In 1961, after moving from Minnesota to New York City, a singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan was looking for a deeper perspective on America’s past. He found it at the archives of the New York Public Library. In one of the rooms on its upper floors, Dylan read through 100-year-old newspapers on microfilm. His interest was the Civil War.
Dylan wanted a sense of the daily life and culture of the period. In his memoir Chronicles, Dylan states he wasn’t looking for issues but was “intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times.” In studying those times, he found the “full complexity of human nature” but still wondered how “such people united by geography and religion can become bitter enemies.” Dylan wrote, “Back then, America was put on the cross, sacrificed and resurrected,” and “there was nothing synthetic about it.” By “resurrected,” Dylan did not mean cleansed. One only has to look at the news today to see that America is still divided on many levels. Dylan reveals that the complexity of those times would serve as the “all-encompassing template for everything [he] would write.”1
Dylan does not say whether he looked at any other contemporary sources, like letters or journals, but it’s likely he did. Daily journals, depending on how they’re maintained, can provide valuable insight into the period. One such journal that Dylan unfortunately wouldn’t have had access to at the time is one written by Horace Purdy, a hatter and resident of Danbury, Connecticut. The Danbury Museum received Purdy’s journals on microfilm reels in 1965 as a gift from the Danbury News-Times. They include daily entries from 1860 to 1870 and from 1900 to 1905. It’s not clear why there is a 30-year gap in the journals. If Purdy continued writing during that gap, the journals were not made public. The microfilm images are fairly clear but can be a slow read. Fortunately, library volunteers, through a program at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), have digitized the microfilm for easier public use. The microfilm and transcriptions are available at the Haas Library’s Warner Archives.
For fifteen years, and likely more, Horace Purdy methodically wrote down everything he did each day: what he did at work, what he planted in his garden, his purchases, his visits to church and the market, his attendance at meetings, and so much more. In year two of these journals, Purdy was recruited to fight in the Civil War, and his entries continued.
Purdy’s journals have something for everyone. Garden enthusiasts would enjoy reading about Horace in the garden planting cloves or grafting apple trees. Food preservers could read about Horace bringing apples and potatoes down to the cellar or changing his brine on the beef.2 Weather watchers would enjoy Horace’s daily weather reports, including a few references to “equinoctial” storms. A photographer might be interested in the 25-cent ambrotype photos or the daguerreotype photos Horace took of himself and his family.3 Painters and ecologists would note with interest the entry about 100 pounds of white lead and five pounds of oil Horace bought to paint his house. Collectors of old words and phrases would like phrases such as “wasn’t enough rain to dry the dust,” “tow stoves,” and “salt junk.”4 Civil War buffs would enjoy the December and January accounts of 1860 and 1861 that give daily updates on happenings at Fort Sumter, including false accounts of President Buchanan’s resignation.5, 6
Although he usually just reports his daily activities without edification, now and then Horace’s views surface. For example, as the Civil War becomes inevitable, Horace has strong words for both President Buchanan and the South Carolinians—they are both called “traitors” to the country. In his March 4, 1861, entry, Horace reports that “Honest Ole Abe” will be inaugurated today, but Horace forebodingly adds, “…if the Southerners have not murdered him.”7
But it’s not only remote events that evoke his opinions. Throughout the years, Horace reports on several fires in Danbury as matter-of-fact events, but one fire in a restaurant brings out the temperance spirit in Horace. He writes, “I was glad to see it burn for it was one of the worst places in town. Drinking, gambling and other vices have been carried on there on a large scale. It is undoubtedly a good thing for Danbury that it has been burned.”8
However, Horace typically left out his passions and opinions, and I see this faithful recording of activities and events as the true value of this diary. It puts what are often sold as historical moments into true perspective. As noted earlier, Horace mentioned Lincoln’s inauguration in March of 1861, but that was Horace’s only reference to the president the entire month. Horace had plenty of other things on his mind. According to his entries, during that same month, he worked in the hat shop every day, attended church, buried his dog Trip under a pear tree, purchased a pair of pants, painted his upstairs room, weathered several snowstorms, shoveled snow, attended Sunday school prayer meetings, bottled cider, bought ten bushels of coal, attended drills, and had tea with friends and relatives.9 Certainly, elections are important, but Horace reminds us that we still have work to do. We still must forge our own way, find food, and care for our loved ones.
Purdy was around twenty-five years old when he started his diaries. He was married to Augusta—he calls her Gussie—and they had two children. From his entries, one can see that he was an active member of the community. He worked in a hatter’s shop, was treasurer of the Sunday school teachers union, attended church, and visited friends regularly. A lodger of his, Father Griswold, was a good friend and they helped each other on odd jobs in the garden and around the house. Horace also regularly attended drill meetings as he was a member of the Wooster Guards. The group was called to serve for the Union at the outset of the Civil War. In his diary entries, Horace kept close tabs on his budget, reporting his Pahquioque factory income and seemingly all of his expenses.10
In April of 1861, Purdy looked for other economic opportunities, and he seemed ready to buy into a clothes-drying business, but national events got in the way. On April 16, 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from states “adhering to the Union.”11 Purdy and the other Wooster Guards joined the Connecticut 1st Regiment and spent three months in Virginia. He saw action at the Battle of Bull Run, before joining the retreat by Union forces. The day of the battle, July 21, was the last day of his enlistment. He and the other three-month volunteers made their way home to Connecticut, going back to normal civilian life.12 Certainly, this experience would have made an impression on him. But, as evidenced by his journals, three months out of a life of seventy-four years is but a tiny slice of Horace’s history.
These diary entries are a primary source, an invaluable fount of life lived 150 years ago. These recordings teach us about history and how we define it. With his long days of work and caring for his family, visiting with friends, trading, gardening, attending church, and engaging with the goings-on in his town, Horace reminds us that our histories are not defined by wars and elections alone.
Bob Dylan understood this. Dylan knew that wars and events were not what drive a story. He knew the heart of a story was in the individuals and their sentiments. Dylan’s songs prove he understood this well. To quote his song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow / I met one man who was wounded in love / I met another man who was wounded with hatred…It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”13 Dylan captured the sentiments and struggles that we live with, that are important to us. And despite the title of his famous song, “The Times they are a Changin’,” when Dylan looked back at the Civil War period, he saw a reflection of his world. He saw an age that resembled his own “in some mysterious and traditional way,” adding, “the basic psychology of that life was every bit part” of his own life.14
In his song writing, Dylan popularized American folk music, a form that was, until then, mostly of regional interest. The richness of his writing, and his ability to expose tensions in our country, borrow from those early days in the archives. Any historian would agree, to understand and articulate the present, the past is always a good place to start.
1. Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 84-86.
2. Horace Purdy, journal entry, March 1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed July 20, 2016 http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1282.
3. Horace Purdy, journal entries, 1860-1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed July 20, 2016 http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/collections/show/19.
5. Horace Purdy, journal entry, December 1860, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed July 20, 2016 http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1267.
6. Horace Purdy, journal entry, January 1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed July 20, 2016 http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1280.
7. Horace Purdy, journal entry, March 4, 1861. http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1282.
8. Horace Purdy, journal entry, May 2, 1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed July 20, 2016 http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1284.
9. Horace Purdy, journal entries, March 1861, http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1282.
10. Horace Purdy, journal entries, 1860-1861, http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/collections/show/19.
11. Horace Purdy, journal entry, April 16, 1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed 20 July 2016, http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1283.
12. Horace Purdy, journal entry, July 21, 1861, MS 044, Horace Purdy Journals, WCSU archives, accessed 20 July 2016, http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/1286.
13. Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, recorded 1963, on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, CBS, iTunes mp3, accessed June 30, 2016.
14. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, 86.