The story begins with an explanation. He will be spending months, possibly years, away from his family and friends. It will be a life on the move, a life of prolonged periods of boredom punctuated with sprinklings of terror.

It will be the life of a Civil War soldier, and he wants to capture his experiences as a soldier in words, perhaps to serve in his stead should he be killed. In an almost mundane acknowledgment that he could die at any time, he wrote on the inside cover of the diary that they should be sent to his wife in Saegertown.

George Spitler was a Crawford County resident on Sept. 18, 1863, when he enlisted in the Union Army to help put down the Southern rebellion, and so begins one of two diaries in which he catalogues his thoughts and experiences as a soldier, and his post-war times as record keeper for oil companies and the manager of a family farm.

These diaries were recently donated to the Crawford County Historical Society by Spitler’s grandson, Meadville resident Don Leberman, and they’re available to the public for review.



A window to the past

Leberman never knew his grandfather — he died eight years before Leberman was born — but the diaries have given him an insight into the man.

This much he knew: Spitler was born in 1840 in Bemistown, which was south of Saegertown. He was a religious man, a Lutheran, and believed in a solid education. “Grandpa insisted the children be well-educated,” Leberman said. Spitler was a teacher and apparently only completed a few years at Allegheny College when he enlisted, Leberman said. Shortly thereafter he married his wife, Fanny.

Spitler’s learning and more showed through in the diaries, society officer Anne Stewart said. “He wrote this almost as though he was writing it for publication. He was remarkably literate,” writing hundreds of letters home.

His discharge papers provide a picture of the man: He was 25 years old when he left the military on May 20, 1865. He was 5-feet, 7-inches tall with brown eyes, black hair and a dark complexion. He rose to the rank of corporal in Co. K of the 76th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment after having served in various campaigns in Virginia.

“Mentally, he was very disciplined,” Stewart said. For example, she recounted how he recorded being shot in May 1864. “He is so matter-of-fact about it,” she said, reciting the passage: “I was wounded today at 7 o’clock a.m. through the groin. I could not walk after. I was carried off on a stretcher by two men I never can forget. I was carried 10 miles before my wound was dressed.”

Later, he continued: “I was put under a tree and laid out all night. I suffered middling severely. The ride was pretty rough. My wound pained me pretty bad.”

Stewart noted the wound apparently shattered his pelvis, because doctors continued to pick bits of bone from the wound for days, and the only treatment for the wound was to occasionally lance it. He was in three different military hospitals, suffering an infection from the wound that apparently haunted him for the rest of his life.

He was discharged while still convalescing, apparently at the request of his family so they could nurse him back to health, Leberman said.



Everyday life

But it wasn’t just military life that Spitler recorded. They included a recipe for coating silver, a note that he bought soap and potatoes. “He kept records of everything,” Stewart said. “It’s a very interesting mixture” of internal feelings, family life and even social commentary.

After the war, he returned to the area, taking a job in Pithole keeping records for oil companies and making a “fairly decent living” running the farm, though he couldn’t actively participate in it due to his wound. He died in 1912.



A sense of duty:

Like grandfather, like grandson

Leberman said Spitler’s motivation for enlisting was simple. “I think he thought it was his duty.” Stewart agreed. “This is not patriotic fervor. This was something that needed to be done.”

Still, “He was probably not really comprehending what he was getting into,” Stewart said, and Leberman added, “I think he was surprised to find a different kind of life existed outside of Meadville.”

Like his grandfather, Leberman attended Allegheny College. He then became a teacher and served in World War II and the Korean War. And, like his grandfather, he feels Spitler’s experiences should be preserved for posterity.

He said the pair of roughly 4-by-6-inch black leather-bound diaries were sent to him about a decade ago by a cousin, and he’s decided to give them to the society because “that’s where they belong.”

“You could read a book about it, but this is actually what happened,” Leberman said. “I grew up when the Civil War people were still living. They would have parades. It was really something.”

But today, without those connections and other ways to bring the Civil War era to life, these diaries may spark more interest in learning about the era.

“It’s very important for what it shows about the people at the time, the family connections, the care given Civil War soldiers. It’s a real insight into what these soldiers faced in the Civil War,” Stewart said.



Gary Johnson can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at gjohnson@meadvilletribune.com

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