A Surgeon With Custer at the Little Big Horn: James DeWolf’s Diary and Letters, 1876, edited by Todd E. Harburn, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017, $29.95
This is a revised edition of the diary of James Madison DeWolf, one of the three surgeons who accompanied Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry to disaster at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. An exceptional character in his own right, DeWolf was 17 when he volunteered for the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War, serving in the artillery before radically changing his career—though he remained in the Army while making the transition to Dr. DeWolf. His writings add much to our appreciation of the medical profession in a Western and military setting. DeWolf’s career was cut short during the first stage of the battle, when Major Marcus Reno ordered his force to retreat. Recovered after the battle, his body bore bullet wounds, but the Indians had neither scalped nor otherwise mutilated his remains.
There must be 10,000 histories, novels, films and TV shows centered on Custer. This isn’t another one. What editor Todd E. Harburn, himself an orthopedic surgeon, ultimately gleans from the biographical details in DeWolf’s diary and letters is that whatever else the doctor was, he chose to become a soldier, remained a soldier first and foremost and died like a soldier. His is a life story worth reading.