Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review - "'I Acted From Principle': The Civil War Diary Of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon In The Trans-Mississippi" by Pitcock & Gurley, eds.

["I Acted From Principle": The Civil War Diary Of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon In The Trans-Mississippi ed. by Cynthia D. Pitcock and Bill J. Gurley (University of Arkansas Press, 2005) Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. ISBN:978-1557287953 $19.95]
Dr. William M. McPheeters was an exceptionally well-educated physician and native North Carolinian who found himself in the middle of the political firestorm that was wartime St. Louis. Prior to the outbreak of the fighting in Missouri, McPheeters had a successful private practice in the city and was also a respected medical educator. Although he was a pro-Southern sympathizer, he committed no overt acts of support for the Confederacy when war broke out. Nevertheless, he and his family were quickly targeted by the authorities. The quote from the title refers to the doctor's stand against signing an oath of allegiance in lieu of property confiscation and ultimately imprisonment or banishment. His belongings seized, McPheeters fled south alone and ended up on the staff of General Sterling Price.

Beginning in 1863, the doctor's diary provides a daily account of his stint in the medical service of the Trans-Mississippi Department. As indicated by his writing, his position seems to have allowed him a rather unregimented army life when not on active campaign. McPheeters tends to avoid "shop talk" in his journal, speaking of his medical duties in mostly broad strokes. Also, given his frequent interaction with prominent officers (and growing friendship with Sterling Price), it is rather unfortunate that the doctor did not recount any of these conversations for posterity. Additional commentary deals with military campaigns such as the Battle of Helena, the Little Rock Campaign, the Red River Campaign and Price's Missouri Raid. Oddly enough, his entries seemed to increase in length as the war dragged on, making the daily journal of the Price Raid particularly useful.

Unless I am searching for specific information for research purposes, I generally dislike reading Civil War diaries and journals in their entirety, finding even the most celebrated ones rather mundane. Often for me, greater points of interest lie in the editorial commentary and notes. As expected from such a well regarded work as I Acted From Principle, the editors do not disappoint. Blocks of daily entries are collected into chapters and each is introduced editorially with fine background passages that provide context for the journal entries to follow. It's all done seamlessly and well. Of equal helpfulness, the notes are frequent and voluminous, enlightening the reader with extensive additional background and explanatory information.

An unfortunately common trait of edited diary and letter compilations is the lack of maps. Not so here. A number of maps are included, tracing both general military movements and the individual journeys of Dr. McPheeters and his wife when present. It's a nice way of helping readers follow the daily movements described in the diary.

With skillful editing and exhaustive commentary, notes, and indexing, I Acted From Principle is a leading example of how primary source materials should be published and presented. I would highly recommend this volume to any reader interested in the the charged atmosphere of border state politics, the practitioners of Civil War medicine, and the conduct of the war in the Trans-Mississippi theater in general.


  1. Drew,

    So glad you gave some space and a well-deserved review to this book. I had the great pleasure of meeting Bill Gurley at this year's Society of Civil War Surgeons conference in St. Louis, where we both gave talks. Bill and I have the same day job (kind of) so it was a great chance to mix our interests in medicine and the Civil War. He gave his talk on Dr. McPheeters...it was an outstanding talk and a wonderful story.

    Keep up the great work.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

  2. Jim,
    He has other interesting projects on his plate. I look forward to the publication of the Dye journal that Bill is currently editing. There is a great preview of it in article form as part of the recent book "The Earth Reeled and Trees Trembled". Perhaps even more exciting to me is his work on a history of M.M. Parsons' brigade of Missourians.




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