Monday, April 2, 2018

Review of Loperfido, ed. - "DEATH, DISEASE, AND LIFE AT WAR: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th New York Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865"

[Death, Disease, and Life at War: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th New York Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865 by Christopher E. Loperfido (Savas Beatie, 2018). Softcover, photos, illustrations, footnotes, 5 appendices, bibliography, index. 164 pages. ISBN:978-1-61121-359-1. $16.95]

Originally published in 2011 under the title A Surgeon's Tale: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th New York Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865, Christopher Loperfido's Death, Disease, and Life at War: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th New York Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865 is more than just a reprint with a new title. Even without a copy of the original for side by side comparison, it seems clear from the limited online preview of the first edition that much in the way of new material has been added.

It's easy to see why Loperfido believes the Benton letters worthy of publication (and re-publication!). As a busy army surgeon with limited free time (especially after major battles), Benton's writings home largely dispensed with mundane observations and concerns in favor of war news and views of all kinds. To our benefit, direct requests from interested family members frequently prompted Benton to provide historically interesting details of military matters and movements along with descriptions of his medical duties and experiences.

Benton's Civil War service began very inauspiciously, with he and his regiment part of the Harpers Ferry garrison that was humiliatingly surrendered and then forced to spend an extended period of time on parole. Benton's detailed descriptions of his surroundings (at places like the parole camp part of the Camp Douglas (Ill.) prison complex, the Fairfax and Centerville garrison posts in Virginia, and other locations) definitely have value to the readers and scholars of today. Some of the most vivid passages involve the physical ruins of war and the environmental desolation wrought by the conflict across northern Virginia.

Benton was quite unusually forthright in baldly admitting a pecuniary motivation for joining the Union Army. "It is not patriotism that has made me take this course but I wanted to make money for my family. If it had been patriotism I should have been sick of it long since..."(pg. 7). He does also periodically comment upon larger social and political issues. While telling relatives that Lincoln was his idol as a national leader, Benton criticizes the Emancipation Proclamation  (though he personally agreed with the sentiment) as a gross overstepping of presidential authority and heavy obstacle to peace and reunion.

While Benton seems more naturally inclined to write about military matters, when prompted by return letters from home (as mentioned before) he does occasionally provide some interesting insights into his medical duties, first as an assistant surgeon with the 111th and later as a division hospital administrator during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Very late in the conflict, he was appointed military surgeon for the 98th NY, serving out the rest of the war in that capacity. It's clear from his wartime letters and also from the book's postscript material that the war permanently damaged Benton's health. Never completely well again, he would suffer an early death at the age of 54.

The editorial aspect of the book appreciably enhances the material. Loperfido's introduction offers both background information on Benton and a general overview of Civil War military medicine organization and practices. Helping fill the frequent and large time gaps that exist, the editor's bridging narrative effectively ties the letters together. While not particularly numerous, footnotes point readers toward useful sources and provide definitions of older terms along with the usual persons, places, and events descriptions. Many of the notes reference works published after 2011, so it's clear that that feature of the book has been significantly revised between editions.

New to this edition, the five-part appendix section consists of contributions from two outside authors, two pieces from Meg Groeling and three from Dennis Rasbach. Groeling writes about the Letterman field medicine reforms and the U.S. Sanitary Commission while Rasbach traces the development of the army ambulance system and explores amputations and the significant role of lint in bandaging. Lint is very frequently mentioned in Civil War books but rarely explained, and Rasbach helpfully describes the types of lint developed, how they were used, and where they came from.

Useful on multiple levels, the historical value of the Benton letters contained in Death, Disease, and Life at War significantly exceeds that of the average set of Civil War correspondence edited for publication. This expanded repackaged edition is well worth the attention of new and seasoned readers alike.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the in-depth review, Drew. When I read the first edition, I liked it but thought we could do a LOT more with it. Once it was out of print, we picked it up specifically for that purpose. Thanks for pointing out the additional material.

    Savas Beatie


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