Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of DeWolf, ed. by Harburn - "A SURGEON WITH CUSTER AT THE LITTLE BIG HORN: James DeWolf's Diary and Letters, 1876"

[A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn: James DeWolf's Diary and Letters, 1876 by James Madison DeWolf, edited by Todd E. Harburn (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 282 pp. ISBN:978-0-8061-5694-1. $29.95]

The diary and letters of Dr. James Madison DeWolf are well known to scholars and students of the 1876 Little Big Horn Campaign. They've even been published before. After DeWolf's death on the battlefield, his medical colleague, Acting Asst. Surgeon Henry Porter, retrieved the diary and sent it to DeWolf's wife Fannie. That important resource, along with DeWolf's letters to Fannie, were preserved and eventually donated to the battlefield park. In 1958, former park superintendent Major Edward Luce published the materials in North Dakota History (the journal of that state's historical society). What sets A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn: James DeWolf's Diary and Letters, 1876 apart from the earlier publication is the far more extensive and expansive nature of physician Todd Harburn's editing of the documents.

One of the modern edition's most notable original contributions is its biographical feature. For the first time in print, readers learn about DeWolf's early life and army career (before, during, and after the Civil War) as well as his tragic death. To this end, Harburn begins with some family history and briefly recounts DeWolf's experiences growing up on the family farm in Meehoopany, Pennsylvania.

DeWolf joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and was assigned to Battery A, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery as a private. Frequently praised by its superiors, the battery was involved in heavy fighting at Dranesville in 1861 and on the Peninsula and at Second Manassas in 1862. At Dogan Ridge (Second Manassas), DeWolf was badly injured in the right arm by an enemy projectile and was discharged from the army after a long hospital stay. Even though he applied for a disability pension, his wound apparently healed better than expected and he reentered the service with his old battery in March 1865.

Perhaps inspired by his hospital experiences, DeWolf decided to stay in the army after the Civil War, serving as a hospital attendant (and later hospital steward) at a number of frontier posts. In Oregon, he met and married his wife, Fannie. Seeking more formal medical training, DeWolf requested a transfer back east. His superiors approved, and DeWolf was allowed to enter Harvard Medical School while still attending to his army duties. Though, like many other competent doctors, DeWolf failed to obtain a commission in the army medical service, he was able to secure a contract surgeon position in the Department of Dakota. His letters to Fannie begin from Fort Seward in March 1876. Once the weather improved and Lt. Colonel Custer returned to command the Seventh Cavalry, the Terry/Custer column left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17 and marched west.

DeWolf's campaign diary meticulously notes the weather and terrain encountered along the march to the Little Big Horn, while also faithfully documenting distances traveled and specific campsites of the Terry/Custer column. Other scholars have cross-referenced these observations with other sources and found them to be quite accurate.

In contrast to his brief and to-the-point diary entries, DeWolf's letters to his wife are lengthy discourses on army life on the frontier. His correspondence from Forts Totten and Abraham Lincoln highlight the era's military social conventions and protocols for the officer class (even though DeWolf was a civilian contract surgeon, he was essentially treated as if he were an army medical officer). He was intensely conscious of not being the source of shared gossip and frequently marked portions of his letters describing his opinions of other officers as private. DeWolf's letters also describe his medical duties. Coming off a tough winter and with spring on the plains still bringing frequent snow flurries, the doctor treated primarily respiratory illnesses and frostbite injuries (the results of his operations on frostbitten toes are a common topic of conversation). In the past, it was popular to criticize Custer for leaving his Gatling guns behind for the sake of speed of advance, but this seemingly rash move becomes even more understandable given DeWolf's multiple observations regarding how badly the column's wheeled traffic was slowing down its progress through mud and difficult terrain.

The book's final chapter is a well researched account of the final day of Dr. DeWolf's life. Reconciling the handful of surviving eyewitness accounts, Harburn persuasively pieces together the most likely picture of how, when, and where DeWolf fell. For the regiment's attack on the Indian encampment at the Little Big Horn, DeWolf was attached to Major Reno's battalion. The doctor survived the initial attack, the general withdrawal to the tree line, and the crossing of the river. However, during the battalion's mad scramble to reach the heights beyond, DeWolf had the misfortune of moving up a northerly situated draw that was already dominated by the enemy, and he was killed by rifle fire from above. The chapter also documents the odyssey of DeWolf's remains. Though the army paid for the recovery of officer bodies and conveyance back to the forts, families had to arrange and pay for transport home and final burial.

Given the frequency of persons, places, and events mentioned without any prior context, use of footnotes (vs. endnotes) is particularly helpful with edited diaries and correspondence. However, because of the frequency and great length of Harburn's explanatory notes, it is entirely sensible that he elected to place them in the rear of the book instead. Otherwise, they would take up most of the page. Together, Harburn's tiny-print notes fill roughly 70 pages and comprise a rich contextual supplement to DeWolf's writings. The editor's medical background (he's an orthopedic surgeon) also leads to fruitful critiques and commentary on mid-nineteenth century army medicine and surgical practices. For visual aids, Harburn includes a large and well-chosen collection of archival photographs. These picture, among other things, the various army posts DeWolf served at during his career as well as many family members and army colleagues. In the appendix section, Harburn reproduces some account pages from DeWolf's diary, some early diary entries (eight pages) from 1875, and Edward Luce's introduction to his 1958 edition of the DeWolf writings.

Todd Harburn's skillful and exhaustive editing of the diary and letters of James DeWolf adds multiple layers of enhanced value to an already important firsthand component of the Little Big Horn Campaign historiography. By some recent estimates, over 3,000 books have been published on Custer and the 1876 Plains Indian campaign. Many more titles are added each year, and A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn easily merits placement on any shortlist of the best of these newer contributions.


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