“The army surgeon sees little glory in war:” Visiting Henry Janes in Waterbury, Vermont

A portion of the Waterbury Historical Society’s exhibit on Henry Janes.

On a recent trip to Vermont to see some dear friends, I took a few detours to explore the region’s rich Civil War history. While the state may draw to mind gorgeous fall views (and let me tell you, they are spectacular) rather than the Civil War, the state has stories to tell. Vermont’s 1860 total population was around 315,000, but the state sent over 34,000 men to serve in the United States armed forces. Even today, the state is proud of their legacy and eager to remind visitors that it was the first state to abolish slavery and made a significant contribution to victory in the Civil War. The community of Waterbury in the northern part of the state and its contribution serves as an example of the small towns that dotted the countryside and how they played a role in some of the most famous moments of the Civil War.

Despite Waterbury’s small size, numbering at 2,198 residents in 1860, one look at the town’s Civil War monument and the names inscribed within makes it clear that Waterbury punched well above its weight class by sending many men to war. The monument lists 202 privates, 25 non-commissioned officers, and 16 officers. That’s a total of 243 men, 43 of whom died during the war. Among the roster of officers are Brevet Maj. Gen William Wells, who rose from the rank of private and earned the Medal of Honor with the 1st Vermont Cavalry south of Big Round Top at Gettysburg, Brevet Brig. Gen William W. Henry, who commanded the 10th Vermont Infantry and earned the Medal of Honor at the battle of Cedar Creek for leading the regiment during the counterattack despite being badly wounded, and Major Edwin Dillingham, a prewar lawyer killed at Petersburg. A lesser known name notable both for his service in the war and to the town is Brevet Lt. Col. Henry Janes.

A wartime image of Henry Janes. Courtesy Vermont in the Civil War.

Henry Janes was among the most dedicated surgeons of the Civil War. I first encountered his story in 2017, when I began transcribing hundreds of medical records from Camp Letterman General Hospital after the battle of Gettysburg. Janes was a Waterbury native who opened his local medical practice in 1857. At the outbreak of war he served as a surgeon with the 3rd Vermont Infantry, but his medical knowledge and administrative skill took him to further heights. In the summer and fall of 1863, he took command of all hospitals in Gettysburg, leading the medical personnel left behind by the Army of the Potomac and directing the care of thousands of the battle’s badly injured victims. Under his leadership and logistic ability, Camp Letterman tended to have better outcomes than other hospitals. Through it all, Janes carefully recorded treatment records for most patients.

Following Gettysburg, Janes commanded a hospital steamer and then returned to Vermont to lead Sloan General Hospital in neighboring Montpelier for the rest of the war. In peacetime he resumed his practice in Waterbury but did not forget the soldiers he treated or arranged care for. Over the following decades he wrote numerous articles and made presentations at conferences about injuries he treated and what they meant for the future of American medicine. He wanted to learn lessons about effective treatment from the notes he gathered during the war. As he poured over medical records from Gettysburg, notes in the margin prove that he would write to veterans to inquire if their treatment had been successful or if they still suffered from their wounds. In a 1903 address, he reflected on his life of medical service with the question “Why is the Profession of Killing More Generally Honored than that of Saving Life?”. “The army surgeon sees little glory in war,” he wrote, “Does not the surgeon serve his country as effectively and honorably, and humanity vastly more, by preserving the lives of its citizens, than the line officer does by inciting the men under him to maim and kill its enemies?”[1]

Henry Janes’s house, with historic marker noting his story and signs directing visitors to the Historical Society, Municipal Office, or public library.

When Janes died in 1915, he left his home to the town of Waterbury for use as a library. The striking red house is still used that way today. The original building houses the Waterbury Historical Society, which has displays about Janes and other events in the town’s history. Sizeable additions are home to the municipal offices and public library, ensuring the property continues to fill the role Janes envisioned and making his home a center of modern life in the town. While Janes may have felt he did not receive the credit he was due during the war, his wartime medicine and postwar efforts are certainly honored by the local community today.

The Civil War monument in Waterbury, Vermont. The other three faces list men from the town who served and indicates if they died in service.

There’s plenty more to see nearby as well! A short distance away is the state capital, Montpelier. The stunning 1857 Vermont State House is worth a tour to see their exhibits when the legislature isn’t in session, and the Vermont Historical Society has a very nice museum that includes meaningful artifacts from the Civil War era. And, if the modern world is calling to you after a day of history, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory Tour is located just down the road from Henry Janes’s house in Waterbury.

The Vermont State House.


[1] Henry Janes, “Why is the Profession of Killing More Generally Honored than that of Saving Life?” Transactions of the Vermont State Medical Society, 1903. https://books.google.com/books?id=77oDAAAAYAAJ&dq

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