Civil War diary donated to College by descendants of prisoner

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The College of William and Mary recently acquired the diary of Henry Alexander Scandrett, a Union soldier who was captured by the Confederacy in May 1962. Now in the possession of the Earl Gregg Swem’s Special Collections Research Center, this diary offers insight into Civil War era Williamsburg and the College’s role in the war.

Although the text inside the diary is relatively faded because it was written in pencil over 150 years ago, it details the College’s role as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War.

Was in my first battle today. About 1 O clock P.M. our regiment was marched into the field about. We were thrown in advance and through some blunder was not reinforced. We have lost all our company officers and our field officers are all wounded. With fifteen others I was taken prisoner and am now in William & Mary college,” Scandrett said in his diary entry for May 5, 1862.

“Was in my first battle today. About 1 O clock P.M. our regiment was marched into the field about. We were thrown in advance and through some blunder was not reinforced. We have lost all our company officers and our field officers are all wounded. With fifteen others I was taken prisoner and am now in William & Mary college,” Scandrett said in his diary entry for May 5, 1862.

According to both local historian Wilford Kale ’66 and Special Collections Research Center Director Jay Gaidmore, this is the first mention of the College being used as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War.

“It has a little-known episode of William and Mary’s history during the Civil War that we didn’t really know about,” Gaidmore said. “We knew that William and Mary was very involved in the Battle of Williamsburg, being used as a field hospital. We know that after the battle when the Union troops occupied Williamsburg for the rest of the war they used it for quarters, but this is the first instance where we have seen actual documentation that prisoners were kept at the College.”

In the diary, Scandrett also details his journey from Williamsburg to Richmond with the Confederate army, where he was again imprisoned. About a week later he was released in exchange for Confederate soldiers held prisoner by the Union.

“Yorktown is evacuated,” Scandrett wrote on his journey back to the Union camp. “The rebels were firing until half past four this morning. A Balloon reconnaissance discovered the evacuation about 6 o clock.”

This is one of first written records of hot air balloons being used in a military context. Scandrett also mentions the standoff between the Monitor and Merrimack after their famous battle in March 1962 in the diary.

Kale first became aware of the diary’s existence when it was quoted in a book he came across when doing research for his book “From Student to Warrior: A Military History of the College of William and Mary.” Eventually, Kale traced the book back to Scandrett’s great-grandchildren: Janet Hunt, Sharon Summers, Charles Scandrett, Barbara Kaufman and Sandra Ellender.

Kale said that Hunt was the custodian of the diary and had been looking for a place to donate it for preservation. Hunt had considered giving it to the Wisconsin Historical Society, but instead decided she wanted to donate it somewhere with more meaning. Kale suggested the family donate it to the College, given its significant connection to the text.

“I kept talking to her and started suggesting William and Mary and told her that we had a wonderful library and a very good Special Collections department that had some rich material and that [the diary] would just add to it,” Kale said.

Before officially donating the diary, Hunt and some of her siblings came to Williamsburg to meet with Kale and visit the College’s Special Collections Research Center. According to both Kale and Gaidmore, the College was prepared to purchase the diary from the Sandrett family, given its historical significance.

“We weren’t quite sure if they were going to donate it or if we were going to try and buy it from them,” Gaidmore said.

However, after meeting with College President Taylor Reveley, touring the Special Collections Research Center and speaking with Gaidmore, the family decided to donate the diary without any financial compensation. Although the siblings decided to give the diary to the College during this November 2016 meeting, the official donation was not finalized until the following spring. This was due to the time it took for all five of Scandrett’s great-grandchildren to sign the deed of gift.

We felt we found the perfect place to donate the diary, the place where our great-grandfather was held as a prisoner back in 1862,” Hunt said in the library’s press release. “We know this little piece of both our history and that of William and Mary will be well-preserved at the library for others to use and enjoy now and in the future.”

“We felt we found the perfect place to donate the diary, the place where our great-grandfather was held as a prisoner back in 1862,” Hunt said in the library’s press release. “We know this little piece of both our history and that of William and Mary will be well-preserved at the library for others to use and enjoy now and in the future.”

The diary is currently being held in the Special Collections Research Center. Like all of the Special Collections’ pieces, it is stored in an acid-free folder in a temperature-controlled room in order to avoid its deterioration. According the Gaidmore, the diary will eventually be put on display along with other documents and pieces that Special Collections owns pertaining to the Civil War.

Any exhibit involving the diary will likely only be temporary, as light exposure could cause the paper to fade and hinder its preservation. Nevertheless, future generations of Civil War buffs need need not worry — all of the pages of the diary have been digitized by the Special Collections Research Center.

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