Photo of diary page with lock of hair

Diary 1862, Part 4: War, Words, and Silence

Click here for earlier posts about this family diary.

Given that Catharine Siglin is writing in 1862, into the second year of the Civil War, I wondered what she would have to say about it. At first glance, only one entry – the last – makes reference to the war.

i whent to pawpaw
saw the Solders start
for Dixon Amos and
yates whent with


But there are other, indirect references.

drawed hay
whent to Elick
Smith funerl
plowed the garden
1 2/2 days work


Alexander C. Smith joined Company I of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry as a private on September 26, 1861 at Earlville. (Click here to see photos of other members of his company.)

Picture of Union troops embarking at Cairo, Illinois
Embarkation of General McClernand’s Brigade at Cairo, January 10, 1862
(Alexander Smith was one of these soldiers)
by Alexander Simplot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alex Smith’s regiment fought at the battles of Fort Donelson (February 12-16, 1862) and Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). Alex survived both and was promoted to Corporal. He died of dysentery on April 26. According to the Recollections of his brother David, their brother-in-law N. A. Nettleton went to bring Alex’s body home and contracted the same disease, but survived. Alex is buried in the same cemetery as Catharine’s parents, William and Barbara Sutton.

I don’t know exactly how Catharine knew Alex Smith. His brother David lived in the same township. They are no relation to the W.H. Smith whom Catharine’s daughter Mary later married.1

I suspect there is another whisper of the war in Catharine’s mention of debates the family attended during the winter.

All hands went to
the debate


John greeced harness
brout aload of wood
from malugins grove
went to the debate


brought aload of wood
from malugins
went to the Debate


Though I don’t know who was debating what on this series of winter Mondays, it seems likely that it had to do with the Illinois Constitutional Convention, which was taking place in Springfield at exactly this time (January 7 – March 24, 1862).

Photo of Old State House, Springfield Illinois
Old State House, Springfield, Sangamon County, IL HABS ILL,84-SPRIF,1-5

The voters of Illinois had approved a resolution to call a state constitutional convention in the election of 1860, at the same time they elected a governor and the majority of the state legislature from the new Republican party, formed in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery. Illinois also contributed to the Presidential victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

When, in November 1861, it was time to elect delegates to the Illinois Constitutional Convention,

Republicans believed that partisan squabbling with Democrats would only aid the rebellion, so they expected that the spirit of unity fostered by the onset of the Civil War would be reflected in the November election and subsequent convention proceedings. This proved to be a very naive miscalculation, as Democrats viewed the constitutional convention as an opportunity to regain the political initiative after the election losses suffered in 1860.

“A Government for the People or an Egyptian Swindle?”: The 1862 Illinois Constitutional Convention, Illinois History Teacher 2007

Voter turnout was low, and 45 out of the 75 delegates elected were Democrats. At the time Catharine Siglin and “all hands” were attending debates, the Democrats at the constitutional convention were proposing to redistrict Illinois in a way that would facilitate Democrat control of the state in future elections, a reapportionment historian Oliver Morton Dickerson calls “Gerrymanders of the worst type.”

The constitutional convention submitted six propositions for voter approval in June 1862: to approve the new constitution; to approve the redistricting; to ban most banks from the state; to prohibit African Americans from settling in Illinois; to deny African Americans already in Illinois the right to vote and hold office; and to empower the state General Assembly to pass laws carrying out the denial of civil rights to African Americans. The voters did not approve the new constitution, the redistricting or the ban on banks. They overwhelmingly approved the measures denying rights to Black people. 2

If I’m correct that the debates Catharine attended were connected with the constitutional convention, this is another way the Civil War is present in her diary. She and her household were interested in the issue that split the country apart.

I think I see another, more oblique, more personal reference to the war. When I first started digging into the diary, I didn’t have a goal in mind. But very soon I felt I needed one. I needed some way to limit the research rabbit-holes I headed down. I decided I would try to identify all the people Catharine mentioned. To do that, I would need to compile a list of them. This is where I brought in my old friend from document coding days, the textual database software Inmagic DOS. Inmagic can make an index of every word in a text and tell you how many times it occurs.

The most frequent noun in Catharine’s diary is John.

(The most frequent verb is whent, another piece of evidence that she traveled a lot.)

John gets 39 mentions. To put this in context, Father gets 17, Adam (Catharine’s uncle) 9, I (the first person pronoun) 7, Mother 6, and Amos (her husband) 5. Of her children, Mary, Dollie and William, only Mary is mentioned by name, and only once.

Who was John? The 1860 Federal census holds a clue.

1860 Federal Census, Lee County IL

Catharine and Amos had two employees living with them, a servant named Charlotte Jackson and a farm hand named John, whose last name appears to be Singler.

John and Catharine worked together.

helped John sow wheat
with one horse all day
cloud wether


set out willow
John helped
whent to the
black smith shop


They sang together.

John and I went to
twin [Twin Groves?] to singing


He helps a lot, though of course that’s his job.

worked at the porch
John helped Father
split posts all day


rainy and stormy
John took mary
and me to malugin


Sometimes he doesn’t help quite enough.

John plowed corn
worked in the garden
Father came down
John whent pawpaw
plowed corn self


Then something changes.

John brout Rebeca
Britten here
adredful rain


After this, the diary is blank for ten days.

There are two further mentions of John, and in both cases, he’s not alone.

whent to pawpaw John
and wife yates and


spent the day with
mother John and his
wife stade here


Curious about John’s marriage, I searched the indexes at the Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society. There was no marriage record for John Singler. When I searched for the bride’s name, I found a marriage between Rebecca Brittain and John Unger. This is the only marriage for a Rebecca Brittain in the Lee County Marriage Index for 1839-1873.

John Unger enlisted in Company K, Illinois 75th Infantry on August 12, 18623, as did Adam Miller’s son Merritt, who was probably Catharine’s cousin. The regiment was mustered into service at Dixon on September 2, 1862. It went on to fight at the second battle of Chattanooga and the battle of Lookout Mountain, among others, and was with General Sherman as he marched on Atlanta. Both John Unger and Merritt Miller survived the war.

I believe that this John Unger was Catharine and Amos Siglin’s hired man, who figured so prominently in Catharine’s record of her days. It appears to me that within one week in August, he joined up, got married and went to war. And after that, Catharine stopped writing.

There is one last item in the diary, after the entry for August 18. In the week of September 25th, there is a lock of red-brown hair, tied with a blue thread.

It’s tempting to draw the sentimental conclusion that it’s John’s hair, and that John was so important to Catharine that her days didn’t seem worth recording once he was gone. Maybe even more sentimentally, I would love to believe that it’s Mary or Dollie or William’s hair, and therefore Catharine’s children are present in her diary even if she doesn’t tell us much about how they spent their time. It would be nice to think she had her descendants in mind, somehow, as she wrote.

But enough speculation about the things Catharine Siglin didn’t say. I’m grateful for what she did say. I feel lucky to know about this tough, pithy, hard-working, well-traveled woman and to read what she wrote about the community she was a part of.

Coming soon: the complete text of the diary.

For more information

On a diary kept by a young Black woman during the Civil War, in a book almost identical to Catharine Siglin’s:

Whitehead, Karsonya Wise. Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2014.

On a change in the focus of women’s diaries through the centuries:

Culley, Margo. “‘I Look at Me’: Self as Subject in the Diaries of American Women.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 3/4, 1989, pp. 15–22. JSTOR,

On the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1862:

Allardice, Bruce S. “‘Illinois Is Rotten with Traitors!” The Republican Defeat in the 1862 State Election.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-), vol. 104, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 97–114. JSTOR,

Dickerson, Oliver Morton. The Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1862. Vol. 1. No. 9. University Press, 1905.

A Government for the People or an Egyptian Swindle?: The 1862 Illinois Constitutional Convention. (Retrieved 1/19/2019)

  1. Update 24 Mar 2019: According to an 1881 history of Lee county, one A.C. Smith, very likely Alex, served as Town Clerk in 1861 when Catharine’s father William Sutton was Assessor.
  2. Update 24 Mar 2019: Based on this biographical sketch of Amos, which notes his consistent voting of the Democratic ticket, I assume he was on the wrong side of history here.
  3. Update 24 Mar 2019: According to the muster rolls, searchable here, John Unger had dark hair, eyes and complexion, and was 5’4 ½" tall.

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