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Dr. Lauderdale Goes To War
He wrote down everything he saw in a career that stretched from the Civil War well into this century
December 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 8
Lauderdale took an unsentimental but not unsympathetic view of the wounded Rebels he tended: “The style of the language of these fellows is a good deal after the Davy Crockett order. They are very ignorant and unsophisticated, & I can easily see how designing men could move an army of such men, just by appealing to their ignorance.” But he was also careful to set down precisely the sentiments of a Confederate physician who had been swept up in the battle’s aftermath: “He tells me … they feel … it is their duty to fight to the last. They cant see themselves in any other condition than we were before we as a nation declared ourselves free from English tyranny. … It seems so strange to converse in such a friendly way as I have, with these men who have so lately been warring against us, and one can hardly believe they are our prisoners of war. They smoke their meerschaums & seem as contented as if they were in their own homes.”
When the war began, Lauderdale did not see slavery as a sin. (I’m afraid my preacher ancestor helped teach him that too.) “We don’t wish to get rid of the slaves,” Lauderdale wrote, “for who will cultivate those Southern lands if we send them away? It is absurd to think about white men doing this kind of work. We must have the blacks to pick the cotton and hoe the cane.” But the war would change Lauderdale’s mind, as it changed those of so many soldiers, and by 1864 he was foursquare for emancipation and Abraham Lincoln: “In time of war we want men of fighting ability like Grant & Sherman & Sheridan with an executive who will let these men have the men and means … to decide the great question by the force of arms.”
He saw Beecher “making himself agreeable to his lady friends,” and Stephen Foster on his deathbed.
Like Thomas Berger’s fictional character Little Big Man, Lauderdale managed through no special fault or gift of his own to have witnessed an extraordinary number of important events, to have had constant contact with history, rather than the mere brushes with it with which most of us must be content. In 1863 he moved far behind the lines to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and, in his off hours, found himself seated next to George McClellan at church, pronounced the gaudily dressed officers of the Russian navy “very Frenchy,” and at Goupil’s Art Gallery saw the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher “looking at the pictures & making himself agreeable to his lady friends.” He also happened to be on duty when the composer Stephen Foster was carried into Bellevue, near death after a drunken fall. “This man is a genius, and should receive the best of care,” Lauderdale told the staff, but Foster died anyway.
He never heard a shot fired while near the front, but during the draft riots he got to see some shooting without even leaving the hospital. “About one o clock today,” he wrote on Thursday, July 16, 186.3, “went up into the 3rd story … and saw a specimen of what has been going on all over the city. Just across the street was a party of men and boys in front of the liquor store. One or two of them had carbines, and as fast as they could get sight of the soldiers who were … stationed farther up the street, they would fire upon them. Two or three of the soldiers would now and then return the fire, but these hounds were so protected by a pile of stones, that they were not hit. Oh! how I wanted to see that fiend in the red shirt and slouched hat knocked over.”
Lauderdale joined the Regular Army in 1866 and stayed in uniform for thirty years. He helped mop up after Wounded Knee, accompanied the troops that crushed the Pullman strike, served at some twenty-five outposts all over the country, and crossed paths with everyone from William Tecumseh Sherman to the bandmaster father of Fiorello La Guardia.
He retired in 1896. Then, evidently sensing that his letters would one day interest a circle wider than that of his descendants, he helpfully prepared handwritten indexes to them all. When he finally died in 1931, at the age of ninety-nine, he was the oldest officer in the United States Army.
There’s been talk of a second volume, and I hope this column will encourage more of it. What a pity it would be to have to wait twenty more years for the rest of the story.