From the regimental camp of the 111th New York Infantry near Brandy Station, Virginia, Surgeon James Benton wrote to his parents, “The spring campaign will soon be upon us and in my opinion we have never seen any fighting which will equal what is coming. It will be the climax of desperation.” Those words proved prophetic: going into the Wilderness two months later with almost 470 men, the 111th New York would lose 267 of them by the end of the Overland Campaign—a nearly staggering 60%. Benton found himself in the middle of the hospitals amongst that devastation. The letters Benton wrote home during the conflict are the basis of a book that help reveal the horrors of the American Civil War.
That book, Death, Disease, and Life at War, is edited by Christopher E. Loperfido. Loperfido starts the book with a quick preface explaining how he came about Benton’s letters among a collection in a New York historical society, and then includes a “Military Organizations” section before moving on to Benton’s letters.
Born in 1837, Benton graduated from the Albany Medical School in 1857 and joined the 111th New York in August, 1862. The regiment very quickly saw service as it was among the besieged units surrendered at Harpers Ferry in September, 1862. In his letters home, Benton writes about taking care of the wounded and the sick from a parole camp at Camp Douglas, Illinois.
The letters saw Benton through the war, to places like Fairfax County, Virginia, and Gettysburg; Bristoe Station and Petersburg. For the reader looking for every little detail of Benton’s military service conveyed in those letters, quite frankly, they won’t find them. Benton’s prose is sometimes downright prosaic, teetering on the mundane. However, this is not necessarily a fault of the book—Benton frequently wrote about the monotony of camp, revealing that the war was not just large battles and campaigns. He wrote to his father, also a doctor, telling him of some of his cases, and relaying what actions he took to help his patients. By early 1865, Benton was appointed as the regimental surgeon of the 98th New York, seeing garrison duty in the burned-out, captured Richmond. Throughout those letters, Loperfido’s editorial comments help to add useful context surrounding the people Benton wrote to and about.
Besides the letters, the book also includes a number of appendices that cover topics like Jonathan Letterman’s medical policies in the Army of the Potomac, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the ambulance corps, amputations, and medical dressings. These are good additions that add more peripheral details to aspects that James Benton would have been intimately familiar with.
The book does have some hiccups. In his “Military Organizations” prologue Loperfido writes, “Each corps was designated with a number beginning with Roman numeral I” (viii). Federal corps were denoted instead with Arabic numerals—the Roman numerals would not come until the postwar. Elsewhere, in the appendix about Jonathan Letterman: “Before Jonathan Letterman, no medical evacuation plan of any type had ever been considered” (105). This would certainly surprise Dominique Jean Larrey, a surgeon of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé who implemented battlefield evacuation plans and triage nearly twenty years before Letterman was even born.
Besides the small handful of factual errors, this is still a well-done book that adds to the historiography of the Army of the Potomac. Christopher Loperfido has provided a solid resource for those who want to get an inside glimpse of a surgeon’s role in America’s bloodiest conflict. Death, Disease, and Life at War could certainly find a home on any Civil War historian’s bookshelf.
Christopher E. Loperfido, Death, Disease, and Life at War: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th New York Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865
Savas Beatie, 2018
140 Pages, Footnotes, Appendices A-E, Bibliography, Index.