A family with roots in northwest Louisiana has donated a Civil War diary and several letters of that era to the archives at Northwestern State University. The John Coleman Sibley Collection, presented to NSU’s Cammie G. Henry Research Center at Watson Library, details the experiences of Sibley, a 1st Sergeant and later 2nd Jr. Lieutenant of Co. E 2nd Louisiana Cavalry.


A family with roots in northwest Louisiana has donated a Civil War diary and several letters of that era to the archives at Northwestern State University. The John Coleman Sibley Collection, presented to NSU’s Cammie G. Henry Research Center at Watson Library, details the experiences of Sibley, a 1st Sergeant and later 2nd Jr. Lieutenant of Co. E 2nd Louisiana Cavalry. 

Sibley’s descendants and their families presented the collection to NSU at the suggestion of another distant relative, Dr. Donald Parker, who discovered the existence of the diary while doing research for a book on the Unit, in which eight of his ancestors served.  Parker also negotiated with the Louisiana State University Press to print the diary and letters, due out next year.

Sibley was born in Georgia in 1835 and moved to Louisiana with his parents. He taught school in the 1850s before marrying and establishing a farm near Florien while serving as Sabine Parish Clerk of Court.  Sibley enlisted in the Confederate Army July 15, 1862, in Natchitoches.  Most of the letters in the collection are those Sibley wrote to his wife Elizabeth, though some were written to him by family or friends and a number of the letters go back as far as 1844.

“After he’d been in the service, he mentioned to a fellow soldier that he wished to keep a diary, so he was given a blank ledger by a friend in the unit,” said the Rev. Carl Smith, whose mother was Sibley’s granddaughter.  “When he began writing, it was after 1862, so he wrote from memory the events that led up to 1863 and picked up from there.” 

Because of the diary and letters, children of the family grew up with a connection to their family history, which fueled their interest in genealogy, as they got older.

“Growing up, we were aware of the letters and their importance,” Smith said. “Through the diary we came to know about his experiences and the things he went through.  As the family stories came down, we had seen them in his own handwriting and it made the stories more personal.”

According to Parker, Sibley spilled his emotions into the diary describing his loneliness at being away from his family, fatigue, frustration and sadness at seeing his friends killed. He described shortages in food and clothing and difficulties in caring for the unit’s horses, as well as run-ins with deserters and outlaws.

“He also talked about his values, his work ethic and qualities he hoped to instill in his children,” Parker said.

Sibley’s unit operated throughout south Louisiana and as far north as Mansfield.  They frequently patrolled the upper reaches of the Calcasieu River and supply points between the Mississippi and Sabine rivers, performing picket and scout duties.  In 1864, near Alexandria, the unit was surprised and overcome by Union forces who took approximately 200 prisoners, including Sibley.  Upon his eventual release, the first news he received from home was that of the death of his oldest child.

After the Civil War, Sibley returned home. The diary and letters were passed down through the generations until they were placed in a safe deposit box in Houston several years ago.  Parker, meanwhile, was researching Co. E 2nd Louisiana Cavalry when he became aware of the diary’s existence. 

“I found John Coleman Sibley in a reference book and realized he was the brother of my great-great grandmother,” he said.  Parker embarked on a long search for the diary, eventually tracking down relatives in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, the descendants of John Coleman Sibley.

Parker, a Louisiana native who now lives in Elkhart, Ind., is a retired scientist and genealogist whose particular interest is American history from 1800-1865.  He has identified six dozen relatives who served in the Civil War, including those who fought on the Union side.  He encouraged the Sibley descendants to donate the collection to the NSU archives.

“Historians and scholars need to have access to this information and in the archives, the documents will be protected and preserved,” Parker said.

“John Coleman Sibley and his wife’s story has been perpetuated by their descendants,” said Mary Linn Wernet, NSU archivist.  “Many of their descendants attended Normal and Northwestern.”

Smith presented the documents to NSU on behalf of his mother and her sister, Ruth Sibley Ellzey, and their children and grandchildren, including himself, Earline Carr, Jean Ellzey, Doris Edwards, Gerald Smith, Wendell Smith, Patrick Carr and Rick Carr

“We thought it would be good stewardship to put the diary where it would be utilized by a wide scope of people,” Smith added. “There are a lot of names of the people in his unit and information others might find useful. We thought Northwestern would be a good place for it.”