Diary Disclosures: David Hunter Strother on Civil War Leaders

Forty-five years old at the start of the Civil War, David Hunter Strother had built his career through pen and pencil. A renowned artist, known via his pen-name "Porte Crayon," Strother traveled throughout the nation in the antebellum years, sharing sketches and stories of his travels via popular magazines of the day. Yet as the nation collapsed in 1861, Strother, who hailed from western Virginia, decided to put his artistic talents to use for the Union army. In the war's early years, Strother served as a topographer for Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia; he eventually earned a commission as a Union officer. Besides Strother's daily work of scouting terrain and sketching maps, the observant Virginian also kept a meticulous, detailed diary which would eventually span dozens of journals.

Strother's journals offer vivid depictions of the Civil War and its participants. Historian Cecil Eby edited and published much of Strother's wartime diaries in A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War, a volume that certainly belongs on your bookshelf. Strother writes in a flowing, perceptive manner that is both entertaining and engaging. A Virginia Yankee, however, begins with Strother's entries from early 1862 onward. Yet it is in the war's chaotic opening months that Strother often shares his thoughts on the roots of the war, the enormous task faced by Union forces, and the leaders who would shape both Federal offensives and Confederate defenses.

Strother's relatively prominent family, education, and position within the U.S. military--first as a cartographer, later as an officer and general, afforded him an opportunity to brush shoulders with many important men who would shape the Civil War in the East. Strother also freely shared his opinions of various commanders and leading men with his fellow officers and, fortunately for us, the pages of his diary journals.

In today's post, I want to share David Hunter Strother's experiences and opinions of various important Civil War figures with you. All of these diary entries date from September, 1861-February, 1862; these diary entries were not published in Cecil Eby's Virginia Yankee. While I have edited lightly for clarity, I have largely left Strother's words and occasional misspellings as they were. After each entry, I have offered a small note with my thoughts and biographical information.

David Hunter Strother, Artist and Soldier

David Hunter Strother, Artist and Soldier

Strother on President Abraham Lincoln; September 7, 1861:

“Went again to see the President with Col. Lamon and this time found him alone. He called a clerk finished some business he had on hand and then turned to converse with us, with an air of unreserved & honest affability—with his leg over the army of the chair. His personal appearance when seated was not bad as I had been led to suppose and his face and manner showed a good deal of natural dignity. We exchanged a few sentences of commonplace when Col. Lamon mentioned to him whose son I was. He said he knew that and was about to ask after my Father more particularly when Secretary Simon Cameron came in. I was introduced shook hands & according to etiquette withdrew.”

Note: Strother's first encounter with President Lincoln, however brief, paints (in my mind) a very Lincoln-esque scene: Lincoln, the long-legged frontiersman, with his leg draped over the chair, chatting with Strother and Col. Lamon. Strother believed Lincoln possessed "an air of unreserved and honest affability," a characteristic often applied to the Illinois politician ("Honest Abe"!). Strother hailed from a prominent Virginian family, and Strother's father died shortly after this meeting with President Lincoln.

Strother's Diary entry describing his first encounter with President ABraham lincoln, whose "face and manner showed a good deal of natural dignity"

Strother's Diary entry describing his first encounter with President ABraham lincoln, whose "face and manner showed a good deal of natural dignity"

Strother on Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Magruder; September 19, 1861

Strother's diary is effusive in praise of Joe Johnston-pictured here in a romanticized 1860 portrait. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, was criticized as "slow and cautious"

Strother's diary is effusive in praise of Joe Johnston-pictured here in a romanticized 1860 portrait. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, was criticized as "slow and cautious"

“Spent the evening talking with Captains Boyd and Beckwith of the Quartermaster Department. Discussing the characters of the United States Officers who have taken serviced against the Government. Joe Johnson [all emphasis in original] is esteemed as the first man among them in point of ability and military talent. A man capable of enlarged view in war or government. Brave, magnetic, & ambitious and one who will take the highest position in case the cause he has espoused triumphs. Johnson I have seen and had some personal acquaintance with. He is small in stature, cold & concentrated in manner. Impressive by his reserve as such manner sustained by self-possession is invariably.

Lee is supposed to be overrated and by no means the efficient soldier that his father was in the War of the Revolution 1776. Mild, amiable, & unpretending in manner, he is very thorough in the study and accomplishment of any point proposed, but so slow & cautious in his decisions & action that it amounts to heaviness & he will probably be beaten by an active opponent.

Beauregard is a capital engineer officer but for general command is an inferior man.

Braxton Bragg lately appointed Secretary of War to the Confederate Government is a clever man in his profession, bright, cynical, but limited to his capacities & not likely to distinguish himself in his new position.

A. Sydney Johnson is a Kentuckian and is the General of Utah notoriety. He is described as a man of strong good sense, direct, practical & full of decides prejudices.

Magruder is a light man, dressy, showey, dissipated & full of Knight Errant courage.”

Note: These descriptions cover many of the leading men of the Confederacy in 1861. Of course, what is most striking are Strother's portrayals of Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee, particularly Lee. Hindsight makes it difficult to conceive of Lee as anything other than the American military giant he would become. Yet for Strother, Robert E. Lee was "overrated," "slow and cautious," likely to be "beaten by an active opponent," and lived in the shadow of his father; one is reminded of Robert E. Lee's nickname of "Granny Lee." Conversely, Strother conceived of Joe Johnston as the "first man" among the Confederate leadership. Strother's opinions were held by many at that time, as it was Joe Johnston who commanded Confederate forces in Virginia in the war's first year.

Strother on Union General George B. McClellan; October 23, 1861:

Considered by Strother to be "the Complete Soldiers," George McClellan is pictured here in this 1861 Brady Photograph

Considered by Strother to be "the Complete Soldiers," George McClellan is pictured here in this 1861 Brady Photograph

“Last night General McClellan arrived. This morning while at breakfast we saw a train of army waggons passing southward on the Drainsville road I counted eight in a line as they passed. There may have been twenty or thirty. I hurried over and reported to General Banks who took me up & introduced me to McClellan. He considered the information important and questioned me closely about it. He is as utterly unlike his portraits & photographs as could be conceived, as this man is one who at present holds the destiny of our republic in his keeping. I observed him narrowly and will describe him as he appeared to me during the 24 hours that I saw him. He is stout broad shouldered and heavy limbed. His head is large round & compactly framed hair black and eye brows & moustache & imperial red & not very thick. His features are strong the expression of his face pleasing, but not especially striking, his attitudes & bearing not imposing nor graceful his manners familiar and unpretending, yet over all his speech, bearing & appearance was eminently soldierly. One is penetrated by the idea of the complete soldier. Clear cool & direct. Speaking enough & not too much. Strong of body & of active & comprehensive mind in his profession. I had not sufficient intercourse with him to conclude as to his capacity for civil affairs, but I will be mistaken if he exhibits great capacity in that department. This judgemint is merely impressional. His age 35."

Note: Strother maintained a positive outlook on George McClellan and his generalship early in the war. I find Strother's description of McClellan here to closely match McClellan's depiction in this widely-seen 1861 Brady portrait.

Strother thought General Benjamin F. Kelley possessed "an air of great determination"

Strother thought General Benjamin F. Kelley possessed "an air of great determination"

Strother on Union General Benjamin Kelley; November 20, 1861:

“Genl Kelly is a plain looking man with a Western Virginia aspect overhanging brows, bronzed complexion and an air of great determination under which is distinctly seen great goodness of heart and uprightness. I like very much his manner & conversation as he explained his mode of treating the newly occupied districts."

Notes: Although not as well known as many of the other generals and officers detailed in Strother's diary, General Benjamin F. Kelley determined much of the course of the Civil War in West Virginia. Kelley fought at Philippi, the first land battle of the Civil War, spent much of the war combating guerrillas in the mountains of West Virginia, and helped defend the vital western Maryland town of Cumberland at the Battle of Folck's Mill in 1864. This last action garnered him his brigadier general's stars.

General "Prince John" Magruder

General "Prince John" Magruder

Strother on Confederate General "Prince" John Magruder; November 28, 1861:

“‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men & women in it only players.’

Genl. J. Magruder of the Confederate Army is said to be one of the most consummate actors on the stage of life. In military life an [degant?] artist, even to the minutest details of his profession. His talent is poetic, superb, commanding influencing all about him. Dazzling the imagination of men and women with Napoleonic Craft. He is a fine disciplinarian and his military views in conceptions magnificent, too grand and enlarged generally to admit of execution. His qualities however discussed are obscured & his chances for great achievement limited, by habits of drunkenness. A warm and vigorous imagination, well controlled, is doubtless an important element in the character of one who would command men. Buonaparte had it in the highest degree of any modern leader. It was the quality that led to his elevation and which eventually occasioned his downfall.”

Note: John Bankhead Magruder--popular nicknamed "Prince John"--was known for his theatrical, dramatic flair, as Strother's entry attests. At times, this served him well in battle: during McClellan's advance up the Peninsula in 1862, Prince John paraded his troops in front of McClellan's forces again and again, fooling his Union counterpart into believing the Confederate force under Magruder was much larger than was the case. Yet Robert E. Lee didn't think highly of Magruder, who would spend the war's later years in the Trans-Mississippi (notably retaking Galveston, Texas in early 1863).

Strother on U.S. Senator Waitman T. Willey; February 16, 1862:

Senator Waitman T. Willey, "a firm Union Man"

Senator Waitman T. Willey, "a firm Union Man"

“W.T. Willey Senator from Virginia is a tall dignified man and was a member of the Virginia Convention which passed the act of Secession. Being a firm Union man he was forced to leave Richmond before that outrageous folly was consummated. He was afterwards active in forming the new Government in Western Virginia and says that the State Government will be reformed upon that nucleus by counties & districts sending in their representatives & adherence as fast as they are liberated from Confederate Thraldom. He saws the property of the chief Traitors will undoubtedly be confiscated to make a fund whence the losses of loyal citizens will be repaired & advises that as an authentic inventory of such losses be made out & presented at the proper time.”

Note: Waitman T. Willey of Morgantown was a prominent Unionist who played a pivotal role in creating the state of West Virginia during the Civil War. Willey served as a Senator from the "Restored Government of Virginia" in the war's early years; the "Restored Government" represented many areas that opposed secession or were under Union control. Waitman would later serve as a senator from the State of West Virginia proper, a state he helped put into being.




Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

Further Readings and Sources:

Cecil D. Eby, Jr., ed. A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War: The Diaries of David Hunter Strother. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

David Hunter Strother Papers. West Virginia & Regional History Center; Morgantown, WV.