Happy 180th Birthday to Col. Nathan W. Daniels

(The following is written by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)

On May 10, 1867 Colonel Nathan W. Daniels celebrated his 31st birthday. He noted in his diary, “Learned to day that I had been recommended and nominated by Chief Justice Chase as Register under the Bankrupt Act for the 4th Dist of Louisiana and my name sent on to the District Judge for confirmation.” After erroneously recording his age as 32, he commented that his new position made “a very acceptable birthday present.” “So now we are off for Louisiana and prosperity I trust,” he wrote.

This would not be the first time Louisiana played an important role in the diaries kept by Nathan W. Daniels, which are now online as part of the Nathan W. Daniels Diary and Scrapbook, 1861-1867.

Colonel Nathan W. Daniels (left) and Major Francis E. Dumas (right), officers of the 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guard. From vol. 1 of the Nathan W. Daniels Diary. Manuscript Division.

Colonel Nathan W. Daniels (left) and Major Francis E. Dumas (right), officers of the 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guard. From vol. 1 of the Nathan W. Daniels Diary. Manuscript Division.

Born in New York on May 10, 1836, Nathan W. Daniels had moved to Louisiana prior to the Civil War. After the capture of New Orleans by United States forces in 1862, Union general Benjamin F. Butler allowed the enlistment of Native Guard units comprised of “free men of color” and former slaves. Loyal to the Union and holding abolitionist sympathies, Daniels became the colonel of the 2nd Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard. As was the case with many African-American regiments formed later in the war, most of the officers of the 2nd Regiment were white men like Daniels, but Daniels recommended African-American planter Francis E. Dumas for the rank of major. Perhaps as an indication of his respect for Major Dumas, they were photographed together and Daniels pasted a print of the photograph into his wartime diary.

Daniels acquired the first volume of his three-volume diary when he confiscated it from the New Orleans home of cotton merchant Hamilton McNeil Vance and his wife Lizzie Luckett Vance. They left the partially-used diary behind when they fled New Orleans in 1862, and Daniels found the volume in November 1862 and appropriated it for his own use. His first entries listed “suspicious characters” among captured prisoners, but he soon began using the volume to record the activities of the 2nd Regiment after it was posted to Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi. The 2nd Regiment saw action at the battle of Pascagoula in Mississippi in April 1863, which Daniels recorded in diary entries from April 912, 1863. Although the unit was ultimately forced to retreat, Daniels wrote a laudatory address to his soldiers. “You have tested the question of your nations valor, and demonstrated to its fullest extent the capacity—the bravery—the endurance and nobility of your race….”

Even more valuable historically than Daniels’s descriptions of the 2nd Regiment’s time on Ship Island are the rare photographs taken on the island, prints of which Daniels pasted into his diary. The photographs include structures built on the island, the terrain, the men in the regiment, an ambulance wagon, a battery constructed by Daniels’s troops, as well as images of Daniels and his fellow officers.

“Picture presented me by the Capt of ‘Company C,’ Capt Chase of my Regiment,  not very good still well for Ship Island.” From vol. 1 of Nathan W. Daniels Diary. Manuscript Division.

“Picture presented me by the Capt of ‘Company C,’ Capt Chase of my Regiment,
not very good still well for Ship Island.” From vol. 1 of Nathan W. Daniels Diary. Manuscript Division.

After essentially being forced out of the army in August 1863, Daniels moved to Washington, D.C. that fall and many of the observations recorded in his diary document aspects of the nation’s capital during the Civil War. In addition to meeting with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Daniels watched workmen installing the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome. On Jan. 9, 1864, he mentions the prevalence of smallpox in the city, although he happily notes that in the process of vaccinating his friend Jeanie Foster he “had the pleasure of seeing her beautiful white plump arm.”

In Washington Daniels enjoyed an active social life, and participated in local Spiritualist circles. On Christmas Day 1863 he noted having attended a séance at which the medium Nettie Colburn presided. In March 1865 he described a gathering at the White House attended by First Lady Mary Lincoln and Daniels’s Spiritualist friends.

At some point in 1865 Daniels courted the noted Spiritualist Cora L. V. Scott Hatch (1840-1923), whom he married in Washington on Dec. 8, 1865. Thereafter both husband and wife often contributed to entries in Daniels’s diary. In some instances, Daniels recorded the substance of Cora’s séances, during which a spirit guide would speak through her. On Feb. 21, 1866, for example, Daniels described a gathering that included Clara Barton and Frances Gage, and at which Cora Daniels channeled the spirit of Theodore Parker, who answered questions about the current political situation. “Parker” predicted “difficulty between The President & Congress & ‘ere long war will exist”; not an inaccurate portrait of the relationship between President Andrew Johnson and Republicans in Congress.

The Daniels frequently lectured on Spiritualism and the rights of African Americans. They traveled the Spiritualist circuit for Cora’s demonstrations, and Nathan wrote newspaper reports and editorials of a largely political nature both with his own name and under the pseudonym “Viator.” A number of Daniels’s articles are preserved as newspaper clippings in a scrapbook included in the online collection.

But what of Daniels’s new job as register in Louisiana that served as his birthday present on May 10, 1867? Daniels’s last diary entry, May 29, 1867, recorded that he and his family had reached New Orleans that evening. “Darling wife is delighted with the country & I trust now that health and prosperity may be accorded to us.” It was not to be. A “Viator” article in the June 19, 1867 issue of the Rochester (New York) Express mentioned cases of cholera in New Orleans, and a fear that “the extremely filthy and unclean condition of our canals and suburbs, will generate an epidemic of yellow fever and cholera together.” Yellow fever did in fact break out in New Orleans that fall. Col. Nathan W. Daniels died of yellow fever on Oct. 2, 1867, and his young daughter Henrietta (born Sept. 27, 1866) died shortly after her father. Cora too became ill, but survived.

Cora Daniels married Col. Samuel F. Tappan (1831-1913) in 1869, but divorced him in 1876 to marry William Richmond, a member of her First Society of Spiritualists congregation in Chicago, Illinois. Cora must have forgotten, however, that Nathan Daniels’s diaries and scrapbook remained in the attic of the Tappan home in Manchester, Massachusetts. They were later discovered by C. P. Weaver, the great-granddaughter of Samuel Tappan’s sister. In 1998, Weaver published “Thank God My Regiment an African One: The Civil War Diary of Colonel Nathan W. Daniels,” which covered the January to September 1863 portion of the first volume of the diary. Weaver later donated to the Library of Congress the three volumes of Daniels’s diary, the scrapbook and summaries and transcripts she prepared of the unpublished diaries.

Just in time for Col. Daniels’s 180th birthday, these materials are all available online for the first time… “a very acceptable birthday present” for the nation.

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