Listening to ghosts

I’ve been reading the diary of Benjamin Gilbert, who was an American soldier for the entire Revolution. Most of the diary is filled with one or two line entries about the weather.

May 1778
the 3rd Sunday. Fair Pleasant day.
the 5th Fair and Clear.
the 6th. Fair.
the 7th. Clear and warm.

You get the gist.

Then there are the entries about his health. He may well have been suffering pellagra or beriberi because of vitamin deficiencies, as well as thrush.

November 1778
the 11th I am not so well this Day.
the 12th I had a Very sick Fitt and Puking.
the 13th I am Very Poorly this Day.
the 14th I was Very Poorly in the forenoon

His illness continued.

December 1778
the 25th Christmas. Very Cold. I am still Poorly. At Night snowed.

It’s not all weather and pukes, however. He was long stationed on the Hudson River and talks about standing guard, preparing for attack, and punishments for soldiers.

August 1778
the 17 This Morning one Smith formally Belonging to Colo Greatons Regt [regiment] was Shot to Death for Desertion and Inlisting severall times.

March 1779
Richard Ford of Capt Goodales Compy [company] was Whipped 30 Lashes for selling his shirt.

And a few interesting action/consequence sequences

May 1778
the 9th At Nigt. Serjt. Cook got home his whiskey and we kept it up very High. [i.e. they partied all night long]
the 10th Serjt Cook Got under Guard [arrested] for Selling Liquor.

I could go on and on, but I wanted to give you a flavor of some of the primary sources I read when I’m working on a historical novel. So far, I have not found any scenes in Gilbert’s diary that I want to borrow from for my novel, but I am adopting several of his phrases and medicinal remedies.

If you’re interested in reading the diary yourself, ask your librarian to track down a copy of  A Citizen-Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Benjamin Gilbert in Massachusetts and New York. Edited by Rebecca D. Symmes, pub. The New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1980.

11 Replies to “Listening to ghosts”

  1. I’ve read a handful of diaries of Civil War soldiers (North and South) and parts of Mary Chestnut’s diary.

    I’ve also read several diaries of pioneers and their travels across the plains to Oregon or California.

    I love firsthand accounts of history. And while many entries may be mundane (it snowed today), diaries are one of the few ways we have for understanding our history from a personal POV.

  2. For Jane’s research, I rely on a heavy (expensive) book called The Chronology of Austen, which covers more than just Jane Austen and her immediate family, including lots of cousins and friends and neighbors as well. Some of the interesting bits have come from entries in pocketbooks by family and neighbors, reporting on massive snow and ice storms, on highwaymen in the neighborhood, etc.

    The killer? Knowing Jane kept them, but her sister seems to have destroyed them all – and her own as well. Oh the tales those pocketbooks could have told us!

  3. I’ve got A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Plumb Martin. It is a memoir written when he was 70. Haven’t read it yet. I mostly read war memoirs and diaries, since my main interest has been PTSD and there is always evidence of it if you look. I will have to get this one, too, since the Revolutionary War ones seem uncommon.
    I love your historical fiction. You aren’t afraid to tell the truth and show the trauma for what it is: common. Speak, too, and Catalyst.
    All the best.

  4. Another rave for Joseph Plum Martin. The History Channel has a 13-hr series called “Revolution” that quotes from his journal all the way through – by the end of the war you feel you really know him, and through him, the war, so much more vividly.

    And about Gilbert’s diary, I didn’t know “puking” went back that far. “A Very Sick Fitt and Puking” sounds like a perfect YA title.

  5. The OED lists the first written reference in 1601, in an English translation of Pliny, “It helpeth them that puke vp choler.”

    OED also says “related to Dutch spugen to spit, to vomit” or “German spucken to spew, spit”

    “Pukishness”is found as early as 1581.

  6. Great-grandfather’s diary

    One of my family’s treasures is the diary kept by my great-grandfather during the Spanish-American war. Much of it is like the entries you listed above. What I found so interesting about it is that the early entries are more detailed, talking about some of the men in his regiment and the sight-seeing they did when they first got to Manilla. As the war dragged on, and illness took its toll, the entries got more terse and infrequent and the handwriting became harder to read. I could just see him starting off on his grand adventure only to become more and more exhausted as time went on. I guess soldier’s diaries are much the same no matter which war they are in.

  7. Thanks for the history on puke. I love reading through the roots of words in dictionaries, and I’m subscribed to’s daily vocab, but that site and the dictionary I have don’t include dates.

    Just looked up the OED on Amazon – do you have the 20 volume set, the magnifying glass version, or the software?

  8. I have a monthly subscription to the online version. One of my fantasies is to own the whole enchilada – complete with magnifying glass.

  9. And another thumbs-up for Joseph Plumb Martin, from me.

    I wonder if anyone has thought to do a website pulling in accounts of the weather from various historical sources so there would be a way of comparing them. Like on one of those days, you could look at this guy’s “very cold” and see that on the same date 150 miles away it was measured at 7 degrees. Rather like the date-converters and currency-converters that tell what that’s worth in modern money.

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