Saying goodbye to Pvt. Joseph French

The grave of Civil War soldier Joseph B. French in South Chesterville, Maine.
The grave of Civil War soldier Joseph B. French in South Chesterville, Maine.

A Civil War soldier has been Tweeting his battlefield experiences from my computer for more than three years.

Pvt. Joseph French, a farm kid from South Chesterville, Maine, has told the world via Twitter about the bloody battle of Bull Run, the drunken antics of comrades and how much manure he hauled from the mounted artillery stables.

His Tweets reported events that occurred exactly 151 years ago to the day.

And now the war is over.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The greatest conflict and most important event in American history came to an end this month.

Here’s a French Tweet from the following day: “Our boys turned out and built large bonfires and hurrayed all evening.”

Of course, these words didn’t originate in a Tweet. French recorded his Union Army experiences in a leather-bound diary no bigger than an iPhone. The diary wound up at the Bangor Historical Society, where I was asked to transcribe it back in 2012.

I was fascinated by the project. Just 21-years-old, French did an admirable job of recording the war and did something many other soldiers didn’t do: He survived.

French saw others in his Maine artillery battalion die. He lost a relative to the war. He spent more than three years away from his wife and family.  Here’s a passage from 1864: “This has been Thanksgiving Day in Maine I suppose but not with me here out in Old VA. I went up to the fort about 12 noon. I wish that I could be home tonight with my darling wife.”

When the historical society director asked me what I wanted to do with the transcriptions, I had no idea. This was important stuff. People needed to read it, but how? Then I hit upon Twitter. Because what were 19th Century diaries anyway? They were early Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.

I did my best with a cheap magnifying glass and poor flourescent lighting to interpret the tiny, twisted hand writing. Countless hours. Cross-eyed work. Rewarding stuff to an amateur historian like me.

I can’t tell you how much I learned about the Civil War. The unheralded battles. The brutal conditions. The archaic weapons and postal service miracles. The simple but heroic life of a Maine farmer in the 19th Century.

The project wound up in the Bangor newspaper and on TV. I gave presentations on the French Twitter feed. I met some great people. The staff at the Bangor Historical Society. Historians at the University of Maine. I even heard from a  couple of French relatives. A man named Stewart & his wife Lynda took me on a tour of Chesterville to show me the French family gravesite.

In the end, Pvt. French posted to Twitter more than 2,200 times and he had 350 Twitter followers. Pretty good for a soldier that’s been dead almost 90 years.

Still, I wish it was 35,000 followers.

The Civil War seemed like a grand adventure to Mr. French. But we all know it was much more. French was part of something that preserved our country and guaranteed freedom to millions. He did it with very little regard for his life or his future. They don’t make people like French anymore.

French will keep Tweeting for another week. The war may be over but he still has to live through another piece of tragic American history: The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

After that I’m kicking French off my computer.

He needs to get his own mobile phone.

Editors note: To read all of Pvt. Joseph French’s Civil War diary in its Twitter form go to Sign in with your personal Twitter account and then enter: PvtJosephFrench.

4 thoughts on “Saying goodbye to Pvt. Joseph French

  1. I don’t have a cell phone or one of those Twitter accounts, which are pretty much made for ’em. However, I linked on to it for the first time through your gateway. This “Tweet” of French’s seems tailor-made for the platform:

    Donalson was tied up from 10am yesterday to 10am today. I sewed on a set of stripes on my pants.

    Great stuff to see randomly now and again. I get it! Thanks for sharing…


  2. As a great, great granddaughter of Joseph French. I am eternally grateful to you for taking on the project. If you had not, I would not have known this diary even existed. A big thank you from both me and my family. 🙂


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