Tracking Samuel Preston Moore Down the Rabbit Hole

Samuel Preston Moore (photo courtesy of University of Alabama at Birmingham)

ECW is pleased to welcome Guy Hasegawa, author of Matchless Organization: The Confederate Army Medical Department, the latest in the Engaging the Civil War Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press in partnership with ECW. Part one of three.

Matchless Organization began with my intention to learn more the inner workings of the Surgeon General’s Office (SGO) in the Confederate army. Students of Civil War medicine recognize the surgeon general, Samuel Preston Moore, as central to the notable accomplishments of the army’s medical department, but understanding Moore has been hampered by a relative shortage of first-hand information about him. I hoped that by learning about how the SGO operated—who worked there, what they did, how they were led by the surgeon general—something could be inferred about Moore. When I started the SGO research, it was mainly to satisfy my curiosity. I had little idea where my investigations would lead, and I had no expectation that a book would result.

I came to realize that I couldn’t appreciate the day-to-day workings of the SGO without knowing more about the decisions made there: what they were, why they were issued, and who and what influenced them. To understand those decisions, I had to expand my knowledge of what was happening at various points during the war and of the difficulties faced by the Confederate government in general and the army’s medical department in particular. I eventually accumulated enough information for a book, but important decisions had to be made. What, for example, would be the general approach, and how could the book stand out among the existing literature?

Until now, the standard and unrivaled work on Confederate medicine has been H. H. Cunningham’s Doctors in Gray (originally published in 1958), which adopts a wide view of the topic, from decision-makers in Richmond to troops in the field and civilians in Southern cities and towns. My research, on the other hand, lent itself to a military perspective centered on Moore and the SGO and radiating out through the medical chain of command to regimental and hospital surgeons and their assistants—an “inside out” look, so to speak. Thus, Matchless Organization, compared with Doctors in Gray, focuses more on the organizational aspects of the army’s medical department. Throughout the book, I aimed to explain actions taken by the SGO that might otherwise seem inconsistent or confusing.

Researcher are often frustrated when trying to discern exactly where previous scholars obtained their information. Doctors in Gray is a case in point, for although it includes a lengthy essay about Cunningham’s reference sources, it does not indicate the specific sources of individual facts presented in the text. Such was the style of many historical works published in the 1950s. (On the other hand, Cunningham’s Ph.D. dissertation, upon which Doctors in Gray is based, is thoroughly documented but not easily accessed.) In hopes of maximizing the usefulness of my work, I recorded my sources carefully, and SIU Press is providing ample room for them in the book’s notes section. I learned from Cunningham’s dissertation that although he used a wide range of sources, he omitted others that proved vital to me. (Read more about the research behind Matchless Organization in blog post 2.)

This project made clear that many of the factors influencing the SGO are universal and surely familiar to today’s reader—professionalism, ambition, competition for resources, and political pressure, for instance. Furthermore, the department did not function in isolation but interacted with other organizational entities (e.g., the quartermaster and subsistence departments), with the Confederate Congress, and with the movements of the armies. Because Civil War soldiers were about twice as likely to die from disease as from battlefield wounds, how well the medical department functioned was clearly important to the army’s fighting efficiency. Finally, some historical figures previously known to me only by name emerged as real people, whose character traits influenced their actions.

Although I started with modest goals, I realized that the information I gathered would not only add to knowledge of Confederate medicine but also relate to other studies of the war and even provide insights to readers interested in management and problem-solving. My hope is that Matchless Organization will prove useful not only to Civil War enthusiasts but to a wider audience as well.

Surgeon General Samuel Preston Moore as he appeared on a Confederate bond. (Author’s collection)

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