Through the Storms: The John G. Slover Diary, Ed. by Glenn Starkey
A few weeks back I received an advance copy of Through the Storms: The John G. Slover Diary, edited by Glenn Starkey and published by the Alvin Museum Society. I was honored to be asked to review it before publication, and now that it’s available publicly, I’m glad to be able to say a few words about it.
John Slover, a native of Athens, New York, was 29 years old when he enlisted in the Third Wisconsin Cavalry shortly after New Year’s Day 1864. In civilian life he appears to have worked a variety of trades, including logging and as a carpenter. At the time of his enlistment, John and his wife, Mary, had two daughters and one son. They lived for a time in Missouri, before returning to Wisconsin in the latter part of 1861, possibly to get away from the violence that racked that border state during the war. He served in the cavalry for 22 months before being mustered out at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on October 27, 1865. John remained in Kansas after the war, before moving to West Columbia, Texas, in 1884. He moved to Alvin, a rural community southwest of Houston, in 1900. He died there in 1923, at the age of 89.
Through the Storms is an unusual book for a couple of reasons. There are many memoirs written by Civil War soldiers, North and South, but the vast majority of those were written years or decades after the last echoes of gunfire faded. Those memoirs are useful because they record the memories of those men in their later years, after they had had time to think about their experiences and reflect on them. Those later memoirs often carry with them a maturity and even sense of humor (e.g., Val Giles’ Rags and Hope) that probably would have been lost on those same men in their youth. John Slover’s diary, by contrast, is exactly that — a diary, with notations recorded in real time as the events happened. As with many participants in historical events, Slover did not have much sense of the “big picture” of the actions in which he was an active player, but instead he has left us with his impressions of the moment, writing about the things that he found most interesting or unusual or noteworthy. His diary is unpolished and a bit sporadic, with quirky spelling and punctuation, but it retains a clarity and immediacy that is often lacking in soldiers’ memoirs written long after the event.
The other thing that makes Slover’s diary unusual is that the bulk of his service in the Third Wisconsin Cavalry was spent out west, where his Regiment spent their time fighting both Indians and Confederate guerrillas. (If Slover did move his family out of Missouri to get away from the violence there, there’s a certain irony that the Army sent him right back to that same part of the country to fight some of the same people who might have prompted him to leave in the first place.) It’s easy to forget, when looking at the larger conflagration of the American Civil War, that the low intensity, long-running conflict on the western frontier never ended. In fact, in some places like Minnesota and Texas, conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers actually became more violent during the war years, as military outposts were shut down and their garrisons sent east.
The entries in Slover’s diary reflect many of the common prejudices of his day, but interestingly he does not engage in the same sort of mockery when it comes to Confederates he encountered during his military service. In March 1865 he noted in his diary that a group of 800 former Confederate soldiers, prisoners who had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States (i.e., “galvanized”) had camped nearby on their way to reinforce military outposts on the frontier. Slover called them “Union Rebels” and noted in his diary that they “were a fine looking lot of men as any one would wish to see.”
Most of Slover’s entries in the diary are plain and a little detached, simply describing events of the day as a sort of chronicle. But as Editor Starkey notes, there were occasions when Slover really opened up, particularly when he described his first buffalo hunt in September 1864 (spelling and punctuation original):
They were on a hill inclineing to the North and we wre in the valley. The only arms we had were Revolvers, so we had to approach them closely before we could do much with them. Drawing my Pistol, and shouting to the men to come on, I dashed spurs in my Horse and away down the valley I flew, knowing if they kept there course over the hill when I last saw them, that we would meet at the lower point of the hill. My horse had not yet seen them, and was with his long lope, brining me rapidly to the foot of the hill. Presently, on turning to the left I found myself within forty feet of them
It was the first time I had ever seen a Buffalo and my feelings cannot be described, as I gazed on those huge animals, rumbling along with their awkward gait. My blood passed through my veins with a pleasing sensation & I became insensible to every thing but what was transpireing before me. Falling a little to the rear so I might have them on my sight hand, I urged my Horse to within ten feet of them. I now directed my whole attention to the hindmost one, a large Bull. Urgeing my Horse a little closer I fired at his broadside and missed him
They now increased their speed, On we went, down in a deep ditch, my Horse conducting himself handsomely. As we rose from it I prepared again to fire. Approaching a little closer I pulled the trigger.
A sample page from Slover’s diary.
In editing Slover’s diary, Starkey chose to transcribe the work exactly as written. This would impose a real chore on the reader in some cases, trying to decipher the original author’s meaning, but Slover wrote clearly and concisely enough that this does not present a challenge in his case. (Nothing is known of Slover’s educational background, but he clearly had more than basic literacy.) Starkey also chose to organize the book with the complete, uninterrupted text of Slover’s diary – about 60% of the total work — up front, without any annotations or contextual explanations describing the larger events happening around Slover and the Third Wisconsn Cavalry. Instead, Starkey includes an extended essay following the text of Slover’s diary, that provides both a biography of Slover and limited discussion of the conflict in Kansas and the West in 1864-65. This is probably not the way I would have approached telling Slover’s story, but there’s probably no ideal way seamlessly to integrate Slover’s account and traditional historical narrative as background without one interrupting the other.
So who should read this book? I think it will be of interest to anyone interested in the operations of cavalry in the West during the war, as well as events in Kansas and Missouri during that period. It’s an unusual book, a diary written contemporaneously with the events described, and would make a good addition to many a Civil War or Western library. Through the Storms is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from the Alvin Museum Society, 300 West Sealy, Alvin, TX, (281) 331-4469.