The Harry A. Simmons journal contains 58 pages of entries, and his sketchbook includes 117 individual sketches on 57 pages. The journal, which is entitled "Journal of a Cruise on the U.S. Schr. 'Sophronia'," contains lengthy and informative entries covering December 30, 1861-July 30, 1862. Simmons sent it home in several parts to his wife, in order to keep her abreast his activities and wartime experiences. The journal describes Simmons' adjustment to life on the sea, his duties on the ship, various locales in Florida and Mississippi, and several naval engagements, including participation in the New Orleans and Vicksburg campaigns.
Early entries reflect Simmons' initiation into life on the sea and his interest in the marine life that he and his shipmates encountered. On February 7, 1862, he wrote that he lacked "acquired or even instinctive 'sea larnin'," but noted the "fine qualities" of the Sophronia . A few days later, he described fishing for kingfish and seeing dolphins, coral, and sponges from the ship (February 11, 1862). He also described the hardships of life on the sea, including the sky-high prices of produce, eggs, and milk, which the sailors bought from sea-faring merchants (June 10, 1862); the dangers caused by drunken shipmates (February 19, 1862; March 15, 1862); and several outbreaks of illness. In another entry, he noted that he was glad to see a group of dolphins because they made good food, but unlike his shipmates, refused to eat sharks because he held a "prejudice" against them (July 27, 1862).
Simmons also wrote entries concerning the Sophronia's movements and engagements. On February 19, 1862, he noted that "gradually our end of the harbour is filling up" as the ships gathered to form a mortar flotilla under Captain David Dixon Porter near Key West, Florida. On their way west, the crew captured a southern ship with 400 bales of cotton and took a frightening-looking prisoner onboard (March 16, 1862). Around this time, Simmons also noted an overwhelming feeling among his shipmates that "we are the victims of a system of poor generalship" and commented that many of them spoke of resigning from the service (March 23, 1862). By the time the Sophronia reached the Mississippi River, engagements became increasingly common. On April 16, 1862, Simmons described a Confederate "fire raft," which had been filled with combustibles and sent downstream "to drift against our vessels & if possible encircle some of them in a warm embrace." Several days later, he gave an account of the bombardment of Forts St. Philip and Jackson, noting the glow in the sky from widespread burning and estimating that the flotilla had fired a total of 2000 shells (April 18, 1862). The next day, he described seeing a shell hit the Winona and several men die from the explosion. Simmons also described his participation in the Siege of Vicksburg, including rumors of raging fires (June 28, 1862), skirmishes and picket fighting (July 2, 1862), and his being constantly on guard. On July 6, 1862, he noted that he had grown so accustomed to the sound of firing that he no longer noticed it.
Simmons gave detailed descriptions of a number of locales. On March 21, 1862, he described Pilottown, Louisiana, as generally deserted, but noted that one house contained a family claiming to be loyal to the Union. Shortly after the bombardment of Fort Jackson, he and a few other officers were able to observe the wreck of Fort Jackson, which he called the "most terrible destruction." On a second visit to Ship Island, Mississippi, he noted that it had grown, with many new storehouses, workshops, and hospital sheds (May 8, 1862).
The diary also provides insight into the duties of a surgeon's steward and the medical issues that arose onboard the Sophronia . These included the difficulty of obtaining certain kinds of medicines (February 16, 1862), the problem of treating outbreaks of illnesses (July 13, 1862), and a description of a funeral and the burial of a sailor at sea, wrapped in his hammock (July 22, 1862). By July 29, 1862, Simmons noted that 15 of the 32 crew members, including himself, had become ill and he reluctantly tendered his resignation and went to the hospital. The diary closes with an entry noting that he had arrived at home with his family and that he hoped "to recover my lost health" (August 26, 1862).
Accompanying the journal is Simmons' sketchbook, containing 57 pages and 117 individual pencil and watercolor sketches. Subjects include ships he encountered, military activities, southern scenery, sailors, civilians, and buildings. The locations that Simmons drew include plantations and homes in Baton Rouge, numerous views of Vicksburg, Fort Adams, and the U.S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. In several drawings, he depicted African Americans, including a contraband escaping from Vicksburg by riding a log down the Mississippi, a dog and a soldier playing together (labeled "Cuffee & Sambo"), a man in a sailor suit, and a group of women laundering clothes over a fire in Baton Rouge. Simmons also drew numerous military scenes, frequently teeming with detail. He depicted "fire rafts," a shelling by the Union Navy, the Sophronia "in fighting costume," an interior view of Fort Jackson, and the entrance to Fort St. Philip. Pasted into the sketchbook is a printed version of a sketch by Simmons, entitled "Attack on Vicksburg, Miss., by the Gun Boats and Mortar Fleet…"