Wallace B. King
The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet Elizabeth Croon. El Dorado Hill, CA: Savas Beatie, 2018, xxxviii + 442 pages, $34.95.
Last year saw the publication of this most unusual book that should appeal to many students of the American Civil War and of Southern Presbyterianism, but also to those who have an interest in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is largely comprised of a diary written by LeRoy Wiley Gresham, beginning in 1860 when he was only twelve years old, and continuing up to a few days before his death at the age of seventeen in 1865. Included in the collection of the US Library of Congress, after being donated by the family in the 1980s, the diary has been edited by Janet Elizabeth Croon, who has provided copious notes that help the reader to keep track of the many persons mentioned and events recounted in the diary. Croon’s footnotes assist the reader in making sense of diary entries that are often filled with inaccuracies stemming from the proverbial fog of war. In addition, the publisher has provided a helpful introduction, a medical forward and afterward, and LeRoy’s obituary.
The Greshams were a prominent slave-owning family living in Macon, Georgia. LeRoy, no doubt being raised to one day assume the duties of a proper Southern gentleman, is an older brother of Mary “Minnie” Gresham, mother of J. Gresham Machen. At the age of eight, LeRoy’s left leg is crushed when a chimney collapses on him. Shortly thereafter, he is apparently diagnosed as having pulmonary tuberculosis, which evolves into spinal tuberculosis, or Pott’s Disease. The events chronicled in the book begin in June 1860 with LeRoy and his father, John Gresham, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Macon, traveling to Philadelphia to seek medical help. LeRoy’s entry of Genesis 31:49 on the first page of his diary as he is about to begin his trip north elicits a footnote from editor Croon that “the Gresham family was very religious.” Indeed.
LeRoy is a voracious reader of just about anything he can get his hands on: history, the classics, theology, forgettable novels, and newspapers. Books are his window on the world. LeRoy’s own writing develops in sophistication and insight as he grows older, though from the beginning to the end he writes in a fairly matter-of-fact manner about the daily minutia he chronicles, an amusing mix of the mundane and trivial with matters of lasting national significance. One senses the increasing excitement in the diary entries as the expected outbreak of hostilities between North and South draws closer and LeRoy’s optimism concerning the success of the Southern cause in the early years of the war, which finally turns to grudging acceptance that the secessionist project is doomed to failure.
LeRoy regularly writes about what is happening at the church: pastor visits, who is ill on a given Sunday and must stay home, sermon texts, pulpit swaps following meetings of presbytery, and so on. Sadly, from the very beginning of the diary LeRoy is already unable to attend public worship due to his fragile health. In October of 1864, Minnie is received into communicant membership during the morning worship service, and the pastor and elders come to the Gresham home following evening worship to receive Leroy as well. There is no Lord’s Supper given to him, however, as everyone was “too busy” to remember to bring the elements. Just two months before his death, Leroy writes that he hopes that one day he will be able to “go to church long enough to have [the] privilege” of receiving communion. Prayer meetings increase in frequency as the war turns increasingly against the Confederacy, with special services and days of fasting also noted. When the Northern army occupies Macon, LeRoy expresses regret that he had not “kept Sunday right” because he spent too much time watching the troops march past the Gresham home.
As the war drags on, Leroy becomes increasingly skeptical of the overly optimistic official pronouncements, and he does not hold back in his criticisms of various politicians and generals. His growing realization that the war is not going well roughly corresponds to despair over his inevitable physical deterioration. A warning to the gentle reader: Leroy is usually rather explicit when describing his symptoms. But it is his growing sense of hopelessness in his condition that makes for increasingly difficult reading. And none is more heart-rending than the letter from Leroy’s mother to her sister shortly after Leroy’s death. Her grief is simply overwhelming as she recounts Leroy’s final moments, his quoting of Scripture, expression of confidence in his Savior, and exhortation of his older brother Thomas to “give himself to Christ.”
This book is by no means a “feel good” read, but I can recommend it without reservation; fascinating in so many ways on multiple levels, it is the most engrossing book I’ve read in quite some time.
Wallace B. King is a ruling elder at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia, and serves on the Committee on Christian Education. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2019.