Collections of Distinction

The Charles H. Tarbox Diary

by jmoschella

Charles H. Tarbox portrait

Portrait of Charles H. Tarbox. (MS q 7335)

On September 16th, 1862, a young Union soldier from Massachusetts named Charles H. Tarbox was just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, camped along a tributary of the Potomac River called Antietam Creek. Tarbox, who had worked as a farmer before enlisting, was about to take part in the Battle of Antietam–the bloodiest single day of fighting in American military history.

By sunrise the next morning, over 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had converged along the Antietam. By sundown, over 22,000 of them had been killed or wounded in the ensuing battle. Crossing the creek at Burnside’s Bridge at around noon, the 35th Massachusetts was caught in a deadly crossfire. 79 members of the regiment were killed. Charles Tarbox, just 22 years old, was one of them.

In 2014, the Boston Public Library acquired Tarbox’s pocket diary, which records his daily life during the handful of weeks he spent in the army. The diary is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of the mortal dangers faced by a single, enlisted soldier, and of the sacrifice that he ultimately made.

During the Civil War, thousands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict carried diaries similar to the one Tarbox himself made use of. These diaries, which could fit neatly into the breast pocket of a uniform, tell the stories of the individual soldiers that kept them: how and where they were trained, what their daily lives were like, and where they fought. Tarbox’s diary tells an additional story: the bullet that killed him ripped through the book, singeing the pages and recording the exact moment of his death on the 17th of September, 1862.

Tarbox1

The pocket diary of Charles H. Tarbox (MS q 7335)

The journey that brought Tarbox to Antietam had begun just a month earlier in the industrial city of Haverhill, Massachusetts. During the summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 men to enlist in the Union Army after the catastrophic climax to the Peninsula Campaign had inflicted astounding casualties on the Army of the Potomac. Cities and towns across the country responded by setting up enlistment drives, issuing patriotic advertisements, and offering various inducements to join up.

Tarbox enlisted at Haverhill on August 13th, joining company G of the newly-formed 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The camp for new recruits was in Lynnfield and the newly-mustered soldiers and officers of the 35th arrived there on the 14th. On the 22nd, with barely enough time to gather supplies, go through simple drills, and fill out the rafts of necessary paperwork, the regiment was called to the battlefield. They travelled by train to Boston, where they marched past the statehouse before boarding a steamship bound for Philadelphia. This is where the diary begins.

“I had a furlough 24 hours,” wrote Tarbox. “I started for Washington the 22[nd of August], 1862. Had a free dinner at Philadelphia at the Coopers … and another at Baltimore. Arrived at Washington on the 24th. Slept out in the open field.”1

The soldiers of the 35th, untrained and inexperienced, left Washington through Arlington Heights. Unaccustomed to the hardships of long marches, poor rations, and soldiering life in general, Tarbox remained keenly aware of the comforts he had given up. “After marching 11 miles,” he wrote, “had nothing but coffee for breakfast, no sugar, nor milk.” On the 6th of September, the regiment crossed into Maryland. On the 9th, Tarbox reported that he had made camp in Brookville, “a small village the first town in Maryland that hoisted the stars and stripes after the riot in Baltimore. They are very nice folks. This is the first place that I have sat down to a table since I left Haverhill.”

Five days later, Tarbox and the rest of the 35th saw their first combat during the Battle of South Mountain. “We had a tremendous battle last night” he reported. “One fellow was taken prisoner from my side. I am writing from the battle field. They are firing a short distance from here.”

On the morning of the 17th, with the battle at Antietam already underway, Tarbox wrote his last entry. “We got some sleep this morn. We expect to have a large battle today. There is a rifle cannon 75-rod from here. It seems as though it was going right through you. We are on the left wing. They are driving the men on the right. We are shelling their infantry.” Here the diary ends, the final entry terminated by the bullet itself.

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The final page of Charles Tarbox’s diary records the fighting at the Battle of Antietam and ends abruptly where the bullet that killed him ripped through the page.

Librarians spend a great deal of time and effort identifying and describing the minute physical details of the books in our collections, including how they were manufactured, the signs of usage they present, and the evidence of historical provenance they contain. Often these details form the bare outlines of a story that requires scholarship and research to fully assemble and interpret. The Tarbox diary, however, speaks to a far more immediate and unmistakeable story.

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“Cha. H. Tarbox, Haverhill Mass. My folks live in Campton, NH. My father’s name: Daniel Tarbox.”

 

 


 

  1. Enlistment dates and other info from: Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War. Boston: Norwood: Norwood Press, 1932. p. 689
  2. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation in the diary entries have been modernized and corrected in transcription.

Further reading:

For a detailed account of the history of the 35th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, see: United States Army, Committee of the Regimental Association. History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers. Boston: Mills, Knight, 1884.

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