Lost Civil War Diary Makes Its Way Back To Nashville

The diary of Randal McGavock, which detail early stories of the Civil War. Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

The diary of Randal McGavock, which detail early stories of the Civil War. Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

Retired science teacher Andrea Shearn was cleaning out her parents’ home in Cincinnati when she happened upon a wooden box sitting atop a closet shelf. When she opened it, she discovered unfamiliar family relics, including a curious little diary. It had laid there nearly untouched since 1963.

Turns out, it belonged to Randal McGavock, a storied Civil War soldier who served as Nashville’s mayor for a one-year term in 1858.

When union troops captured Fort Henry, one of the first critical defeats in the Western theater, an ancestor of Shearn’s and other troops sifted through a trunk belonging to McGavock. Among the items found in the trunk was a diary detailing ornately handwritten tales of the Civil War. It was a missing volume of a series of diaries written by McGavock.

“The fact that there was a volume missing always niggled at us,” said Tennessee State Library archivist Chuck Sherrill. “Particularly because it was the volume that described the very beginning of the Civil War, a period of great interest.”

After the battle of Fort Henry, the union soldier related to Shearn took the diary to Illinois, and it eventually went to relatives in Cleveland before being passed along to Shearn’s parents in Cincinnati.

Shearn, who lives in California, transcribed the journal before reaching out to archivists in Tennessee.

“It’s unusual, but not unheard of,” archivist Sherrill said. “We’re always pleased to be able to add more to the historical record to kind of flesh out the picture that historians are putting together of what happened at that time.”

An appraiser told Shearn the diary is probably worth a few hundred dollars. But archivist Sherrill suspects its value is far higher.

“If it went on the market, it would be considerably more valuable than that,” he said. “It probably was the case that the person she took it to didn’t know who Randal McGavock was, or what significance it had in Tennessee and Southern history.”

The diary and other Civil War manuscripts are available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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