I was nineteen when I read the Civil War diary of Sarah Morgan. I discovered it in my local bookshop one Friday afternoon, its blue spine topped with a picture of a sheepish Morgan in her plume-filled hat. For weeks I picked up the book, and put it back on the shelf. I was intrigued, but not entirely convinced it was a story for me. Sarah was a young, white, upper-middle-class woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her family were slaveholders and she was a loyal Confederate. I wasn’t a historian, and it didn’t resonate with me as a reader. I hesitated. Then one day, I bought it.

Charles East's edition of Sarah Morgan's Civil War Diary.

The book was Charles East’s 1991 edition of the diary; the first time Morgan’s account had been edited and published in its entirety. Another version, edited by Sarah’s son, Warrington, had been in print for almost a century, but had been cut and remodeled to avoid stories too personal for public consumption. “When I completed my transcription,” Charles later remarked, “I discovered that the published diary amounted to approximately half, a little less than half, of the original.”

East’s beautifully edited volume, some 626 pages long, recovered Morgan’s personal reflections from the wartime focus of the earlier book. Suddenly Sarah emerged from history’s grand narrative, providing us with a remarkable portrait of young white womanhood in the Civil War South. Today the diary is considered one of the best home front accounts of the war, and plays second fiddle only to Mary Boykin Chesnut’s epic (C. Van Woodward’s edition of the Chesnut diary won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982).1

From A Confederate Girl's Diary.

Sarah Morgan began her diary on January 10, 1862. The patriotic aplomb of 1861 had given way to a waiting game in the western theater of war; it was no longer a question of if, but when, Union troops would attack Louisiana. All this was everything and nothing to Sarah, who was still reeling from the death of her brother, Henry, on a dueling ground in New Orleans. Buggy rides, walks, and “dances every night” had been replaced with “long days and nights of heart breaking grief that only God knows of, so heartbroken that even God seemed so far off that prayers could not reach him.”2

I still remember reading those words for the first time, and of a grief so powerful that it compelled a young women to take an evening walk alone and climb a high cemetery fence—“the gate was locked”—in order to sit by her brother’s grave.3

I was hooked. I finished the book that weekend.

Sarah Morgan’s diary continues to be the most compelling Civil War account I’ve ever read. It’s the reason I became a documentary historian. For as much as I love writing about women of the South, I prefer using their letters and diaries to tell documentary stories.

Documentary history

Documentary historians edit and annotate primary source material to tell a story. “[It’s] a form of translation,” notes Michael Stevens and Steven Burg, “converting original documents into readable text.”4

Editors can, and do, work with professional sources such as account books or government documents. Others, like myself, work with first person accounts such as diaries, correspondence, editorials, oral history interviews, speeches, or memoirs. Historians studying the late twentieth century have a new frontier at their disposal, including email and blogs.

Whatever the source, it’s the editor’s job to provide the narrative structure, the genealogical and historical context, and the interpretive framework to allow the reader to navigate, and appreciate, the story.

I love the way documentary stories allow us to peek through a window into the random, messy complexity of human experience. There is an energy that imbues the inky, scratchy words scribed in some other time and place.

The writer may have been the intensely private type like Morgan, who wrapped her diaries in linen stitched up tight. Or perhaps she was a lover of family tales, like Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, who saved the letters she wrote as testimony to her relationship with her sisters and niece. No matter. A good storyteller is at the heart of every great documentary story. And a good documentary editor builds a framework around this primary material to provide context and interpretation.5

The editor’s toolbox

How do you spot the perfect documentary story, and how do you go about editing it?

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Try as I might, I haven’t discovered a documentary editor’s toolbox on the web. But I do have some ideas to get you excited about reading documentary stories and perhaps editing one yourself.

My blog will feature:

Book reviews: new releases, some of my all-time favorites, and the best “how-to” books on documentary and oral history. There are some technical masterpieces, and some fantastic stories. And there are some nifty documentary resources that should be part of every editor’s library.

Tips: technical advice on the nuts and bolts of documentary editing, and navigating the minefield known as copyright. Not sure what to do about irregular spacing, the placement of dates or addresses, omissions, illegible words, and errors? I’ll share my tips on when and how to intervene.

Interviews: feature stories on documentary editors who are experts in print, online, and digital editions. Some documentary editors work on the papers of presidents and political figures. Others are passionate about digital editions, published volumes, blogging, or e-books. I will feature their stories and opinions on the changing world of documentary history.

News: updates on professional activities. The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) is the go-to for conferences, awards, and professional development. I’ll keep you updated. And I highly recommend joining the ADE which acts as an advocate and resource for documentary editors.

Believing in this work is the documentary editor’s toolbox, quite literally, and that belief stems from knowing what’s possible. I hope my tips and advice will lead you to your own discoveries in this fascinating world of first person accounts.

 

Notes

  1. Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, ed. Charles East (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), x. See also A Confederate Girl’s Diary, ed. Warrington Dawson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913); Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Van Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).
  2. East, Sarah Morgan, 5.
  3. Ibid, 55.
  4. Michael E. Stevens and Steven B. Burg, Editing Historical Documents: A Handbook of Practice (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1997), 12.
  5. A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, ed. Giselle Roberts (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012).