Benjamin M. Peck’s Civil War Pocket Diaries

Front cover of Benjamin Peck's 1864 pocket diary.
Front cover of Benjamin Peck’s 1864 pocket diary.

To day was spent in taking positions and [feeling?] of enemy

it was soon asertained that the enemy were falling back

troops were immediately started in pursuit.

We were rear guard and held the works in front during the after noon and night.

This was Captain Benjamin M. Peck’s entry in his pocket diary on Saturday May 7, 1864. Accessioned earlier this year, Peck’s 1864 & 1865 pocket diaries make up one of our newest Civil War collections. Digital scans and transcriptions of each diary are available at VT Special Collections Online. The transcriptions for each entry are transcribed as entered into the diary by Benjamin Peck. All original spelling, punctuation, and grammar are maintained in the line-by-line text found under each image.  Brackets and question marks represent areas where the entries are unclear. One prominent example which appears repeatedly in both diaries is, S? This is presumably a nickname for his wife Sarah, but the style and punctuation changes from entry to entry.

Benjamin Peck's nickname for his wife Sarah Peck.
Benjamin Peck’s nickname for his wife Sarah Peck as it appears in the diaries.

Benjamin M Peck was born on October 5, 1838, in Smithfield, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He married Sarah H. Watkins on April 9, 1863 and after the war the couple would have two children. Their son, Guy W. Peck, was born in 1867, followed by a daughter, Mary A. Peck in 1870. Benjamin entered the legal profession and received his license to practice law before entering the Army. After the war he returned home to Towanda, PA and opened his law office. In 1872 he was elected prothonotary of the local court and served six years.  Then, in 1890, he served as President Judge of the 13th Judicial District of Pennsylvania. Benjamin died on September 9, 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Towanda, PA.

Peck’s military service began in August of 1862 when he enlisted in the Union Army as part of Company “B” of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry Regiment as a 1st Sergeant. Early on he helped recruit new members for the regiment. On December 10, 1862 he was promoted to the rank of Full 2nd Lieutenant, and then promoted to Full Captain on December 5, 1863. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Lieutenant Peck was wounded in the neck and shoulder by a cannon shot on May 3, 1863. He returned to his unit, after a two month absence, fully recovered from his injuries and was mustered out of the service on May 28, 1865 in Washington, D.C.

The 1864 leather bound, preprinted diary contains two daily entries per page with cash accounts and notes sections in the back of the diary. In 1864 Benjamin M. Peck was the Captain of Company B in the 141st Regiment PA Volunteers. Due to absences, injuries, and illness of other officers he was placed in command of the regiment before being assigned to lead the 1st United States Sharp Shooters. Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce saw fit to place him in charge of the three companies of sharpshooters and he remained in this position until the end of the war. Peck describes battles, skirmishes, picket lines, commands, and other military assignments and engagements in great detail. He notes the various marches and travel routes of his company and records his travels between the Virginia front and his home in Towanda, PA. As part of the Army of the Potomac, Peck recounts the regiment’s campaign in Virginia and the Siege of Petersburg. He lists his men who were wounded or killed in battle, describes court martial proceedings, and even gives an account of the execution of a Union soldier for desertion. Following the 1864 presidential election he enumerates each candidate’s results within the division, which Lincoln won convincingly.

 

Peck's 1865 Pocket Diary
Peck’s 1865 Pocket Diary

The 1865 leather bound, preprinted, pocket diary contains one entry per day with cash accounts and notes listed in the back of the book. This diary continues with the 141st PA Volunteers camped outside of Petersburg in their winter quarters and continues through the end of the war and Peck’s return home. He recounts the fall of Petersburg, the Union pursuit of Lee’s Army of Virginia across the state, and Lee’s ultimate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Peck was assigned to preside over several court martial proceedings and gives details regarding these proceedings and punishments, which include a botched execution of a Union soldier. As in the first diary, Peck provides an account of the daily movement of Union troops and supplies. He gives detailed lists of captured soldiers and artillery, as well as Union wounded and casualty records. As the war nears its conclusion Peck was in charge of mustering out soldiers and kept thorough records of the process. In one of his most moving and emotional entries he recounts receiving the news of Presidents Lincoln’s assassination and describes the mood of the men upon hearing the President died. The entries end in July of 1865 with Peck practicing law in his home town of Towanda, PA.

We hope to have a timeline of date and cities Benjamin Peck traveled through during the war available soon at VT Special Collections Online. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about our Civil War collections or any of our other resources please visit us either online or in person!

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Cameras on the Moon

“One small step for a man . . . one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong spoke these immortal words when stepping from the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Just over eight years after President John F. Kennedy set a national goal for putting an American on the moon, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins brought that goal to fruition. While Armstrong and Aldrin engaged in a roughly two and a half hour EVA in the Sea of Tranquility, Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia. Together the three astronauts made history.

Special Collections has an extensive collection of Michael Collins’s personal papers and artifacts from his impressive and lengthy career as an astronaut in Projects Gemini and Apollo, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and published author, just to name a few. As can be imagined, the collection contains some pretty neat items, many of which give insight into one of the most exciting decades of space travel in the twentieth century.

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Earthrise as seen by the Apollo 11 crew

Perhaps one of my favorite elements of the collection is a partial set of black and white and color photographic prints made from the film shot during the Apollo 11 Mission. Many of these images are so iconic they have become almost ubiquitous in popular memory. There are, however, also a great many that are not as recognizable but just as compelling. The photographs are stunning in their beauty, and it is easy to understand how monumental their impact must have been after their initial release. Although the images are fascinating themselves, the story behind the photographs is interesting as well.

Astrophotography was certainly not new by the time Apollo 11 launched in 1969. Indeed, people had been pointing their lenses skyward since the nineteenth century. Photos taken from space were not new either. Surprisingly, though, when NASA launched Project Mercury in 1959 with the primary goal of placing an American in space, photographing the mission from the astronauts’ perspective in spacecraft was not NASA’s main concern. Cameras were taken on board to be sure (John Glenn took an Ansco Autoset with him on the Friendship 7), but photography was not a major part of the missions. Things changed, however, with the last two one-man Mercury missions of 1962 and 1963. Walter Schirra took a Hasselblad 500c, which he slightly modified to ensure better operation in space, with him during the Mercury-Atlas 8 Mission. The resulting images were very good, and NASA teamed with Hasselblad to create specially modified cameras for spaceflight.

Fast-forward a few years to July 1969 and the Apollo 11 Mission. Among the various pieces of equipment taken aboard ship for the mission were several cameras specially modified for optimal performance in space and among these were four Hasselblads one Hasselblad Electric Camera carried in the Command Module, two Hasselblad Lunar Surface Superwide-Angle Cameras carried in the Lunar Module, and one Hasselblad EL Data Camera taken to the lunar surface.

The Hasselblad images from the landing almost seem effortless in their beauty, but what they do not show is how much consideration was taken in designing and creating cameras for the mission. Operating a camera in the vacuum of space is pretty different from operating one on earth. The camera taken to the surface needed to work well in extreme temperatures. Traditional lubricants in the camera body had to be removed and replaced with those that would operate in a vacuum without hampering the camera’s functions. The body also had to be stripped down to reduce weight. The act of actually snapping a picture was also different with this camera. It was fixed to a handle with a button that triggered an exposure when pressed, and it was mounted at chest level on the astronauts’ suits (mostly Armstrong’s as he took the majority of the images on the lunar surface). As can be imagined, the position of the camera presented its own challenges for framing shots. That particular camera was also fitted with a special glass apparatus for winding film called a Reseau plate. Unlike traditional metal winders, the glass plate was designed to prevent sparking via static electricity when the film was wound in the film magazine. Also, if you look closely at the exposures made on the lunar surface, you will see small cross markings. These markings were located on the Reseau plate itself and appear on every image made with the lunar 500EL. The markings on the prints were used for measurement and analysis purposes back on Earth. So when it was all said and done, lunar photography was a little more complicated than point and click.

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The astronauts took several photographs like this of their footprints in the lunar dust

After the film was shot and safely secured in its removable magazines and the astronauts were ready to climb back into the Eagle and dock with the Columbia, there was something that was not loaded back into the module: the camera. Although it may seem shocking that such a fine piece of carefully crafted photographic technology was just left behind, the sacrifice was necessary so that as many lunar samples as possible could be taken back to earth. This was a practice continued throughout the subsequent manned lunar missions meaning that there actually quite a few abandoned Hasselblads, their shutters indefinitely silenced, sitting on the moon to this day. It almost gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the disposable camera.

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Buzz Aldrin setting up an experiment on the lunar surface

So, if you want an opportunity to view some of the extraordinary results of the first camera on the moon, as well as those taken by the other Apollo 11 Hasselblads, I encourage you to come view the Apollo 11 photographic prints in the Michael Collins Papers (Ms1989-029) here at Special Collections. They truly embody the beauty and wonder of space that has captivated humankind for centuries and seeing them in person is a very special experience indeed.

An Eighteenth Century Take on a Greek Classic

On my first day working at Virginia Tech Special Collections as a graduate student assistant, I was given a tour “behind-the-scenes.” As I walked through rows upon rows of the stacks where our rare books are housed, practicing hunting down books based on their call numbers, a large folio book stamped with “Thucydidis Historiae” on the spine immediately caught my eye.  This book, published in 1731 in Amsterdam, presents book eight of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian Wars.  In his account, the Greek historian Thucydides traces the buildup of hostilities between the city-states, Athens and Sparta, and narrates the battles and events that occurred throughout the course of the war.  While I have encountered many other fascinating folios and tomes in our rare book collection, including other editions of Thucydides published in 1828, 1855, and 1950, this Thucydidis De Bello Peloponnesiaco libri octo remains my favorite.

Following a beautiful engraved frontispiece by J. C. Philips, the title page lists first the Greek title and then its longer explanatory Latin one.

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My favorite part about this edition of Thucydides’s work is the frontispiece, depicting an eighteenth-century interpretation of a siege from classical antiquity.  You certainly don’t need to be a Classics scholar to appreciate the fine detail and artistry.  I notice something new every time that I look at this engraving.

Although not uncommon for this time period, the dedication and introduction are all written in Latin.  Similar to today’s Loeb’s Classics, which provide English translations alongside the original Latin or Greek, this 1731 edition of Thucydides also supplied aid for translating the Greek… albeit in Latin.  Thucydides002

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All the accompanying notes and commentary are also in Latin.  Since Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War was included within the traditional canon of classical texts that were instilled upon students in the academies in Europe and America during the eighteenth-century, perhaps it is not so strange to encounter Latin rather than English within this work.

We don’t have a record here at Special Collections regarding this book’s exact history. To speculate, though, whoever owned or read this book was probably either educated or someone with status, and most likely both. However, when you visit Special Collections, you don’t have to put on aristocratic airs or show off any classical knowledge to view and engage with our rare books like Thucydidis De Bello Peloponnesiaco libri octo.