America's Civil War
History 393
Professor John C. Willis
The University of The South

George Templeton Strong

George Templeton Strong was, in many ways, an unusual man for his times.   Born to moderate privilege, he added professional competence and distinguished service on many influential boards and committees in his 55 years of life.   Strong combined a distinct elitism with his high attainments, and probably suffered from few doubts about the validity of his opinions, even after he altered them. 

From his birth in New York in 1820 to his death there in 1875, Strong identified closely with the great city.   He was educated in New York, at Columbia College, and later became a trustee of his alma mater.   He helped guide another of the city's elite institutions, Trinity Church Wall Street, serving many years as a Vestryman at this prominent Episcopal church.   With the outbreak of Civil War, Strong agreed to help found the Sanitary Commission which one historian describes as "the great civilian organization for dealing with wounds and sickness in the field and alleviating the horrors of war behind the lines."   He served as treasurer and member of its executive committee throughout the war.   Before the fighting concluded, Strong joined seven other influential men in looking toward the post-war settlement, founding the Union League Club of New York, an organization pledged to "cultivate a profound national devotion" and to "strengthen a love and respect for the Union";  the Union League's establishment of Southern branches after the war provided a valuable foundation for organizing the region's whites and blacks into the Republican party. 

But Strong may have been most exceptional in the private attentions he devoted to his diary.   Obtaining his first blank book as a youth of 15, he wrote almost every day for the next 40 years.   Even in a nation where literacy was unusually high among free men, this was an unusual practice.   Yet, in the words he left there, George Templeton Strong offered proof of his connections to the men and women of his day -- recording, as he did, fullsome evidence of how he shared their aspirations, fears, uncertainties, and prejudices.   The diarist was exceptional in his attainments and position, but students of the era have judged his concerns to be surprisingly representative of the city, region, and nation in which he lived. 

Having supported the Whig organization before its implosion in the mid-1850s, Strong was a man without a party in the tumultuous election year of 1860.   Like many other passionately political men, North and South, he spent months examining his electoral options.   In his eventual decision to vote for Abraham Lincoln -- and in his reasons for doing so, despite some reluctance -- we discover a political world where many of the accepted truths have been called into question, if not openly contradicted, by rapidly developing parties, alliances, issues, and possibilities.   With Strong, we encounter the rumors and speculations that animated, even as they obscured, the political landscape.   While all eras are unique, even as they share a family resemblence with previous ages, the 1860s often seemed to Strong and his contemporaries like a different species of time.   Ostensible precedents were not merely flawed, they frequently proved blindingly wrong.   Reading George Templeton Strong's diary entries from that time help us recall the great decisions and actors of the age, even as they surround us in the suspense, confusion, and exhilirating prospects of the day. 

SOURCE:   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, editors, The Diary of George Templeton Strong:  Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 vol. 1 (New York:   Macmillan Company, 1952), pages v-xli.

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