CUMBERLAND — At some point in 1863, midway through the Civil War, Hollis True found the diary of a recently deceased fellow soldier and made it his own.
The identity of the original owner, and how his diary came to change hands, is now an enjoyable mystery for Sally Merrill, a researcher at Prince Memorial Library, and library Director Thomas Bennett.
The diary, on loan to the library from the Cumberland Historical Society, was transcribed and annotated primarily by Merrill, who works at Prince Memorial through a federal program that gets older people back into the workplace, Bennett explained during an interview Aug. 11.
“This is just one of the projects that she’s doing,” he said.
One of those projects, along with a biography of True that serves as an introduction to the diary, was research about Cumberland being once considered the “carnation capital of the country,” she said.
In conducting that work, she came upon 19th century carnation grower Charles Jenkins, who lived across Blanchard Road from True, and whose father, Harrison, served in the Civil War with True.
True, born in Pownal in 1839, was wounded in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864, when a “Minie ball” bullet splintered his leg and put him at serious risk of losing the limb, Merrill said.
After being shuttled from hospital to hospital, True wound up at a facility with Harrison Jenkins. “Harrison dripped water daily into True’s wound, and saved him from amputation,” Merrill said.
The two men struck up a friendship, and True followed Jenkins back to Cumberland. Having left military service at the war’s end in 1865, True was in town by 1878, when his son Willie was born. He died in Cumberland in 1910, and is buried in Moss Side Cemetery on Main Street.
Reading through the diary, Merrill came to a break in the narrative in 1863, where the author says he is “unwell.” It is followed by the message “This Book was lost and is found again.”
A new style of handwriting and journaling follows, in which True identifies himself as a member of the 17th Maine regiment.
“Cool stuff,” Bennett said.
Which of course begs the first question: Who started the diary in the first place?
“We have a hypothesis that it was Whitman Holmes,” Merrill said, noting that “the entries seem to correspond to people in Newburyport (Massachusetts) at that time.”
Bennett contacted a friend there, Bill Hallett, author of “Newburyport and the Civil War,” for assistance. Bennett found that despite being from Massachusetts, Holmes was in the 40th New York regiment.
Hallett has been “looking for the past three weekends down there” for Holmes’ gravestone, Bennett said with a smile.
Hallett’s second volume on the history will incorporate elements from the first part of the diary, Bennett said.
Then there’s the second question: How did the diary end up in True’s hands?
Whitman, if he was indeed the first diary keeper, mentions visiting the 17th Maine, with which True was serving, Bennett said.
“Potentially, he knew people that Hollis True knew,” Bennett added. “So maybe he lost it at camp, or maybe one of his friends … had it for some reason.”
There are no indicators that Whitman is definitely the first author. “It’s all speculation, but the pieces fit in,” Bennett said.
The first person is “much more articulate; we know … where he is and why he’s there, whereas Hollis is just very methodical in talking about the daily drills,” Merrill said. “The style is very different between the two, and the spelling is very different.”
As for whether either gentleman touched on the impact of the war, she said, there was “not a lot of emotion coming forth.”
“This is a very unique diary, in that you have two men in it,” Bennett said. “Two men from different states, different units, different experiences, different writing styles.”
The library will publish the transcription and annotation digitally, through digitalmaine.com, the Maine State Library’s digital repository. It will be the latest in a series of online historical offerings from the library, which soon will include a transcription of Cumberland town meetings from the town’s 1821 incorporation through the 1950s.
Sally Merrill, left, holds a Civil War diary she has researched for the Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland. Merrill and Library Director Thomas Bennett, right, are searching for the identity of the person who started the diary.
“This Book was lost and found again,” reads the Civil War-era diary that was written by two soldiers.