Civil War: First Person Accounts

The Madison County Historical Society holds personal accounts of the Civil War by Union soldiers who at some point considered Madison County home. These primary sources include transcripts of letters written by four different soldiers and a handwritten diary spanning one man’s three-year service and beyond. The personal memoirs of a 92-year-old Civil War veteran from nearby Macoupin County offer an additional unique perspective.

The summaries below introduce each of the six featured soldiers and provide links to their documents. The soldiers are listed in chronological order according to their muster-in dates.

Joel E. Waters

Mustering date: 1 October 1861

Private/Veteran Corporal, Company K, 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

Joel was born in Indiana on June 6, 1833, to parents who were both United States citizens by birth. He lived in Indiana with them until the 1850s, working as a laborer. By the time he enlisted, he had moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, and was working as a carpenter-farmer. Joel was mustered in as a private on October 1, 1861, in Bridgeport, Alabama. He was 28 years old, 5′-6″ tall with grey eyes and fair hair and a fair complexion.

After his three years were up, Joel reenlisted with the same company as a veteran volunteer. He mustered out July 4, 1865, in Louisville, Kentucky, as a veteran corporal. He married an Irish immigrant named Mary Jane Bradley in 1867; they had five children. Joel died in Alameda, California, on June 24, 1918. He is buried in Oakland, California.

Correspondence of Joel E. Waters to Samuel Thomas Watters (transcribed)
Joel Waters’s letters to his brothers span from June 1, 1856, to January 13, 1865. His letters during his time as a Civil War soldier begin on page 9 with his letter dated October 10, 1861.

Summary index to Waters’s Correspondence

George W. Spahr

Mustering date: 20 February 1862

Corporal/Sergeant, Company I, 3rd Missouri Volunteer Cavalry

George was born September 10, 1824, near Somerset, Ohio, to American-born parents. He moved to Illinois in 1856 and taught school in Collinsville. In 1860 he relocated to Columbia, Illinois, where he continued teaching and married Eleanor Williams. George joined the military when his raise request was denied in September 1861. He was mustered in as a 37-year-old corporal on February 20, 1862, in Palmyra, Missouri. He mustered out as a sergeant on May 31, 1864, in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Available official records don’t include a physical description of George, but his diary says he weighed 157 lbs. on June 25, 1862.)

George’s wife Ella left him while he was in the service. They had no children and eventually divorced in June of 1866. By 1868, George was back in Madison County where he married Mrs. Martha Tetherington and lived as a farmer. George died on November 21, 1894. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Edwardsville, Illinois.

George Spahr’s handwritten 719-page diary is titled Sketches and Incidents of My Life; Composed and Written from Memory, Containing a Brief Account of the Nativity and Life of My Parents and the More Important Scenes and Incidents Of My Own Life to the Age of Thirty-Six; as They Were Impressed upon the Mind Followed by a Diary, Containing the More Important Transactions and Incidents of Life, Written as They Transpired. Pages 274-457 contain diary entries during George’s time as a soldier in the Civil War, beginning in September 1861 through December 1864. Selected diary entries are presented in the links below. The complete diary is available at the Madison County Archival Library.

September 20-25, 1861

February 21, 1862
Original | Transcription

June 25-July 1, 1862

August 11-13, 1862
Original | Transcription

December 11-13, 1862

January 10-12, 1863

January 13-24, 1863

February 7, 1863
Original | Transcription

August 6, 1863
Original | Transcription

March 1, 1864

Summary index to Spahr’s Diary

William R. Eddington

Mustering date: 8 September 1862

First Sergeant/Second Lieutenant, Company A, 97th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

William (“Willie”) was born April 2, 1842, in Woodburn, Macoupin County, Illinois. His parents had immigrated to the United States from England. Willie mustered in as a sergeant at Camp Butler in Illinois, on September 8, 1862. An unmarried 21-year-old farmer, Willie was 5′-6″ tall with brown hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion. He mustered out as a first sergeant on July 29, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, and received a promotion to second lieutenant three days later.

After the war, William returned to farming and married Eliza Miller. They lived in Brighton (Macoupin County, Illinois), and had four children. William died on January 16, 1936. He is buried in Woodburn Cemetery in Woodburn, Illinois.

My Civil War Memoirs and Other Reminiscences (typed)
William Eddington’s account of his experiences in the Civil War begin on page 3. He covers the period from his enlistment on August 7, 1862, through his discharge on August 19, 1865.

Summary index to Eddington’s Memoirs

Adolphus Phillip Wolf

Mustering date: 19 September 19 1862

Corporal, Company F, 117th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

This example of the standard socket bayonet used by Union forces during the Civil War was owned by Adolphus Wolf. This type of bayonet was used with the .58 caliber M1855, M1861, and M1863 rifle-muskets. See below for more about Adolphus Wolf and links to his letters. MCHS object 1991-043-0004.

Adolphus (“Dolf”) was born on June 11, 1841, in Edwardsville, Illinois. His parents were German immigrants from Bavaria. After completing school, Dolf went to Philadelphia to become a coach-maker. He enlisted with Company F of the 19th Pennsylvania Infantry on April 21, 1861, and returned to Edwardsville after completing his term of service. Dolf was a farmer when he helped form Company F of the 117th Illinois Infantry. He was mustered in as a corporal at Camp Butler in Illinois on September 19, 1862. He was 22 years old and 5′-9″ tall with light hair, blue eyes, and an olive complexion. Dolf served as color bearer for his company. He mustered out on August 5, 1865, in Springfield, Illinois.

After the war, Adolphus suffered recurring bouts of malaria for two years. He took a business course in St. Louis. In 1869, he married Albinah Kinder. (Albinah’s uncle, Jacob J. Kinder, had been Adolphus’s captain in the 117th Illinois.) Adolphus and Albinah had five children. Adolphus explored several business enterprises before settling into banking. He retired as vice-president of the Bank of Edwardsville at the age of 92. He died June 16, 1935 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Letters grouped by year:

1862 | 1863 | 1864 | 1865

Adolphus Wolf’s Civil War letters include annotations by Hal A. Hamilton of Webster Groves, Missouri. Click here for a bibliography of Hamilton’s sources.

Two indexes to Adolphus Wolf’s letters:

Summary Index | Subject Index

Otto E. Wolf

Mustering date: 19 September 1862

Musician, Company F, 117th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

Otto Wolf, cap, and drum
Cabinet card photograph of Otto Wolf of Edwardsville, drummer boy for Company F of the 117th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. See below for more about Otto Wolf and links to his letters. The cap at the right is a Civil War cap worn by Christoph Schwarz of Edwardsville. Christoph was a musician in the Regimental Band of the 4th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry. The lyre on the front of the cap identifies the wearer as a musician. The drum shown was used by Francis M. Johnson of Alton during the Civil War. Francis served as the principal musician for Company F of the 32nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. MCHS photograph, MCHS object 1955-001-0001 (cap), and MCHS object 1967-052-0001 (drum).

Otto joined Company F, 117th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, at the same time as his older brother Adolphus (see above). He was mustered in as a musician (drummer boy) on September 19, 1862, at Camp Butler in Illinois. The 15-year-old was 5′-6″ tall with light hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion. He mustered out on August 5, 1865, in Springfield, Illinois.

After the war, Otto moved back in with his parents. He married Elizabeth Fiesler in 1873; they had seven children. Otto worked as a coal operator in 1880 and owned his own farm by 1900. He died on February 19, 1904, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Letters grouped by year:

1863 | 1864 | 1865

Two indexes to Otto Wolf’s letters:

Summary Index | Subject Index

James Kelley

Mustering date: 21 February 1864

Private, Company F, 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

James was born in King’s County (now County Offaly), Ireland. He lived in Alton, Illinois, when he joined the military. James was mustered in as a private on February 21, 1864, at Camp Butler in Illinois. The 5′-7″ tall 30-year-old laborer with hazel eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion was married to a woman named Mary. James’s letter indicates that the couple had more than one child when he enlisted.

James was wounded in the head at Allatoona, Georgia, on October 5, 1864. He was still in General Hospital in Springfield, Illinois, when the rest of Company F mustered out on July 9, 1865. James applied for an invalid pension on August 2, 1865. His service records note that he was part of the Veterans Reserve Corps, also known as the Invalid Corps. The Corps was composed of injured or ill servicemen no longer fit for active duty but able to serve in other ways. Census records suggest that James died sometime between 1867 and 1880.

Letter to wife dated February 8, 1864
Original, page 1 | Original, page 2 | Transcription

Certificate of muster
Original, front | Original, verso | Transcription

Ideas for Teachers (or anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the narratives)

Some relevant essential questions for students to explore:

  • How are people affected by war?
  • Why was the Civil War fought?

Possible classroom activities:

  • Compare personal accounts of battles to battle descriptions found in history books and discuss the differences. Click here for an index to battle descriptions in the featured narratives.
  • Assign a letter/diary/reminiscence excerpt to each student. Have the students conduct research to annotate the excerpt and then present their findings to the class. As each student presents their respective piece of the puzzle, a larger narrative will emerge for classroom discussion.
  • Map movements of a soldier spanning several letters or diary entries and calculate the distances traveled.
  • Compare accounts from different soldiers for the same time period and discuss how each soldier’s personal history and circumstances influence his war experience.

Sources for this article include United States federal decennial census records and the following additional sources: