Earlier this year, I arrived at a genealogy society to give a presentation on Civil War Medicine. I set up my laptop and PowerPoint, projecting my presentation cover image on the large screens. While waiting for the meeting to come to order, I mingled with the club members and guests, listening to their latest ancestral discoveries and chatting about local California history.
In a silent moment, a gentleman came up to me and declared, “Civil War doctors were just butchers. I don’t know what you’re going to talk about for an hour.” (Or something along those lines of dialog.)
Oh dear! I grimaced inwardly. Think gracious, think gracious – alienating an audience member will not lead to an educational opportunity. I replied, “It was a difficult time. And the role and actions of Civil War doctors is actually something I’ll be sharing about. Perhaps you’ll be a little surprised by the situation.”
Shaking his head incredulously, he headed back to his chair, leaving me nervous and wondering if the whole audience felt that way. Whether he knew it or not, that gentleman had just thrown down the challenge gauntlet, and I metaphorically picked it up. I determined that – one way or another – I was going to make sure that fellow and the entire audience heard accurate information about the Civil War. My ultimate goal for the evening: have one audience member come and say “I learned something. I didn’t know that…” at the end of the presentation.
It was lecture time. Taking a deep breath and settling into the presentation, I began with my own journey into the facts of the medical systems during the Civil War. Then we did some myth-busting. (Ironically, one of the myths I address in this presentation is the idea that doctors were just saw-bone butchers. We talked about that perception and then explored if was reality.) I was carefully to speak to the entire room, not focus my attention directly on the opinionated gentleman.
The presentation went on, introducing a doctor’s medical training in the 19th Century, the role of women in medicine during the conflict, the Letterman System, and some primary source examples from Gettysburg battle and aftermath. I wrapped up with questions and answers, thanked the audience, and headed for the book signing table.
In the aftermath of the presentation and the flurry of making change and signing books, one person came quietly and insisted to speak with me. It was the gentleman who believed Civil War surgeons were just butchers. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, “I learned something. And your research and presentation changed my opinion.”
Ah – the power of accurate historical information and reliable primary source quotes!
Leaving the conference room a half-hour later and making my lonely way to my vehicle, I felt like I was walking on clouds. The audience seemed to find the presentation interesting, but I was elated that at least one person had had a change of heart toward some Civil War heroes who are routinely criticized in Civil War fast-fact studies.
Hours and hours of research. Research that had reduced me to a crying mess at times. Research that had left me sickened at the scenes described. Research that introduced me to courageous men and women who decided to fight to save lives. In that evening, in that moment when the man came back to say he’d changed his mind, those hours seemed repaid over and above my expectations.
Perhaps it’s just a rose-colored view of a little incident. The pragmatics will quickly point out that kind words probably didn’t fill the monetary value of those hours of research. But sometimes we can be too practical. I decided to enjoy the moment and be thankful for the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s perception and interpretation of medical history from the Civil War era.