Extraordinary story about a Union soldier during the Civil War, and how his personal diary came to be lost during the Battle of Gettysburg, ultimately winding up in my hands.

Abraham Trostle barn as it appears today. Structure located in Gettysburg National Military Park.

I’ve been interested in the American Civil War since birth. As a young man, Ken Burns’ documentary on the war only spurred my interest. Keep me supplied with large bowls of buttered popcorn and I’ll watch it time and time again.

My ancestors fought on opposing sides; the majority of them being Confederate soldiers. Grandpa Houston Hankins told me stories about these courageous kinfolk. He said a few Hankins were teenagers when they enlisted. GGG-Grandfather Stephen G. Hankins from Lamar County, Alabama tragically lost 3 sons in the Civil War. Family history fascinates me.

One of my east coast ancestors, William Hankins, became a partner with gun-maker Christian Sharps in 1859. They produced Sharps & Hankins carbines and rifles used exclusively by Union troops.  Early on I had the desire to own artifacts from this conflict. It made no difference whether the relics were North or South. I love holding history in my hands. Certain antiques talk to me. Thanks to an understanding wife, and assistance from Mr. Norm Flayderman, my wish became reality.

The late Norm Flayderman is considered by many to be the expert of experts when it comes to firearms and accouterments used in the Civil War. His business, Norm Flayderman & Company, put out yearly catalogs chocked full of such antiques for sale. It made my day when one of these books showed up in the mail.

Often times because I lived in Alaska, the catalog would arrive a week later than addresses in other states. The items I sought were long gone. Because of this I called up Mr. Flayderman to inquire on what could be done. Initially I talked to his wife Ruth before Norm took the phone.

Amazing story about Pvt. Joseph Gilbert Barton's personal diary, and how it came to be lost then found during the Battle of Gettysburg.
The late Norm Flayderman

He must have sensed the utter unhappiness in my voice during our 15 minute conversation. Mr. Flayderman put me on his list of premium customers, although I’d yet to purchase anything from his firm. From that point on whenever the catalog showed up, countless hours would be spent poring over it. I don’t recall ever losing out on a purchase after Norm did me that favor.

Over the years I bought several antique weapons from him. Those items include a Sharps & Hankins – Army carbine plus a pepperbox pistol. Various tintype and daguerreotype photographs were obtained. One of my favorite collectibles were signed Civil War Bibles.

Deviating a bit, I picked up a pair of Lomen Brothers reindeer mukluks used by Admiral Richard Byrd on his Antarctica expedition. I traded those for an 1863 Springfield rifle excavated from a Williamsburg, Virginia battlefield.  The rifle has shrapnel marks on it indicating hot grapeshot from a cannon struck the barrel and receiver. I still get strange feelings each time I touch this weapon. Without doubt the soldier carrying it did not survive.

Yearly calls were made to Norm before his catalogs came off the press. He knew me as the ‘collector from Alaska’ although I’m sure I wasn’t the only 49th state player.  On my last conversation with Norm, I asked if he had anything from the Civil War that begged for attention. Norm knew what I meant saying that that he did.

He mentioned a unique Civil War diary coming up for sale. It was written by a Union soldier named Joseph Gilbert Barton. Mr. Barton served with the 14th Vermont Infantry – Company I. They were a group of volunteer soldiers.  Norm went on to say he’d been researching the manuscript for years, believing there was something special about it that he could not place his finger on. He told me he didn’t have time to continue pursuing.

Monument to Vermont Volunteers at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Norm Flayderman was loyal to his other customers. He would not allow me to purchase it before the catalog hit my hands.  He was as honest a businessman as they come. Norm told me to keep a lookout for the mailman.

“Early bird gets the worm!”, Norm chuckled.

When that catalog finally showed, speed-reading-tutor Evelyn Wood’s head would’ve spun as I quickly thumbed through it. I scanned page after page at warp speed looking intently for Barton’s diary. Finally locating the ad I called to check availability. Norm wasn’t in yet Ruth told me the item was still for sale. I excitedly asked her to,

“Mark it sold!”

When a well-insulated envelope arrived containing the diary I began carefully poring over each hand-written page. They were composed of ink on different types of paper. Norm included his research notes from a yellow legal-size notebook in the packet.

Joseph Gilbert Barton diary pages now reside in acid free envelopes for protection.

Some of the words were hard to read without magnifying glass. A friend of mine, Fred Salter, along with the assistance of Terry Barton on the Barton family website helped transcribe things. This took some time. The finished project was well worth their effort. Gilbert Barton’s chronological records lined up precisely with other recorded accounts of the 14th Vermont’s wartime activities.  Some of this new information was added to a website on the 14th Vermont Volunteers.

The journal begins with Pvt. J. Gilbert Barton entering the service. It mentions boring routines the troops went through getting ready for departure. Marches and drills were constantly part of the regimen. One of the more vivid entries is a detailed account on what Barton saw after his train arrived in Washington D.C.

“Oct 25, 1863

Arrived at Washington today about noon. Before we got there (near enough to see the city), the soldiers (myself included) were anxious to see the Capitol, as we crowded to the doors of the cars for a sight. After taking dinner that was prepared for us in a Soldier’s Boarding House, we rested a while & during the time saw several VT soldiers. Steven Hazard was one of them. Old women and raggedy boys and girls were around selling pies and cakes. I did not buy any for fear of being poisoned.”

I researched the 14th Vermont Infantry finding that they fought gallantly at Gettysburg. What was very unusual about Gilbert’s writing was there was no mention of such. In fact the diary’s last entry was dated March 13, 1863. The first thing popping into my head was that pages were missing.

I spent hour after hour looking for more information on Gilbert Barton going so far as to send off for his military records. They didn’t offer anything more than what I already knew. Eventually I placed the diary in my safe and moved on. That was over 30 years ago.

Just recently I was searching for tax paperwork coming across the old diary. Taking it out of its fireproof home, something told me to give things one more try.

I typed J. Gilbert Barton into a website and hit the jack pot:

Article from “Burlington Free Press” – Vermont newspaper – Feb. 21, 1890

For those having studied the American Civil War, you’ll know that Cemetery Hill and the Trostle Farm are the most significant landmarks in Gettysburg National Military Park. President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address there.

Many died on the farm grounds with graphic photographs showing the carnage. It’s remarkable that the Trostle farmhouse and barn are still standing.

When the 14th Vermont Infantry arrived in Gettysburg they had little time to settle in. Camped to the east of Cemetery Hill, records show the troops were instructed to double quick to an area under attack by Confederate troops. Double quick means dropping everything but gun and bullets and basically running to your position. This explains why Gilbert Barton lost his knapsack.

A knapsack back then is much like a backpack of today. It would’ve contained personal items such as Bible, photos, comb, tin cup, fork and spoon, metal plate, hardtack, writing utensils, paper, and in Gilbert Barton’s case, a copper stencil used for marking valuables.

Amazing story about a Civil War soldiers personal diary. and how it came to be lost then found during the Battle of Gettysburg.
This is representative of the copper stencil Joseph Gilbert Barton owned.

After the Gettysburg battle ended someone picked up Gilbert’s knapsack and went through it. How this stencil ended up hidden in the Trostle’ barn is a mystery. My theory being the person finding the knapsack, intentionally ditched the stencil for one main reason. That stencil identified who the goods belonged to. For whatever reason, Gilbert’s diary was deemed worthy of keeping. It’s a miracle that the writings survived.

In the months leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the 14th Vermont Infantry was always on the move. They were considered a part of the hard charging ‘Army of the Potomac’. Wolf Run Shoals and Occoquan in Virginia were their staging grounds the last few weeks.  During this time there would’ve been little or no time at all for Barton to make entries. His last journal date reflects that.

Although Gilbert was eventually reunited with his copper stencil in 1890, the diary never did return to his hands. Norm Flayderman indicated he’d purchased it at an estate sale, and that the person selling it did not have Barton connections.

It was only because of Mr. Flayderman piquing my interest that I ultimately purchased the diary. It’s almost as if Norm knew I’d never give up on finding answers.

J. Gilbert Barton’s diary is a significant piece of Civil War and Gettysburg ephemera. Provenance seemingly popped out of the woodwork in solving things, although popped out of newspaper pulp is a more plausible term. Without the 1890 archived newspaper article I never would’ve figured things out.

Paper items, unlike guns, swords, and copper stencils have a limited life expectancy when subjected to the elements. The simplistic and fragile diary composed by J. Gilbert Barton is a miraculous Gettysburg survivor.

I should end things here but I won’t. If you’re inquisitive like me you have to now wonder,

“What happened to Joseph Gilbert Barton’s copper stencil plate?”

Joseph Gilbert Barton Obituary – “Burlington Daily News” – July 21, 1908
Joseph Gilbert & Florence A. Coburn-Barton grave marker
Abraham Trostle barn as it appeared after the Battle of Gettysburg – 1863

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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