The Medical Profession in the Civil War.

By CLAUDIUS H. MASTIN, M.D., of Mobile, Alabama.

[Extract from an address delivered at the University of Pennsylvania March 12th, 1874.]

        With the lengthening of the session in 1847 the classes had gradually increased in numbers until the winter of 1859-60, at which time the register of matriculates marks the greatest number of students which had ever before attended the Medical Department of the University.
        The school may then be said to have reached the highest point in the history of her prosperity, and everything seemed to foreshadow a bright future. With a reputation which was annually drawing to her classes large numbers of students from all sections of the Union, and in the keeping of a faculty, which was of established character and position, there seemed to be no cause to forebode calamity, or even diminished usefulness.
        Unfortunately, just at this point in our history came that terrible convulsion which made countless thousands reel in agony and the bloody sweat of anguish. In the midst of a prosperity unequaled in the annals of our race, the great political storm which, from the first days of the Republic, had been slowly gathering on the horizon of the nation's happiness, culminated with gigantic force and burst forth with resistless fury.
        The numbers of Southern students, who for many years had sought the rich treasures of learning to be found in the various medical schools of the North, had no choice but to turn their faces Southward. They could do no otherwise, nor were they to be censured. Actuated by an impulse natural in the heart of man--the love of home--and fired by all the enthusiasm of youth, it would have been a strange thing had they not gone home to share the dangers and distresses of their kindred.
        War was upon us, and from the Potomac to the Rio Grande a whole people was convulsed. In the mad rush to arms, the former student threw aside the slipper and the gown, and seized the musket and the knapsack; he exchanged the shady groves of science and the pleasant porticoes of learning for the camp and the bivouac; Materia Medica gave place to Military Tactics and the Manual of Arms. How sudden, yet how natural and how inevitable was this metamorphose from the student to the soldier! The whole Southern country was a camp. Where late was heard only the quiet hum of peaceful avocations, now resounded the wild din of martial music and the tramp of armed men. The sons of the South, whose veins still tingled with the hot blood of the Cavalier, made no delay in their resolves. They wheeled at once into the line where, side by side, stood rank and wealth and genius and poverty, arrayed for battle "d l'outrance." The ease and luxury of home were cheerfully abandoned for the hardships and privations of the field. The time had come when, in the natural development of national life, the opposite convictions of the sections must at last be settled by the stern arbitrament of the sword. Neither party shrunk from the dread ordeal of battle. The gauntlet had been thrown down in defiance, and was promptly taken up. It was a piteous spectacle, and yet a brave one; for I think our Anglo-Saxon race believes that many things are worse than open, manly, generous warfare.
        But I shall forbear, gentlemen, to lead you through the shifting fortunes of the tented field. It would be out of place and inappropriate here, for me to point you to those blood-stained fields, whitening with the bones of our brothers, or to bare their gaping wounds and hold before your eyes the bloody mantle. It is not my task to chronicle the events of that dire struggle, nor to echo in your ears the sighs and lamentations of the widow and the fatherless. You, though victorious, have heard, as well as we, the groans of dying heroes, and have witnessed the pathetic anguish of bereaved relations.
        Our part then, and now, and always was, and is, to heal, never to wound. Ours is the holier mission; for it is to follow in the steps of HIM who was the Great Physician, that Divine Man, whose whole ministry was one of mercy; and who, after curing "all manner of diseases," finished its majestic self-denials in the reconciliation of the Cross. I trust that, with these sentiments, you will not think it out of place nor utterly irrelevant to the subject, if I dwell a moment on the part which the physicians of the country, South and North, took in this unhappy fratricidal war. The assembling of great armies and the unavoidable privations of war tend to engender disease. The conflict of arms results in wounds and death. Here we are of avail to the State, for--

"A wise physician skilled our wounds to heal,
Is more than armies to the public weal."

        I believe that the real feeling which actuated the great body of our medical men who entered the service of their respective sections, was that they were called by Providence to a great work of mercy and compassion to their fellowmen; and I believe that, as a body, they did do their duty in that generous and catholic spirit which has ever characterized the actions of our noble profession. As good Samaritans, they went to pour the oil of consolation into the lacerated wounds of their bleeding countrymen. When the turbulent, self-interested politician was employing all his powers to rouse the baser passions of his fellowmen, and add fresh fagots to the already blazing pyre of national prosperity; when even some misguided members of the Christian Ministry forgot the gentle teachings of the Prince of Peace, the meek and lowly JESUS, filled the pulpit with the hoarse cries of the hustings, and profaned the surplice to the purposes of mere political intrigue; at such a time, consider how the surgeons of both armies were employed. They, verily, were doing CHRIST'S work, and in no unworthy way. Think of their weary watches through the lonely nights, and their long days of never-ceasing toil while following a vanquished or victorious army through the dreary marches of a four years' campaign! See them at the earliest dawn, before the "reveille" has roused the soldier from his troubled sleep, rising at the first "sick call!" Watch them on their rounds through the hospital tents, bearing a gentle hand for this wound and a soothing word for that distress! Follow them in imagination as the grim battalions rush into the heat of battle! Take one last look at them, worn out with work and misery at midnight, after some victory or defeat! and then tell me who the men were in both armies, who displayed the most faith, hope and charity in the tremendous struggle through which we have just passed?
        In those dark days of the Republic, when we met amid the clash of arms and the red glare of battle, I honestly believe that the one sentiment which actuated the high-toned medical men of the armies was, that they were God's ministers on those ensanguined fields, and that " le vrai chirurgien ne regarde pas l'uniforme."
        True it was, as it must ever be, when men are maddened by the blood-thirst of a deadly fray, that there were instances of cruelty and outrage. Yet neither by report nor by my personal knowledge, did I ever know a case in which the wounded on either side did not receive the most humane attention possible from the medical officers to whom they were committed.
        On the Confederate side, cut off from the outer world by a rigid blockade, with the armies confined entirely to an agricultural region--with no manufactories, and with the scantiest supplies of medical resources, it was in many instances impossible to furnish adequate relief to sick or wounded, whether they were friends or foes. The far more fortunate armies of the North were differently situated. With thousands of workshops, with unrivalled chemical laboratories, and with unrestricted commercial intercourse with the entire globe, they were supplied not only with the necessaries, but with all the luxuries that were desirable; and they possessed the best appointed medical staff which in the history of the world ever marched into the field. It was not astonishing that broad and even invidious comparisons were drawn between the two. The truth is, there was no just measure of comparison between them, save in this one thing--their willingness to give, and their unfailing gladness to distribute what they had for the relief of suffering. Here, at least, the one had no advantage of the other; for I must repeat again, and still again, that, in the hospital, the surgeons of both armies disregarded uniforms and gave the best they had to all who lacked.
        As an evidence of the true sentiments which governed the medical men of the sections in their actions toward each other, I need but refer to the kindly relations which existed between them when, by the fortunes of war, they were thrown together. Let those who were so situated answer, whether an instance can be cited where they were not met as brothers and as equals, from the first shock of arms at Manassas, to the going down of the" Southern Cross" on the fatal field of Appomattox !
        At the closing of the war, the action of the American Medical Association in its first meeting, attests the feelings which have bound the profession together. While the politician has been tearing open the wounds which were inclined to heal--and might have healed by first intention--while the whole State has been unsettled in transition from the storm of war to peace, look at the course which has been pursued by the medical men of the Union. Their conventions, their social intercourse with their professional fellows, whether of the North, South, East, or West, is a beautiful' illustration of that unity of sentiment and feeling, which has ever been a marked characteristic of our profession.
        Fortunately, Time, that great healer of all our woes, is silently, yet surely working, and the day is surely come when the dead past should bury its dead issues and the living join hands in reconciliation. Among us, at least, there are no explanations to be made, and no apologies to be demanded. You feel that you have done your duty. We know that we have done ours. We both feel that the dead of the revolution of 1861 are sanctified in our memories. Now the war is ended, and--

"The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On fame's eternal camping-ground,
Their silent tents are spread;
And glory guards, with solemn round,
That bivouac of the dead."

        As medical men, our duties do not lead us in the path of political struggle, but indirectly we may be drawn into the whirl of excitement incident to the great political questions of the day. May we not then exert an influence in quieting the passions of men, and by our efforts, aid in effecting the consummation so devoutly wished of rebuilding the fabric of our national prosperity? May we not, by precept and example, help to restore the harmony and unity of feeling, which, as one sentiment, dear to the great American heart, should pervade the entire Union of the States?

Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1885
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