The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon

The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon

The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon

The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon

Synopsis

J. Franklin Dyer's journal offers a rare perspective on three years of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of a surgeon at the front. The journal, taken from letters written to his wife, Maria, describes in lengthy and colorful detail the daily life of a doctor who began as a regimental surgeon in the Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers and was promoted to acting medical director of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac. This firsthand account traces Dyer's attempts to manage his Gloucester household even as the Second Corps fought on the Peninsula, at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and from the Wilderness to Petersburg. Over time his letters to his wife become fraught with the tension of a man losing his early martial ardor as he witnesses the ghastly procession of suffering and death. Both a talented surgeon and a careful administrator, Dyer nevertheless declined opportunities to work at hospitals in the rear in order to stay near his old regiment and the fighting. He confronted the aftermath of battle- thousands of wounded and dying men- with a small staff and simple instruments. He and his fellow surgeons saved lives as best they could- often at the cost of amputated limbs- then dropped to the ground from exhaustion and slept in blood-drenched uniforms until the cries of the wounded woke them and induced them back to work. Dyer also provides a glimpse of the most devastating opponent the armies faced: disease. He and his medical colleagues fought cholera, typhus, dysentery, measles, and, despite official denials in Washington , a scurvy outbreak that weakened Federal units during the Peninsula campaign.

Excerpt

Jonah Franklin Dyer, the surgeon of the Nineteenth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, surgeon in chief of the Second Division, and acting medical director of the ii Corps, Army of the Potomac, was born April 15, 1826, in Eastport, Maine, a town with fewer than 2,500 residents. He was the fourth of seven children of Charles Dyer, a Maine native, and Hannah Snow, who was born in Granville, Nova Scotia. His roots went back to the founding of New England, with military forebears on both sides of his family over several generations. the future Union surgeon was named for his grandfather, Capt. Jonah Dyer, who fought in the American Revolution, was held prisoner by the British, and settled after his release in Gorham, Maine. a more distant relative, the Quaker Mary Dyer, was hanged on Boston Common in 1660.

Dyer’s maternal line descended from Nicholas Snow, a passenger to Plymouth Plantation on the ship Anne in 1623, who married Constance Hopkins. She was the daughter of Stephen Hopkins. Both had come over on the Mayflower, and Hopkins later served under Capt. Myles Standish. the couple had twelve children. Their descendants were in provincial forces that invaded Canada and in the French and Indian War. At least two Snow families lived in Eastport during Frank Dyer’s youth, possibly maternal cousins.

Charles Dyer (b. 1793) died in 1844, when Jonah was eighteen. Charles Henry Dyer (1821–1906), about to embark on the career that would make him a prosperous Eastport merchant, was still apprenticed to the prominent Hayden family. He assumed the paternal role in Eastport as the oldest son, advising Frank (who by 1846 preferred his middle name to Jonah) and caring for their mother as well as his youngest siblings, George Burton Dyer (1835– 1913) and Adelaide Dyer (1839–1928). William Snow Dyer (1823– 82) had moved after 1840 to Machias, not far to the southwest, where he ran a general store. William confessed some guilt that Charles “appears to have the charge of all the family and it is a . . .

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