Surgeons’ Memories of the Civil War
Originally published in December 2014 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 19, No. 2
What was the effect on Civil War surgeons of their war service? In his pioneering book, Doctors in Blue, Charles Adams wrote that “the number [of doctors] who sickened and resigned, only to die at home, or who carried with them for years the curse of chronic invalidism, will forever remain unknown.” But perhaps now – sixty years after Adams’s book, we might be able to find in at least Union pension records and in memoirs some answer to the question of how war service affected doctors.
Examples of men traumatized by what they saw and did can be found throughout the sources. Bushrod James, for example, was a Philadelphian civilian who arrived at Gettysburg as a volunteer in the days after the battle. He described not just what he had witnessed in 1863, but what he had seen in his dreams for many nights since:
Groans and cries, screams and curses, moans and grinding teeth … 
After “weeks of sickening work” he left “his health completely broken down.” Not for thirty-two years could he bring himself to return, but when he did he was able to go to the precise spot where he had operated at the Second Corps Hospital. The memory remained with him – in 1895 he published a poem, re-counting the experience in verse (“Gettysburg – After the Battle”) and in prose.
Bushrod James was not alone. In Texas an anonymous “rebel surgeon” explained, thirty years after, that he looked at his war service through what he called his “Retroscope … an instrument of my own invention.” It acted like a reversed telescope, “effacing the painful, disagreeable memories.” But he sometimes forgot to look through his Retroscope and “before I was aware of it, there had come trooping before my mental vision a whole lot of unpleasant recollections.” His remedy for what he called the “blues” was to seek distraction in Mark Twain and other humorous writings. Some found rituals to permit them to remember safely – Henry Janes, who became responsible for the Union hospitals after Gettysburg, including Bushrod James’ hospital, allowed himself to remember each July, when he would “sit and leaf through his case book’.”
The Civil War had no one name for what we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that does not mean that they did not see it and, indeed, suffer from it. If they had no word for “traumatic experience,” they knew exhaustion and strain. When John Perry wrote in June 1864 that “I am heartsick over it all” we might take “heartsick” to mean more than merely “weary” or “fed up.” Despite their hard demeanor, they could not help reflecting on what they had experienced. We can be sure that North Carolina surgeon Thomas Wood was not the only operator of whom it could be said that “the scenes he witnessed must have haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.” An historian writes bluntly that most veterans “suffer[ed] some form of psychiatric casualty after witnessing unremitting war” – something many surgeons experienced.
One of the clearest, and saddest, examples comes from the journal of Myron Robinson, surgeon to the 6th Connecticut Regiment, who at 24 years of age followed his regiment into the disastrous second attack on Fort Wagner, NC, on 18 July 1863. (This is the night assault made famous by the film Glory, telling the story of the celebrated African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts. Robinson’s regiment attacked beside it.) This, his first experience of combat, saw him searching the sand-hills by lantern light, carrying wounded men back by boat and treating dozens of them through the night. At dawn the next day, he confided to his journal, he said he:
tried to put the bloody scene behind me for a short while & I lit my pipe and sat down on a cartridge box … 
and he later told his sister how:
as I thought of the scenes of the past night, I was perfectly overcome … I could not sleep.
And the “bloody scene” would not leave him. Six weeks later he would:
Often wake up at night in a cold sweat … related to bad dreams associated with that grisly night.
In fact, he suffered from nightmares of “our bloody, horrible night” up to and probably beyond the war’s end. Later in 1863, he described how he continued to feel “A sense of forlorn depression set in upon me,” in which “my mind could not shut off the recounting of that tragic night.” When he did sleep, in his dreams he “could still feel the frustration … when we could not stop the bleeding.” Only as the war ended did he feel that “the terrors of war began to fade from me (and my dreams).” But even after the war thunderstorms brought back uncomfortable memories and he felt highly emotional when he became head of a soldiers’ home in Connecticut.
It is possible that the creation of medical associations performed a function in addition to their ostensible purpose of professional exchange and education. It seems that they flourished after the war, in practically every state, north and south, and in many counties even, many of which had as members men who had seen war service. It is surely possible that along with lectures on new medical theories and surgical techniques, surgeons sought out what we would see as the support of those who had shared their burdens.
Civil War surgeons had no concept of what we would understand as cleanliness in operating. But writing after the acceptance of the Germ Theory, many surgeons’ memoirs acknowledge that their unavoidable ignorance led to deaths by infection. Is it possible that medical associations, meeting in private, allowed men who may have felt responsibility if not guilty to commune, perhaps silently, easing a burden by sharing it? It is notable that Silas Trowbridge, though robust and frank in his autobiography (he writes of his hands being so bloody for so long after Shiloh that they became “wrinkled like a washerwoman’s”) became active in the Illinois State Medical Society after the war. The NMCWM’s archives include copies of addresses made by former Confederate surgeons to southern bodies explicitly established to commemorate their service to the Confederacy, meetings that might have had a therapeutic effect for their members.
In the streets of post-war America, former surgeons must often have been reminded of their wartime experience, so numerous were amputees. North or South, they were honored, for helping to save the Union, or for contributing to the valiant lost cause of southern independence. That public esteem must have helped to ease their discomfort. But privately, memories of what they had seen and done slipped through that decorous curtain. Towards the end of the century a journalist induced the “rebel surgeon” to describe his wartime experiences (supposedly on a phonograph record). The old man was about to describe how “I went up with the ambulances,” but stopped:
Oh, horror of horrors [he said] … Let’s drop the curtain. It makes me sick, even now, to think of what I saw that night, and the next and the next.
It comes as a shock to read that Joshua Underhill, an Indiana surgeon who had suppressed his feelings when a man he had treated died by describing him as a “subject,” himself died in 1889 “in the grip of a cocaine addiction” – and you cannot help wondering whether the two were in some way related.
The more we read surgeons’ letters, diaries and memoirs, the more it becomes clear that the sort of trauma we’ve looked at was essentially similar on both sides. Just as this museum emphasizes that both sides were “divided by conflict” but “united by compassion,” we can also see that they were united by shared trauma, during and for long after the war.
Want to learn more? Read “My Hands and Heart Full” also by the author.
- Charles Adams, Doctors in Blue: the Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1980, p. 58
- Gregory Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, 1988, p. xv
- Bushrod James, Echoes of Battle, Henry Coates, Philadelphia, 1895
- F.E. Daniel, Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon, Clinic Publishing, Chicago, 1901, p. 13
- Daniel, Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon, p. 97
- Janet Bucklew, Dr. Henry Janes: Country Doctor & Civil War Surgeon, Vermont Civil War Enterprises, Newport, 2008, p. 105
- Martha Perry, (ed.), Letters from a Surgeon of the Civil War, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1906, quoted in Harold Straubling, In Hospital and Camp: the Civil War through the Eyes of Its Doctors and Nurses, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, 1993, p. 21
- Donald Koonce, (ed.), Doctor to the Front: The Recollections of Confederate Surgeon Thomas Fanning Wood, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2000, p. xvii
- Judith Anderson, ‘Haunted Minds: the Impact of Combat Exposure on the Mental and Physical Health of Civil War Veterans’, in James Schmidt & Guy Hasagawa, Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine, Edinborough Press, 2009, p. 152
- Stewart Petrie, (ed.), Letters and Journal of a Civil War Surgeon, Pentland Press, Raleigh, 1998, pp. 70; 97; 90; 98; 100 & 158
- Silas Trowbridge, Autobiography , Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2004, p. 79
- Daniel, Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon, p. 82
- Christopher Morss, (ed.), Helena to Vicksburg: A Civil War Odyssey, Heritage House, Lincoln Center, 2000, p. 115
About the Author
Prof. Peter Stanley, of the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians and a joint winner in 2011 of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. He is the author of 25 books, mostly in Australian military history, but including For Fear of Pain: British Surgery 1790-1850 (Editions Rodopi in association with the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, Amsterdam, 2003). In July 2013 he spent a two-week honorary research fellowship at the NMCWM in Frederick, MD.