The Civil War Diary
of Sidney George Fisher
Edited by Jonathan White
Fordham. 282 pp. $28 paper
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"Met Mr. Ryan on the road. He told me news had just come to town that the Republican Party had nominated a Mr. Lincoln for President. I never heard of him before," writes Sidney George Fisher in his diary on May 18, 1860. "It will calm many fears, allay much animosity and inspire hope of better times throughout the country, whoever Mr. Lincoln may be."
Sidney George Fisher was a member of Philadelphia's high society in the mid-19th century. He came from a wealthy family, hobnobbed with the merchant and banking aristocracy and, though not rich himself, spent his days as a gentleman farmer.
Fisher gave speeches to historical and agricultural organizations. He wrote books and pamphlets on the major political questions of his day, such as slavery and constitutional authority. Fisher was, as Samuel Johnson once said of Boswell (according to Boswell), "a very clubable man." Respectable, sociable and determined to make his mark (as long as he didn't have to break a sweat doing it).
Fisher, also like Boswell, kept a diary for most of his adult life. From 1834 until 1871 Fisher commented on the daily minutiae of his own life and of the society in which he lived. Only death halted his voluminous output: He died a mere three days after his last entry.
Unlike Boswell's, Fisher's diary is not filled with details of sexual encounters. While Boswell's journals would not seem out of place as a contemporary blog, with its author's private life splayed for all to see, Fisher writes with a precision and formality that suggest he hoped for readers in years to come. He was not merely taking notes for future writing projects. He was crafting an autobiography, in daily detail.
Fisher's diary has been a boon to historians of 19th-century America for some time. Nicholas B. Wainwright first edited and published a single-volume edition in 1967. This new one, edited by Jonathan White, is a reprinting of only the Civil War years from Wainwright's edition. White has not added any previously unpublished material, even though, as he notes in a preface, Wainwright only published "5 to 10 percent of the original diary." White adds that the Civil War years, in Fisher's own original format, "span some twenty-two volumes." Considering that White was only republishing a few years from the diary, couldn't he have added some extra material? Are there perhaps some salacious Boswellian moments that we don't know about?
From the first entry in this edition, on Jan. 1, 1860, Fisher crafts himself as a man apart. On not attending church service, he writes, "It is very well for the multitude to have a day consecrated to religious observances. . . . But for the thinking man, every day is Sunday, he sees the moral, the divine in truth, and truth governs every day and all things, the most common and familiar." He's not one of the rabble. This passage also suggests an iconoclastic distrust of organized religion.
The personal nature of a diary almost forces a reader to make emotional judgments about the subject, and I found myself disliking Fisher for much of the first year's entries. Longing for the aristocratic ways of yesteryear, lamenting the growing numbers of the uneducated, Fisher often comes off as a prig. But, in documenting the swirling events of the Civil War, Fisher evolves before your eyes. His views on slavery shift. He waxes philosophical. One day (March 13, 1861) he is viewing Barnum's exhibit of African and Central American natives, but can only see (like most of his time) "man in an arrested state of development." The very next day Fisher turns to metaphysical ruminations: "We thus die daily and yesterday is as much lost to me as the hour of my birth."
Most interesting is the development of Abraham Lincoln's reputation in Fisher's eyes. From the first mention, quoted above, Fisher is longing for a statesman to save his society from the mess slavery had gotten it into. And although, as a result of Lincoln's nomination, no fears were becalmed and those "better times" would come only after four years of bloody civil war, Fisher sees the light at the end of the dark tunnel, choosing to quote "the mystic chords of memory / better angels of our nature" part of Lincoln's first inaugural address. Lincoln's speeches gradually win him over and galvanize his commitment to the Union.
A melancholic tone, as Fisher nurses various ailments and mourns Lincoln's assassination, concludes these diary entries as if recording the final days of some lost America. The diary is, at times, an aristocratic idyll in which the classes are forever separate (and not at all equal), and at other times a place where Fisher can explore the ideas of his day and provide the reader with honest opinions. All in all, well worth reading.