I spent much of my early life hearing stories about “Uncle Jim,” aka James D. Benton, my great-great-grandfather’s brother. My father, a huge Civil War buff, visited local school groups and historical societies, dressed in Uncle Jim’s uniform and sharing his stories of battle conditions. His (unrealized) dream was to publish a book about the local Civil War Infantry Regiment.
About ten years ago, Chris Loperfido approached my family about his desire to write a book based on Uncle Jim’s letters. Originally published in 2011 as A Surgeon’s Tale: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, 111th and 98th Infantry Regiments, 1862-1865, it was updated and republished under the new title in 2018 by Savas Beatie.
While it’s true that I’m biased about this particular story, I’d recommend Chris’ book anyway. Death, Disease, and Life at War is more than a biography, more than a collection of letters. Chris has done a wonderful job of putting these stories into context, weaving the historical facts of the Civil War into Uncle Jim’s personal correspondence. He includes details of the events surrounding each letter so one can imagine the conditions under which Dr. Benton performed, and follow him during his Civil War service. You can almost see Captain Benton writing letters home to his wife Maggie after a long day of battle and treating the wounded.
Now take a good look at the photograph below: Looks like a carpenter’s tool kit? No, it’s an example of the medical kit carried by Civil War surgeons. Take a minute to imagine what each tool might be used for–and keep in mind that on the battlefield anesthesia often consisted of an ether-soaked rag held over the mouth and nose, and antibiotics were a thing of the future.
Death, Disease, and Life at War brings a human, “up close and personal” perspective to the carnage of the Civil War. It is available on amazon.com in hard copy or e-book.
You can learn more about civil war medicine on Chris’ Facebook page.