Book Reviews: Living Hell and Learning From the Wounded | HistoryNet

Book Reviews: Living Hell and Learning From the Wounded

By Allen Barra
3/16/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War

By Michael C.C. Adams, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, $29.95

Learning From the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science

By Shauna Devine, University of North Carolina Press, 2014, $39.95


Is war really good for “absolutely nothing?” Not necessarily, as two new books, Living Hell and Learning From the Wounded, indicate. War  can perhaps be useful in helping prevent more war.

The only thing wrong with Michael  C.C. Adams’s Living Hell is its subtitle. After all, was there really a “light”  side to the Civil War?

Adams, author of the controversial  1978 book about Union generals, Our Masters the Rebels, has written a  mind-searing compendium of the hardships suffered by Union and Confederate soldiers from sickness, hunger,  wounds and everyday living conditions:  “the misery of soldiers living amid  corpses, filth and flies.”

Just as bad, perhaps, were the  mental and emotional scars that drove  soldiers from both sides into behavior  that led Joshua Callaway, a Confederate, to write to his wife, “I learned  more of human nature and deception  than I ever cared to know.”

Little improved for veterans after  the war. Adams relates that an 1865  issue of The Soldier’s Friend, a magazine for Union veterans, suggested  they should “conceal the fact of their  having been in the army” as it might  hinder their chances for employment.  Sad to say, today’s veterans might benefit from such blunt advice.

In Learning From the Wounded,  Shauna Devine, a visiting research  fellow in the history of medicine at the  Schulich School of Medicine at Western  University, makes a convincing case  that at least one good thing came from  the horror of the Civil War, namely  the advancement of medicine. It is  commonplace, she acknowledges, “to  associate this war with inexperienced  physicians and surgeons hacking off  limbs with unsanitized medical equipment while patients clamped down on  bullets, trying to suppress the pain.”  After all, perhaps two-thirds of the  war’s casualties were caused by disease  and infection.

Divine goes back to official reports  to reexamine the heroism of Civil War  physicians, most of them Union (the  Confederate Medical Department,  she notes, was impeded by its lack of  resources and shortages of medicine  and food), who often performed near  miracles under horrendous conditions.  “The American medical profession,”  she writes, “was on a new course” by  the end of the war. “The evaluation of  the Civil War case histories…publications, correspondences, and wartime  reminiscences all reveal that the experience of the war had contributed to a  new identity as producers of medical  knowledge for many American physicians and proved an important catalyst  for the development of American scientific medicine.”

Walt Whitman, who worked as a volunteer nurse in Washington during the  war, was afraid that the real war, the  one he saw reflected in makeshift hospitals, would not get into books. In this,  thankfully, he was wrong. Living Hell and Learning From the Wounded have  kept the horror alive, and no student  of war should be ignorant of what they  have to say.


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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