William Elgin journal  1862-1864
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Collection Scope and Content Note

Though reflecting the paternalistic views of many of his progressive contemporaries, Elgin was genuinely concerned for the mental, moral, and physical well-being of the men in his regiment and was genuinely aware of the toll that racism and slavery had inflicted upon African-Americans. Most importantly, he considered it his duty to educate the soldiers, to teach them to read and write, before bringing them to religion. He considered the soldiers, at least in some respects, to be equal to whites, though suffering the effects of long oppression. "Some reflections upon the capacity and past disadvantages of the negroe race have today made new impressions upon my mind," he wrote, "respecting the possibility of bringing this people up to a high and satisfactory state of culture. And so strong is my faith in the practicability of these ideas that I feel assured some future day will witness the fullfillment of this opinion" (p. 69). Elgin's emphasis on education, respect and self-respect are felt throughout the journal.

Elgin's "journal", which, at least in part, may be an immediate post-war transcript, consists of five sections. In the first 10 leaves of the journal, he includes newspaper clippings relating to the performance of African American soldiers during the war. The first 9 clippings, dated July 28th, 1868 and following, comprise a serial publication, titled "Colored troops in the war," and are effectively an autobiographical account by Thomas J. Morgan, Col. of the 14th U.S. (Colored), of his experiences in becoming one of the first officers to raise and lead a Colored regiment in battle. Morgan's articles provide great insight into life in the 14th U.S.C.T., and are particularly valuable in understanding the recruitment of the 14th, 42nd, and 44th regiments, and the role of the 14th at the battles of Dalton, Pulaski, and Nashville. Five additional articles clipped between 1874-76, and laid in loosely to the front of the journal, concern books about Africa, freedmen, and James Walker's huge panoramic painting of the Battle Above the Clouds.

The second section of the journal is a transcription of a speech, titled "Discourse on Fast Day," apparently delivered by Elgin to the troops on August 4th, 1864. The address is an unusually direct and clear expression of the attitudes of a white officer in an African-American regiment. In the speech, Elgin discussed the themes of race and religious duty, arguing that African-American soldiers should be humble before God for His mercy, and grateful for the concern He showed to their race during their long years of oppression. He went on, however, to acknowledge the impact the decision to arm African-Americans had on the men, and, optimistically, to claim that "the manhood of your race has been fairly recognized and hereafter you are to take your place among the nations as a people worthy of respect" (p. 16). Typically for him, Elgin stressed the importance of education to freedmen, of freeing the intellect as well as the body.

The third section of the journal consists of a three pages dated 20 October, 1863, titled "Evidences of the truth of the Christian religion," in which Elgin set down arguments along rationalistic lines for the reality of the basis of Christian faith.

Fourth is the journal proper kept by Elgin while Chaplain of the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry, consisting of 43 pages of sporadic entries from November 10th, 1863, when he transferred to the 14th U.S.C.T. to December 7th, 1864, during the Franklin and Nashville Campaign. The entries, most of which are fairly brief, document Elgin's numerous duties as chaplain and teacher to the regiment -- as he put it, his attempts "to do my utmost toward the mental, moral and spiritual culture of the men" (p. 35) -- as well as the activities of the regiment in the field. The journal is particularly interesting for reflecting Elgin's own doubts about his abilities and the direction of his life. Simultaneously elated and frustrated by his attempts to bring education and religion to his men, and troubled by insecurities, Elgin somehow managed never to waver in his belief in the men themselves or the moral correctness of his duties. The journal takes on added significance in that the 14th U.S.C.T. was an unusually active "fighting" regiment, displaying unusual courage and discipline during the period of their service.

The last section of the journal is a 7 page memoir written by Elgin, describing his enlistment and service in the 70th Indiana. The interest in the memoir lies primarily in its detailed description of his attempts to garner a chaplaincy in the regiment, and of his thorough description of the duties and activities while acting as regimental postmaster.

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