within the 17th Mississippi largely made up of young men from Calhoun County. The Miller brothers were from Paris, just over the line in Lafayette County.
Valentine began reading the Armstrong diary for details on the experience of the 17th from its inception to its disbanding at Appomattox. He soon learned of the existence of the two Miller diaries and, with members of the Calhoun County Historical and Genealogical Society, decided they should be published as a group.
"The diaries belonged together," said incoming vice president Tommy Hallum of Calhoun City. "They just obviously belonged together."
"They so obviously form one unit," agreed Sarah Margaret Hallum, outgoing president of the society.
"When he talked about those two guys being in that same (grave), that's when I knew it," Valentine said. "Here was the Armstrong boy and a Miller boy, and Joe Miller telling the story of his brother. It just jerks your heart out."
The limited-edition tome, of which only 2,000 copies were printed. describes life as a soldier in eloquent detail, bringing to light not only the physical conditions of war but the emotional pulls as well.
"It's not just, 'It rained today,' Valentine said. "There's more meat in it.
"They give a good picture of camp life, the battle they were in - even the good times, the games they played."
Armstrong's writings cover his life from the organization of the Magnolia Guards in April of 1861 through May of 1862. Ezekiel and Joseph Miller kept their journals for only short periods of time, but they lend valuable details about the experience of the common soldiers who fought the battles and endured the desperate deprivations of war, from hunger to horror.
Only seven of the Magnolia Guards' 181 enlistees were present when they were called on to stack arms after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. More than a third had died from battle or disease. Far more were wounded.
After finding his brother Ezekiel's body in a grave with that of their friend Ezekiel Armstrong, William Miller wrote of his grief:
"He has gone, the brother with whome I sported in my childhood.... How kind, how good has he ever been to me.... His body lies in the cold cold grave upon the banks of the Rapahanock, not another such a friend do I expect to find on earth one whom I can love as well."
Having finished annotating and editing "To See My Country Free," Valentine is turning his attention to the history of the rest of the 17th Mississippi Regiment's ten companies.
"After that, I don't know," he said. "I've got another ancestor in the 3rd Mississippi Cavalry, and I may research their history.
"I used to hunt and fish, and now I spend all my spare time working on Civil War history. I'm having a big time."
FACTBOX: "To See My Country Free" is available from the Calhoun County Historical and Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 114, Pittsboro, MS 38951. Cost is $30 plus $5 shipping and handling.
The Society's previous publication, "A Pictorial History of Calhoun County, Mississippi," has been reprinted and is available at the same address for $50 plus $5 shipping and handling. After Dec. 31 the price will rise to $60 per copy plus fees.