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 I think I mentioned a few weeks ago (it was before things went crazy with the job application) that I’ve been reading this really awesome recently published document. I suspect I was talking to [livejournal.com profile] feral_shrew  about some history subject or another. The edition I have of this text (the only published edition?) is entitled Practicing Medicine in a Black Regiment: The Civil War Diary of Burt G. Wilder, 55th Massachusetts. It’s edited by a historian named Richard M. Reid, and only came out in 2010.



This document is amazing. It’s written by this white surgeon (only about 12 African American doctors practiced in the Union army during the Civil War) named Burt Wilder (b. 1841, d. 1925) who served with an African American regiment. Unlike many of his peers, though, you can safely say that he wasn’t a racist douche. Oh, he was a bit racist – it would be surprising if he wasn’t, considering his time period – but ironically enough, his background and interest in natural history and his intense interest in biological classification led him to determine that, based on his experience, there were almost no significant differences between white and “colored” troops.

He actually spoke at many conventions after the war FOR African American rights. For instance: “W.E.B. Du Bois, who was in attendance [at the National Negro Conference of 1909], wrote that Wilder’s presentation ‘left no doubt in the minds of the listeners that the whole argument by which Negroes were pronounced absolutely and inevitably inferior to whites was utterly without scientific basis.’”(introduction, pg 16) It’s nice to read about some doctors who DIDN’T buy into the racist bullshit pervading much of the field of the time.

Wilder spent many of his last few decades (he died quite old, in 1925) editing the journal he kept almost daily during the Civil War. The edition that I have actually marks the changes that he made to his manuscript with strikethroughs and such. It’s really cool to see where he’s changed his mind about the wordings.

He also has this amazing, quiet sense of humour that makes his diary a really enjoyable read. I thought that I’d share with you some of the more interesting passages that I’ve run across! Most of these don’t detail the actual surgical and medical procedures he performed, but the everyday incidences about camp. He complains about the food, expresses admiration for some men and disapproval in others, works on his thesis and picks up several stray dogs. He details a lot of anecdotes about his own scientific studies, which he pursued when bored. From the introduction by historian Richard Reid:

“Notwithstanding the exigencies of wartime service, Wilder was very conscious that his time serving on the southern Atlantic coast provided him with an exceptional chance to expand his scientific knowledge of the region’s fauna. He devoted much of his free time to collecting samples, preparing specimens, and dissecting whatever new species he could collect, from sea turtles to shovel-nosed sharks. […] As his scientific interests became known, officers and soldiers from different regiments began to arrive at his tent with exotic flora and fauna. He could boast that few other collectors had brigadier-generals providing them with specimens. Given Wilder’s training and early interests, it was natural that he would be excited by the new spiders he encountered. However, he also involved other officers in the regiment in collecting spiders and winding hundreds of yards of silk from them for handmade jewelry. One of them, Major Sigourney Wales, even designed a small crank-powered machine by which hundreds of yards of silk could be drawn out of the spiders.”(35)

(N.B.: the stuff in square brackets wasn’t in the text. I’ve added the full dates that he didn’t write when I can, as well as a few explanations for his shorthand. I’ve also included the page numbers in brackets at the end of the quotation, partly in the extreme case that you, the reader, may wish to find this passage someday with your own copy of this book, but also so I can possibly find the citation again for one of the papers I’m writing this semester. I also want to note that I’m only about halfway through skimming this text, and I’ll probably make another post with some of the other interesting stories I run across as I read further.)

Monday, [May] 27th [1863]
We reached the wharf at Morehead City at noon and the horses were taken off first. The deck of the steamer was fifteen feet above the floor of the wharf. There was no box as in Boston, so a broad piece of canvas was put under the horse. Under each horse, in turn was passed a broad piece of strong canvas the ends of which, provide with iron rings, met over his back. Into the rings was put a hook at the end of a rope, and by means of a pulley the animal was hoisted from the deck and then lowered to the wharf; none was hurt but they were all astonished. (57)

((Astonished!horses sound hilarious.))

Thursday, [August] 20th, 9:00pm
…Yesterday noon I caught a large and very handsome spider from which, as it remained quite near the top of my tent, I wound off silk at the rate of 6 feet a minute for an hour and a quarter; that made 450 feet or 150 yards; I sent the Quill on which it is wound, and hope the lovely color will remain.(69)

Saturday, [August] 22, 9pm
Dr. Brown came in to borrow my artery forceps. Frank remarked, no one suits Dr. Brown, referring to a terrific scolding of the hospital cook for putting too much salt in the pea soup. Of course it was too salty for me, but such things seldom happened I said nothing. Dr. Brown is really quite undignified sometimes in his language and I fear the men do not respect him as they should the surgeon of the regiment. Frank says he has heard them call him ‘that old crabbed,’ and make uncomplimentary comparisons between him and that ‘black whiskered young doctor.’ Their preference for me, however, gives me more to do, since they seldom apply to him for aid. (69)

Tuesday, Sept. 15, 7:15 P.M.
Mr. Scudder told us that a small vessel in Lighthouse Inlet had some sweet potatoes, so today Dr. Babbitt and I undertook to get some. We took two men and two bags and walked to the inlet; of the several vessels there, no one knew which had the desired vegetables; not even the Post Q.M.[quartermaster] could tell us. After waiting an hour for information and a boat we were able to borrow the boat of our sutler and at least were directed to the vessel we sought, some distance up a creek. About thirty feet from the shore the boat grounded. Our men waded to dry land, and the burly boatman carried Dr. B. and me, separately, on his back. We got half a bushel of potatoes and a squash. After reaching Folly Island we called at a bakery and obtained some warm biscuits from the wife of the baker; she was the only woman I saw on either island. One of my patients to whom I gave a little whiskey last night is now out of his head and threatened to attack me because I would give him no more. (77)

((Can’t you just picture a dignified man in a military surgeon’s uniform being piggybacked to shore… all while in the search of sweet potatoes, of all things? <3 ))

Thursday, [September] 24th, P.M.
The Q.M. and I have had one of the official controversies which occur about once in three days. We need hay for the hospital beds and it is his business to get it; his teams have been busy, but he says tomorrow I can have one and get it myself; from the “Regulations” I proved that it was his duty. Fortunately we are on excellent terms personally. Today he brought me a loaf of soft bread on the condition that I eat it myself; if I give any of it away he says I must pay 25 cents for it; and now Dr. Brown is far from well and would relish it, but the Q.M. well knows that I have not 25 cents, so I am in his power.(81)

((Aww… <3 Can you just picture it? The doctor who frequently puts others before himself, and the quartermaster pretty much forcing him, good-naturedly, to eat something nice for himself.))

Wed. [September] 30th, 8:30 P.M.
Our baggage and horses have come at last. Billy [Wilder’s horse] was so frisky that Frank, whom I sent to Pawnee Landing for him, dared not ride him and so he was brought me by the soldier who had been caring for him since Jerry was taken ill at Newbern. At once I mounted and took a short ride on the beach; he is fat and saucy. Although my trunk is only partly unpacked the tent is already transformed; we all hope that the rebels will not come at once and interfere with our comfort. (84)

((I love his quiet sense of humour. Also, euphemisms. I think that he might have just implied that his tent is already disordered and needs straightening up.))

Sunday, Oct. 4th, 7 P.M.
…At 7:30 I had a good breakfast of bread, sardines and coffee. Then I planned to ride on the beach but a poor fellow begged me to relieve him of two aching teeth, one upper and the other lower. I am getting quite a collection, but sometimes have to use argument or persuasion because there is a prevalent superstition that unless a tooth is burned it is liable to ache again.” (85)

Thursday, [October]
…The evening I have been copying my thesis, having “locked the door,” i.e. tied the strings of the tent flaps. (91)

((I lol’d, I’m not going to lie. He has a sense of humour!))

Tuesday, Nov. 3, 10:00 P.M.
…This morning, while returning from Gen. Gilmore’s quarters where I rode to mail some letters, I had been walking alongside Billy and mounted him while he was moving. Just then rode up Col. Serrell of the N.Y. Engineers saying “That is the way they do in Mexico.” He also complimented Billy warmly. (92)

((Awesome! Wilder has horse-riding skillz, at least according to this one Colonel.))

Sunday, [November] 22nd, 9:00 P.M.
There is a complaint of fleas in the camp, but as yet I have seen only one and at a safe distance. (95)

Tuesday, Dec. 8, 8 P.M.
…We were riding in a thick wood, and I dropped the reign on [Billy’s] neck and let him choose his own course; after dodging several low limbs we came to one that crossed just above his head; I raised it but did not observe a strong vine that took off my hat and nearly carried me after it over Billy’s tail.

((You can really get a sense of who he is as a human being from passages like these; he’s not impersonal and perfect, like many other historical figures seem to be as they frown at you from 160 years ago from a faded tin-type photograph.))

Tuesday, [December] 22nd, 8:30 P.M.
About an hour ago, hearing a loud voice in one of the company streets I went to listen […] filled with a desire to help these comparatively ignorant soldiers. They were holding an outdoor debate; it seems to have been in progress for several nights; the question was, which are more attractive, the works of nature or the works of art. What I heard was very extraordinary. Each speaker seemed to wish to say all that he knew upon any subject, and sometimes one had to admit that what he had adduced had no bearing upon the subject. They went back to the creation of man and spoke of all things imaginable. Finally the subject was dropped for this, which is the ruling force, the hope of reward or the fear of punishment? (103)

((Oh man, guys, this is crazy! I mean, here he is, going to see if he has to break up a fight or something, and then he finds these “colored” troops debating subjects that I myself would have difficulty with in university-level philosophy classes! What is art, what is man, etc. Amazing.))
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