Kinsearching October 16, 2005




Marleta Childs
P. O. Box 6825
LUBBOCK, TX 79493-6825


     Absorbing reading may be found in the new book FAR FROM HOME, THE DIARY OF LT. WILLIAM H. PEEL, 1863 - 1865 transcribed with additional material by Ellen S. Wilds. A Confederate soldier from northern Mississippi, William Peel gives a first-hand account of his experiences at Johnson's Island prison near Sandusky, Ohio.

     Twenty-five years old at the time of his capture at Gettysburg, Peel was sent in September 1863 to Johnson's Island prison where he died on February 17, 1865 and was buried "far from home." Though he would never leave the prison, his words live on in his diary, giving readers a true sense of the POW ordeal. A well-educated writer, he reports the constant struggle to survive, interactions among individuals, prison escapes, and attempts at prison escapes as well as incidents such as the Confederate aborted effort to capture the U.S.S. Michigan. Insight into daily life also comes through in his descriptions of such topics as the weather, his health, the items he crafted to sell, mail sent and received, and gardening. Perhaps Peel's most remarkable trait is his ability to couple humor with reality in every day events.

     Since Johnson's Island is a National Historic Landmark, the foreword is written by David R. Bush, chair of the not-for-profit organization Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island. Amazing in itself, Peel's diary becomes even more valuable when put in context by the additional material supplied by the transcriber. Her thirty-one pages of introductory data provide a brief background of William's family and details about his brother Eli Peel, also a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg who may have been killed there; a picture of William (Eli's picture appears elsewhere in the narrative); notes on transcription; photographs and brief biographical sketches of presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis; maps; and photographs and brief biographical sketches of the commanders mentioned in the diary.

     To add further meaning to the diary's entries, Wilds furnishes explanatory footnotes; short articles on historical settings (including the Civil War "urban legend" of Anna PICKENS, a fictional daughter of South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens); photographs of the Gettysburg battlefield and monuments; illustrations of prison compounds; reproductions of Civil War letters; and photographs of tombstones and a watch fob created by William while in prison. Following her transcription of the diary, Wilds provides a "roll call" consisting of short biographical sketches about various individuals mentioned in the diary and appendices concerning an evaluation of the diary, Peel family military records, and an outline of William's PEEL genealogy. A bibliography and an index complete the volume.

     Since so many people interested in the Civil War will want to read this fascinating and profusely annotated book, FAR FROM HOME, THE DIARY OF LT. WILLIAM H. PEEL, 1863 - 1865 will be a valuable addition to library holdings. The 392-page paperback may be ordered for $39 postpaid from Pioneer Publishing Co., P.O. Box 408, Carrollton, MS 38917 (phone 662-237-6010).

     A good website for information about this famous American conflict and its participants is the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System found at Categories in which you can search are soldiers, sailors, regiments, battle summaries, cemeteries, prisoners, recipients of Medals of Honor, and Civil War related sites in the National Park Service.

     These broad categories offer more details than their names may imply. For example, after typing in a specific soldier's name (or just a surname), you get the person's name (or listing of everyone with that surname), whether he fought on the Confederate or Union side, function (such as cavalry or artillery), and regimental name. By clicking on the person's name, you pull up additional details of his service and source of information; by clicking on his regiment's name, you can pull up additional facts such as its activities during the war and the source of the data. You can even pull up a roster of everyone who belonged to that particular regiment.

     If you are sure your ancestor fought in the war but you cannot find him listed, be aware that Civil War service records are not complete. You should also be aware that you may need to use his initials instead of his full given name to locate his record. In addition, you may have to try alternate spellings (like WHITTENTON for WHITTINGTON) because not all entries are cross-referenced. An entry for William's brother "Elie" H. PEEL, for instance, does not show an alternate spelling; however, the entry for Eli PELL states "Eli" H. PEEL is an alternate version.

     Since new information will be uploaded periodically, you may want to check again later on. For example, the current list of sailors only indexes African-Americans but will eventually include others. Although the Park Service plans to list burials in the national cemeteries of all Civil War participants, only the records and images of the headstones for Poplar Grove National Cemetery at Petersburg, VA, are currently available. The burial records furnish details like grave number, date of death, and original burial place.

     At present, the "Prisoners" section only has records from two Civil War prisons: Fort McHenry (Confederate soldiers) and Andersonville (Union soldiers). According to FAR FROM HOME, William H. Peel was incarcerated for a brief time at Fort McHenry before being transferred to Johnson's Island. On the website his prison record there appears under the alternate name William PELL.

     Besides POWs, civilians were sometimes jailed for political reasons after Lincoln issued the controversial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1861. These civilians included state legislators and newspaper owners and editors. An example of a political prisoner is William S. WHITTINGTON of Somerset Co., MD. In addition to providing his place of residence, the material furnishes the date of registration, date of disposition, and place of deposition (in Whittington's case as a political prisoner, he was released; in William Peel's case as a POW, he was sent to Johnson's Island).