On a cold night in February 1862, the moans and whimpers of injured Confederate soldiers filled the streets of Clarksville. Hospitals had been set up in local buildings to treat the wounded, following the Battle of Fort Donelson in nearby Dover, and whispered rumors claimed the Union army was heading for the city.
A 15-year-old girl named Nannie Haskins watched as panic swept through her hometown. Some people fled, but others simply had nowhere else to go. Within a few days, Union soldiers were marching through the streets, demanding citizens present identification papers. A year after the fall of Clarksville, Nannie opened her diary and jotted down a few notes on what she’d seen.
“The very first entry in her diary is about Fort Donelson and the panic,” Dr. Minoa Uffelman, Austin Peay State University associate professor of history, said. “The best description of the fall of Clarksville comes from her.”
For the last several years, Uffelman and three other women – APSU communication professor Ellen Kanervo, Montgomery County Historian Eleanor Williams and Phyllis Smith, former president of the Friends of Fort Defiance – have worked to transcribe Haskins’ journals. Their hard work was finally rewarded this July when the University of Tennessee Press published their book, “The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams: A Southern Woman’s Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863-1890,” as part of its “Voices of the Civil War” series.
“We’ve probably worked on it, off and on, for about seven years,” Kanervo said. “I think I know 1860s Clarksville better than I know 2014 Clarksville.”
The book is available at APSU’s Ann Ross Bookstore, the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center, The Customs House Museum and online at amazon.com. At 5 p.m. on Sept. 9, the University will host a book signing with the authors at the Pace Alumni Center at Emerald Hill.
Readers of the diary will find a text rich with local history, providing them with a glimpse of an occupied city during the Civil War.
“What surprised me was the rich social life she had,” Kanervo said. “She talked about people stopping by. They would have parties; people would bring a violin or play a piano. There were parties where there were dances. A lot of social activity was going on even as there was grief and mourning and fear.”
When the war ended, Nannie married an older widower with four children and went on to have six children with him. The Reconstruction Era began, the economy suffered, and through it all, she continued writing in her diary.
What makes the diary unique is it takes us from her being a teenager during the crisis of the Civil War to her being married, raising children, living in a terrible economy in the post-war south,” Uffelman said. “She writes about mortgages and droughts and trying to educate her children.”
Nannie’s name became prominent among historians and Civil War enthusiasts in the early 1990s when excerpts of her diary were used in Ken Burns’ award-winning PBS documentary “The Civil War.” Her daughter donated the Civil War portion of the diary to the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville in 1961. The postwar diary disappeared until the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill purchased it from an antique dealer. The four local researchers combed through these and other documents, with Smith transcribing the entries while the others worked on providing the historical context for the book.
“We have an introduction, and we have an appendix describing all the Civil War sites, the officers,” Uffelman said. “It is extensively footnoted.”
They’ve spent years reading about Nannie’s transformation from a girl to grandmother. And because of the personal nature of a diary, the researchers found themselves developing a connection with their subject.
“We feel like we know her,” Uffelman said. “I liked her. I liked that she was inquisitive and smart.”
Several more book signings and talks are scheduled throughout the year. For more information on those events, contact Uffelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.