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The Civil War 150 Years: Solomon Conn’s Violin Diary

A soldier's violin becomes a record of his war-time travels

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Conn's Civil War violin. Photo courtesy American History Museum

As part of the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War at the Smithsonian Institution, the Around the Mall team will be reporting in a series of posts on some of the illustrative artifacts held by the museums from that epic battle. See more from the collections here.

On May 1st, 1863, Solomon Conn bought a violin in Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of his years as an infantryman in Company B of the 87th Indiana Volunteers, he’d re-purposed it into a diary, inscribing its wood with a list of his travels—one of the most unusual artifacts to survive the Civil War.

“Conn did not play the instrument himself, he bought it for his unit,” says Kathleen Golden, a curator at the American History Museum, where the violin is held. But as B Company moved across the South, fighting in the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864 and joining in Sherman’s March to the Sea, Conn gradually carved  inscriptions of his wartime experience into the back and sides of the instrument.

“There are roughly 30 battles on here, and that’s only on the left and right side,”  Golden says. “And it’s not just battles, but also skirmishes and just places they visited.”

At the time, making music was a significant part of a soldier’s everyday life. ”When you’re in a war, there’s lot of downtime,” Golden says, and although Conn himself did not play, other members of his unit may have picked up his fiddle and played it. “Soldiers entertained themselves a lot of different ways, and music was one of them.”

Most instruments carried in battle, though, were more durable and compact, such as the bugle and drum on display along with the violin as part of the museum’s exhibition, “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” “Most instruments were easier to carry, like a flute or fife,” Golden says.

A detail view of the place names inscribed on the back of the violin. Photo courtesy American History Museum

Enduring two years in battle did make its mark on the violin. “The strings aren’t original, they were replaced, and part of the violin had broken off and was fixed,” says Golden. “But it managed to go through the war somewhat intact, and then survived in the family.”

Conn died in 1926, and passed it on to his grandsons, William and Jackson Conn. They donated it to the Institution in 1988, 125 years after their grandfather bought it at the height of the war.

Although the museum has a trove of artifacts from the Civil War, there are only a few like the violin. “But this violin is fairly unique,” Golden says. It tells someone’s story.”

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