TERRE HAUTE, Indiana — For some reason, John E. Wilkins carried a pocket notebook and pen, writing down his experiences as a Union soldier, day after day, from the onset of the Civil War until its conclusion.
His service helped preserve a nation. His decision to keep a diary preserved history.
Wilkins, himself, deserves to be remembered. And he will be.
This Saturday, nearly 150 years after he documented the war's final chapter, a new headstone at Wilkins' grave will be dedicated during a noon ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, his hometown. The "amateur historian" who researched the life of a clerk-turned-soldier will tell Wilkins' story at a lecture Friday night in the Vigo County Public Library.
"I love this story," said Mark Meyer, who will speak on "John E. Wilkins, Ready and Able: A Hoosier's Civil War" from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday in Rooms A, B and C of the library.
Civil War diaries by soldiers were not uncommon. A diary such as Wilkins' was rare, though, because it chronicles the entire course of the war, right down to the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the Tribune-Star reported (http://bit.ly/1ztCtg2 ). Wilkins' words also give an unvarnished view of the combat.
Wilkins' diary captivated Meyer. The Fort Wayne retiree began transcribing handwritten documents as a volunteer at the Allen County Public Library, which houses the John E. Wilkins Collection and the rest of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. Wilkins wrote daily entries during the war in field diaries, small pocket notebooks.
Only one of his field diaries survives; it is kept at the Allen County library, said Jane Gastineau, its Lincoln librarian. Nonetheless, in 1911 — months before he died at age 75 — Wilkins transcribed all four years of his wartime notes into his "Civil War Diary," and that hardbound compilation now highlights the Fort Wayne library's Lincoln-era documents.
Meyer started reading it a year and a half ago. "I just got wrapped up in his diary," he said Tuesday, "and by him."
Wilkins was a 25-year-old Vigo County deputy clerk and Terre Haute volunteer firefighter at the brink of the Civil War. His military service began as a member of the Vigo Guards, Indiana's most highly regarded militia, in the late 1850s. That militia offered its services to the U.S. Army before the war — most likely the first in the country to do so, Meyer explained. Wilkins wound up serving under memorable Union leaders, from an initial three-month stint in Col. Lew Wallace's 11th Indiana Regiment (nicknamed "Wallace's Zouaves") to suiting up for Gens. William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. Wilkins fought on 24 different battlefields, including Shiloh, Fort Donelson and Red River. He climbed to the rank of lieutenant, and became an adjutant (a commander's assistant).
Throughout, he wrote about what he saw. With access to the leaders, Wilkins presented a unique perspective of the war.
"There's a certain depth to his diary, where he had more information than a regular soldier would have," Meyer said. Yet, Wilkins served in the trenches. Thus, his descriptions of the fighting are vivid. That includes the Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862 at Tennessee. For Grant and the Union, the victory was pivotal. And bloody.
Wilkins "has some pretty graphic detail of that battle," Meyer said. At Fort Donelson, Union soldiers slept in the February cold without blankets. In his diary, Wilkins "talked about marching in mud up to his knees and slept in tents with an inch or two of water," Meyer added. "It's pretty amazing."
Though prolific, Wilkins' writing contains little embellishment. "It just tells the events of the day," Meyer said.
"The best parts of the diary are the ones that talk about what the daily life of a soldier was then," Meyer continued. "It was something I can't imagine enduring for even a week."
In a speech last fall about Wilkins, Meyer read a battlefield story from the diary. Lines of confederate soldiers assembled in an open field, while Union cannoneers and soldiers prepared. The anxiety felt in the brief silence beforehand "was awful," Wilkins wrote. "But at last, the signal was given — a single cannon shot answered by the roar of 10,000 muskets and 24 pieces of artillery. The effect of that awful exchange was terrible. Almost the whole line of the first rebel line was swept out of existence, and great gaps could be seen in the second line. It is estimated that one-thousand of the enemy fell at that fire."
When Lincoln died April 15, 1865, of an assassin's bullet, Wilkins' diary reflected the soldiers' stunned grief "and how everybody was so angry that they were so close to victory when Lincoln's life was taken," Meyer said.
Wilkins had enlisted for duty because "he was very intent on preserving the Union," Meyer said. "Our country was close to falling apart, and if he and others had not done what they did, hard telling what this country would be today."
Once the fighting ceased, Wilkins returned to Terre Haute, working as a farmer. Too often, such people's stories get overwhelmed by the legends of Roosevelts and Grants, Meyer said. After reading the diary, Meyer wanted to snap a picture of Wilkins' grave in Terre Haute to display at his historical lecture in Fort Wayne last year. "When I got (to the cemetery), there was no stone," he said. It had apparently broken off years earlier. A few inches of dirt covered its remaining base at Woodlawn, a 44-acre facility that opened in 1835.
Working with Roxe Anne Kesner, clerk for the City of Terre Haute cemeteries, Meyer successfully applied for a military stone through the Veterans Administration. It was installed this month atop Wilkins' grave, which sits near those of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Kesner — a student of the city cemeteries' history, herself — appreciates the tenacity of Meyer, who she said also paid for the stone's foundation.
"Always remembering our past and our history is one of the most important things we can do," Kesner said.
Wilkins understood that, too.
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com
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