Another Look at Survival

Museum display of Civil War surgical instruments. (Photograph by S.K. Bierle)

I’m getting ready to give a presentation to a round table this evening and have been reviewing my notes and what I’ll be sharing about Civil War medical practices and how those norms actually worked (or didn’t) during a campaign or battle. The talk is themed around the word “survive” or “survival.” It’s clear to draw the comparison and lessons from accounts of sick or wounded soldiers in a literal struggle to survive, but there’s another aspect that I address.

Any war or combat situation produces mental stress. Different people react and handle that stress and triggered memories in different ways. I’ve started a file of research notes specifically on how Civil War surgeons were affected by their experiences and how they coped with the carnage and death they routinely encountered and dealt with.

Dr. Alexander Neil joined the 12th West Virginia Infantry (Union) during the summer of 1863. He accompanied the regiment during the Shenandoah Campaigns of 1864, putting his degree from Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery to work and learn much more through experience in field hospitals.

By October 1864, Neil was an experienced surgeon, but his experiences wore on him mentally and physically. The losses of friends proved particularly difficult. His letters had always been informative, but there seems to be a distancing as the year continued, as though he knew that his family did not understand what he faced daily.

Excerpts from Neil’s letter following the Battle of Cedar Creek give insights into his struggles. As a surgeon, he was supposed to save lives, but sometimes that was medically impossible. But he also had to find a way to survive all that he saw, experienced, and mourned.

Oct. 21, 1864

My Dear Friends

I again embrace the opportunity of writing you a line informing you that I am yet alive and well, notwithstanding we passed through another fiery ordeal on Wednesday Oct 19… It resulted in another brilliant victory to our arms & the complete rout of the Rebel army. This is called the battle of Cedar Creek and was, if possible, more signally triumphant than any other battle we have fought. . . .[goes on to describe the fight]

We captured about sixty pieces of artillery & nearly all their wagon and ambulance train, also took some three or four thousand prisoners. . . .

Our Division Commander Col. Jos. Thoburn, who has been commanding either our brigade or division, all summer, and one of the bravest men who ever lived and who that day fought his twenty fifth battle was killed. . . . I can scarcely realize that he is dead, he was so brave, so kind. He was Col. of the 1st Virginia, a physician by profession and Surgeon of same regiment in first 3 months of service.

Capt. P.G. Bier, Crook’s asst. adjutant General, was mortally wounded & died. He was formerly a Lieutenant in my Regiment and a very efficient officer, and intimate friend of mine, but to mention of the names of my friends who fell that day on the battlefield would be unnecessary. So many there were of them.

To go over the battlefield the next day after the battle was a great, but common sight to me, as it was the 10th battle I have been in this summer and fall.

[Concludes the letter with:]

Surgeon Shannon 116th Ohio Regt. was mortally wounded that morning in the panic. He was an intimate friend of mine and an efficient medical officer.

I have not time nor space to write you particulars as I am very busy and hoping you are well. I remain, Your Son, Alex

5 Responses to Another Look at Survival

  1. Kay does a great job dramatizing the mental emotional side of the Civil War. I believe the emotional condition of my great grandfather when he came home had an impact that persists down to this day and to me.

  2. What we now call PTSD has both short and long term consequences to a person’s mental health.The constant explosions and screams of injured and dying cause changes in the brain that are difficult to treat even in the age of modern medicine

  3. Smithsonian magazine featured (1-2 YEARS ago) a Melville poem that referred to the loss of denial about war from the reality of a Bullet. Which poem? Intriguing!

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