Book Review: Medical Histories of Union Generals (Jack D. Welsh) : ACW


Medical Histories of Union Generals, by Jack D. Welsh, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, $35.

Aside from the unwieldy records gathered in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and a handful of classics like George Worthington Adams’ Doctors in Blue and H.H. Cunningham’s Doctors in Gray, the medical aspects of the Civil War have been largely neglected. Scholars of the conflict have often faced the unpleasant task of digging through widely scattered and poorly organized documents to locate information on even the most well-known personalities. Jack D. Welsh first addressed this oversight in 1995 with his masterful Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. With the release of his latest volume, Medical Histories of Union Generals, students of the conflict finally have a handy set of references on this important topic.

Welsh, a retired doctor and respected medical professor, is eminently qualified to comment on the medical events surrounding the lives of the Federal commanders. He draws on a wealth of rare sources to provide capsule summaries of the 583 officers listed in Ezra Warner’s seminal Generals in Blue. Welsh does a fine job of translating the archaic terminology of 19th-century medical science into lucid prose.

Each entry touches briefly on relevant biographical data, including date and place of birth, childhood illnesses, prewar occupation and pre-existing medical conditions. The meat of the text is devoted to wartime medical events–everything from minor illnesses and sick leaves to accidents and mortal wounds. Information from death certificates is included in about 80 percent of the cases.

Due to a dearth of documentation, several minor figures receive only brief coverage. The entry on Abner Clark Harding, for example, contains only one medical reference: “failing eyesight.” For the most part, however, Welsh has managed to unearth quite a bit of arcane information. Many obscure officers receive surprisingly lengthy treatment. For instance, the death of William Scott Ketchum is related in elaborate detail due to his suspected murder by the owner of a Baltimore boardinghouse.

The famous personalities naturally command the lion’s share of attention. Welsh offers detailed information on Winfield Scott Hancock’s wounding at Gettysburg and his postwar diabetes. Ulysses S. Grant’s numerous maladies are likewise covered in depth.

Welsh declines to comment on how the officers’ medical problems might have influenced their military faculties. As he notes in the introduction, however, “Even a brief review of the multiple illnesses and injuries resulting from wounds and accidents would suggest the possible influence poor health had on their field performance.” For instance, the revelation that the severe contusion Joseph Hooker suffered at Chancellorsville caused long-term partial paralysis raises an obvious question: Did the injury affect Hooker’s subsequent military judgment? Future historians will undoubtedly rely on Welsh’s research to probe such intriguing possibilities.

A careful reading reveals the courage and dedication of those officers who endured without complaint an endless procession of injury and disease. “They did not consider themselves victims,” writes Welsh, “but accepted what happened and carried on with their lives.” Medical Histories of Union Generals is a valuable addition to the literature of Civil War medicine.

Mark Chance


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