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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Writing on the Operating Table: Letters of James Langstaff Dunn, Civil War Surgeon

by Sarah Johnson, 2-8-13


Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage defines the pursuit of courage as the prime motivator for Civil War soldiers. For men going off to war, idealistic notions of courage and duty caused them to rise above their fears and fight for their cause. However, the last chapter of Embattled Courage, titled “Disillusionment”, argues that eventually Civil War soldiers developed a hardened and stoic indifference to the suffering around them. Linderman argues soldiers stopped feeling like a vital part of an important cause and more like a small, insignificant piece of a vain struggle. The letters of James Langstaff Dunn, volunteer surgeon of the 109th and later 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers, offer a different interpretation, one that copes with the death and destruction by a grisly determination to see the war to its end.

Dunn’s early letters reflect Linderman’s analysis of Victorian ideals about courage. He wrote his wife on May 2, 1861 assuring her that “the boys are healthy and in good spirits, ready to do their duty.”[i] The 109th PA received their baptism of fire on August 9, 1862 at the battle of Cedar Mountain. In the aftermath, Dunn spent twenty-four hours in surgery with no food and little water. He performed twenty-two amputations of the thigh alone, and “a great many” on arms.[ii] Dunn would go on to be involved in Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg before being transferred to the west to Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, and the Siege of Atlanta, in addition to other minor engagements.[iii]

Along the way, Dunn experienced, first-hand, the destruction the war brought. Stealing a moment to himself after Chancellorsville, he wrote to his wife assuring he was safe. The letter begins, “I have just one minute to write and I am writing it on the operating table.”[iv] Charged with putting broken men back together, Dunn was forced to evaluate the costs of the war and justify them to himself. The first patient Dunn lost haunted him. Lieut. Austin, a New Jersey cavalryman, was described by Dunn as “a handsome fellow, not over 21 or 22…I will remember his boyish looks and earnest appeals for help as long as I live.”[v]

A second incident that deeply affected Dunn was the loss of his hometown friend, J. W. Patton. Patton was hit by a shell at the top of the humerus, near where the arm articulates with the shoulder. The hit caused his humerus to fracture all the way down to his elbow. Dunn examined the wound and determined the arm could be saved, but after he passed on to treat another soldier, the arm was amputated by another surgeon.[vii] Amputation of the arm at the shoulder was a relatively simple procedure for an experienced surgeon, disarticulating the humerus at the joint with the shoulder was a natural place to separate and there was rarely a problem with controlling the bleeding. Three-fourths of shoulder amputees survived.[viii] Patton, however, did not. Dunn was profoundly hurt by what he deemed as an unnecessary loss of life; had not thought the arm needed amputation in the first place.

Dunn’s response to the trauma of war was not with disillusionment.  His war experiences reflect determination. Dunn’s letters reveal, instead of bitterness with the war, frustrations with the political wavering at home; he was a severe critic of Copperheads and Peace Democrats of the North. Dunn’s tirades against the Copperheads boiled down to a belief that the broken men on the field, bleeding and dying, deserved better than quasi-commitment at home.[ix]  Dunn’s 1864 New Year’s Resolution demonstrates his convictions and his justification for the costs of war:

"Still, my life is spared. Tomorrow is New Years Day. I hope…that its end may see the close of this fearful War, to be crowned with garlands of a glorious peace in and undivided country, and with every man, black or white, enjoying the rights that God has given him. I know that some call this abolitionism, but it must come as the fruits of the many fearful sacrifices that have been, and are now being made by the best blood of the nation."[x]

[i] Paul Kerr, Civil War Surgeon-Biography of James Langstaff Dunn, MD, AuthorHouse, 2005, Letter to wife, Temperance, May 5, 1862, 21.

[ii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, August 15, 1862, 63.

[iii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, 333.

[iv] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, May 4, 1863, 92.

[v] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife,  May 12, 1863, 89.

[vi] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, L
etter to wife, May 12, 1863, 89.

[vii] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, May 17, 1863, 94-95.

[viii] Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume X, Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1991.

[ix] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, January 27, 1863, 82.

[x] Kerr, Civil War Surgeon, Letter to wife, December 31, 1863, 153.

Photos from the National Archives.

From: gettysburgcompiler.com

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