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.