Book review

Letters from a Civil War Surgeon: Dr. William Child of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers

(Transcribed by Merrill, Betty and Timothy Sawyer); Polar Bear & Co.,2001.ISBN: 1-882190-63-7 ( $25.00)

 

Review by: Robin Ansell

 

This fascinating paperback volume comprises an entire collection of heartfelt letters, addressed by a Federal Army surgeon to his wife back home. The surgeon was: Maj. William Child (1834-1918), 5th New Hampshire; his wife: Caroline 'Carrie' Buck (Lang) Child (1833-1867); their home: a farm, in Bath, New Hampshire. His letters number over 150 and cover the period August 1862 to June 1865 - each being fully transcribed. The original first pages are reproduced in every case (the exception being the letter dated 14 April 1865, which is reproduced in its entirety - see explanation later).


The valiant 5th New Hampshire arguably shed more 'patriotic gore' during the War than any other Union regiment. It lost its gallant colonel (Edward Everett Cross) in the Wheat Field, on the second day at Gettysburg - where it formed part of Caldwell's 1st Division, Hancock's 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac. Interestingly, Maj. Child was later to write the unit's regimental history: 'A history of the Fifth regiment, New Hampshire volunteers' (1893).

 

Dr. Child witnessed the War's grim carnage at first-hand, from Antietam to Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Some of his sentimental outpourings to his beloved `Came' sound strangely familiar (reminiscent perhaps of Maj. Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island - as popularised in Ken Burns' epic TV series): `If I never see you again<,> know that I have loved as I never did<,> or can<,> love another person'. (Point Lookout, Maryland: 26 May 1864). In his letter from Fort Stedman, Petersburg, Virginia (27 October 1864) he informs his wife that '...war is grand - though terrible', almost echoing Robert E. Lee's well-known utterance, in the aftermath of Fredericksburg: 'It is well that war is so terrible, we should grow too fond of it'. Obviously, many other topics are touched upon, including Child having his '...pictures taken...' (Concord, New Hampshire: 8 October 1863), but are too numerous to summarise here. Several contemporary photographs (including two wartime portraits of Child) grace the pages of the book - though their clarity is slightly marred (as is frequently the case these days) by poor paper quality. The lack of an index does limit the usefulness of the work, though its chronological arrangement does allow certain 'search strategies' to be performed with success. This reviewer found the book's Introduction (by Paul du Houx) somewhat patchy - being irrelevant and / or impenetrable in places!

 

Probably, the highlight for many readers will be the letter (uniquely transcribed and reproduced in full) describing Child's witnessing of the Lincoln assassination. Maj. Child just happened to be passing through Washington, en route to rejoin his regiment at the front, when he also chose to spend the evening at Ford's Theatre - on that fateful day! 'Wild dreams and real facts are but brothers. This night I have seen the murder of the President of the United States. It seems all a dream - a wild dream. I cannot realize it<,> though I know I saw it only an hour since'. (Washington, DC: 14 April 1865).

 

You will find no answers within these pages to the great tactical and strategic questions that have taxed countless historians since the guns fell silent. What you will find, however, is a wonderfully humane and painfully honest account of one man's wartime experiences. In reading these intimate letters you can share his reactions to them - the way his wife did, so many years ago on a farm in New Hampshire.