Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The Pennsylvania State Archives has in its collection numerous diaries recording the personal experiences of prominent people in the state’s history. One of those diaries not only documented its owner’s life but also possibly saved it.

James Addams Beaver (1837–1914), born in Millerstown, Perry County, was an attorney in Bellefonte, Centre County, who would serve as the 20th governor of Pennsylvania, 1887–91, and then as a justice of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 1895–1914. He also became a longtime member of the board of trustees for the Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University) and the namesake of three successive football fields on campus, the most recent being the 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium.

Before his later accomplishments, Beaver fought in the American Civil War. On April 28, 1861, he and his local volunteer militia company, the Bellefonte Fencibles, traveled to Harrisburg’s Camp Curtin to volunteer. Beaver was elected first lieutenant of Company H of the 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (PVI), a three-month regiment. By July 22, he was enrolled for three years, assisting in recruiting the new 45th PVI and becoming its lieutenant colonel.

In August 1862 Beaver was commissioned colonel of the 148th PVI, and by December the unit was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of Chancellorsville during the first week of May 1863, Beaver received the first of his combat wounds. A pencil that he carried turned the course of a bullet away from his vital organs and it came to rest in the fleshy part of his abdomen.

After the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania, Beaver, still recuperating from his wound, was placed in charge of Camp Curtin on June 18, 1863. During this crucial time, he greatly assisted the effort to organize Pennsylvania militia units to defend their home state from the Army of Northern Virginia. On July 19 Beaver resumed his command of the 148th in Virginia.

In May 1864 Beaver and the 148th fought bravely under fire at the Battle of the Wilderness, and as part of the 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, helped break the Confederate line at Spotsylvania.

Beaver kept daily pocket diaries throughout his service in the war. His diary entry for May 12, 1864, noted that during the Battle of Spotsylvania he had been struck by a spent bullet that was stopped by the diary he carried in his breast pocket.

The diary may have saved Beaver’s life, but this would not be the last time he would be struck by a bullet. Beaver and his regiment were again active combatants at the Battle of Cold Harbor. A June 4 letter to his mother recounted the battle and that he had again been shot, this time on the hip, but his skin was not broken, because the bullet had been slowed by first passing through the body of an aide with whom he was speaking.

At Petersburg, Virginia, on June 16, 1864, Beaver commanded the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Here he led a charge late in the day toward Confederate fieldworks, when an enemy shell struck beneath his feet, buried itself in the ground, and exploded. Beaver was thrown into the air sustaining a severe wound to his side. He was granted two leaves of absence while recovering from this injury.

Beaver was anxious to return to his command, and he resumed service before his second leave had expired. By this time the 2nd Corps had been given the task of destroying the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg. Beaver returned to his brigade command on August 26, 1864, just 30 minutes before the Confederates began an overwhelming attack on them at Reams’ Station. Tragically, at the beginning of this battle, Beaver sustained a significant wound in his right thigh that shattered the bone, requiring amputation of the leg the following day. Beaver’s diary entries are brief but poignant. On September 3, he wrote with a sense of despair, “Commenced to die. Stimulants ruined me.” Nevertheless, he survived to continue his career in public service.

The James A. Beaver Papers held at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Manuscript Group 389 contain Beaver’s Civil War correspondence with his mother, his future wife and others and his four diaries dated 1861–64, including the 1864 volume that saved him from a bullet wound at Spotsylvania.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.