Local author offers the Civil War-era diary of an ordinary Western Pennsylvania woman | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local author offers the Civil War-era diary of an ordinary Western Pennsylvania woman

"She's one of us."

"Today is my birthday, 20 years of age," begins the first entry in the pocket diary that Martha Feisler kept from September 1864 to August 1865.

Almost 150 years later, most of the entries from this journal have been printed in Today Is My Birthday: The Civil War Era Diary of Martha Feisler.

Kathryn Schanck, of Bon Air, bought the diary on eBay for $40. It was written in Fairview, a rural community near Erie, Pa., where the German-immigrant Feisler family had settled. (The diary was shipped from Indiana, where Feisler's family later moved.)

The self-published book (available at [email protected]) includes several recipes that Feisler, a passionate baker, scribbled down, including for ginger cake and molasses cookies. She helped in the garden, washed and ironed, and cared for her siblings.

Some people equate "Civil War-era woman" with Scarlett O'Hara in her green velvet dress. But as Schanck notes, "Someone who's working is not going to be dressed like that."

Feisler's entries are brief. A typical one from March 16, 1865, read, "Rainy & stormy. Helped Carrie to iron. Sewed this afternoon."

On April 15, 1865, Feisler wrote, "Got the news that Mr. Lincoln was shot." But the value of this diary lies mostly in its portrayal of the everyday life of a Northern middle-class woman of her time. "That's what Mattie is," says Schanck affectionately. "She's one of us."

Martha, also known as Mattie, had received an elementary-school education. She writes about studying music, horseback riding and sledding with friends. She often mentions Sunday school, prayer meetings and choir.

Schanck, a retired Pittsburgh Police officer, grew up in Polish Hill. She considers genealogy research her second profession and has complied two books of her own family's history and a family cookbook.

Schanck spent a year piecing together the Feisler family story. She used records on ancestry.com, church records, U.S. Census data and service records from the National Archives. Transcribing Feisler's diary, meanwhile, spanned three summers. Schanck worked on her patio, holding the pages up to the sunlight — the only way she could decipher the smeared ink and smudged pencil.

Serendipitously, Schanck met Joan Fiesler, a genealogist at the Fairview Area Historical Society. Joan's husband is the great grandson of Martha's oldest brother.

Earlier this year, Fiesler gave Schanck a tour of Fairview: "I felt like I was right there with Martha," says Schanck. "It was the greatest thing."

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