Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace

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Why do I consider John Hudson Thompson a Civil War hero? It seems almost at his insistence. Unlike my other ancestors, there is a lot of my great-grandfather still around, familiar as a footstep. Daily the painted glance of his formal portrait confronts me. As I sit reading in his delicate Windsor chair my arm rubs against the wood his arm has worn down. I can even read what he read as he sat there; his medical and regimental-history collection, his five large scrapbooks bulging with his varied interests and printed speeches are a part of our personal library now. His presentation sword cuts our family wedding cakes. In the barn are his McClellan saddle, his regimental papers, his slouch hat and uniform, riddled with ancient moth holes instead of bullets. Some things are missing now but well remembered—his feather bedroll, his huge nightshirt, his green officer’s sash. I regret that two items are not still his. One is the piece of the Union flag shot off at the Battle of Gettysburg and presented to my great-grandmother on a later occasion by General Meade, stolen years ago and sold to an antiques dealer. The other item is the original letter written to his wife on the very day of the incident, of which I have only a typewritten copy.

Was there a reason for saving so much? Does an unquiet spirit hope that by making his presence felt, by preserving so much that was his, including the deposition, the total truth will emerge? From what remains of a man four generations later can we reconstruct a truer evaluation of his character than his judges did?

An 1852 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he could offer ten years of medical experience to his country when President Lincoln called for more men. In 1862 the 124th Regiment of New York Volunteers was raised at his home, St. James’ Place (evidence: the sword presented to him by his “friends of Goshen”). This regiment was made up not only of his friends but also of cousins and other kinfolk within a small area of Orange County. Dr. Thompson’s father-in-law served as quartermaster of the Orange Blossoms and lent his house in Goshen as headquarters while the regiment was being recruited.

My great-grandfather was, by evidence of his uniform, photographs, and nightshirt, a very tall man, well over six feet in height, and of generous proportions. He made a large target.

He was “surgeon in chief of his regiment, brigade, and division,” trained to heal and not to kill, fulfilling his duty to the utmost when his duty as a physician was clear to him. The regimental commander of the 124th, Colonel C. H. Weygant, in New York at Gettysburg , recalls visiting the field hospital after the battle—a scene that “was one of the most horrid imaginable … nearly 3,ooo wounded men had been brought there, and others were continually arriving”—and finding that “the majority of the surgeons had not yet quit their posts to seek the rest their pale, haggard faces told they were much in need of. I did not see our surgeon, Dr. Thompson, but was informed by one of our wounded men who lay near the amputating tables—and who said that for eighteen hours he had listened to the horrid noise made by saws gnawing away human bones—that he and Chaplain Bradner had worked faithfully all night, doing what they could for the Orange Blossoms.”

Let us turn for relief to my great-grandfather’s scrapbooks. We can infer from what he gathered that he was a patriotic, religious, well-read egocentric, proud of his familial connections with Henry Hudson, George Clinton, and many less noted relatives. He was a “fluent and forcible” speaker. By the first reunion of the 124th in 1865 he was delivering “A Stirring Address” in full uniform. Since he spoke at every reunion of the regiment thereafter, there was much to glue in his scrapbooks. At the forty-second reunion in 1904 “Dr. Thompson thought he was the oldest surviver of the Orange Blossoms; he was seventy-seven. Age, however, he said, counted for nothing. The great object in life was to make it a life of usefulness.”

My great-grandfather’s medical books reflect his interest in such advanced ideas as natural breathing and soporifics in childbirth. He was known to be “very lenient with Malingerers,” who were probably suffering from battle fatigue. A history of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, edited by Dr. John Shrady in 1903, declares:

It is not overstating facts to say that few surgeons had the opportunity of witnessing as much actual service in the field as fell to the lot of Dr. Thompson, who participated in the surgical work resulting from the leading battles of the army of the Potomac and the operative department of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Beverly Ford, Gettysburg, Kelley’s Ford, Orange Grove, etc.… Dr. Thompson occupies a conspicuous place in the literature of his profession, few practitioners having contributed more to the medical journals … or reported more interesting cases, particularly in the decades of 1860, 1870, and 1880.

A fellow officer of Dr. Thompson’s regiment, Captain W. E. Mapes, wrote from his bed in the Annapolis officers’ hospital in December, 1864, that my great-grandfather had “saved his life,” and after referring to his “spotless character as a man & skill as a surgeon,” he said: “My Amputation has been pronounced [ sic ] by the Surgeon in Charge of Fort Monroe Hospital & of this H’f4pital also. It has also been highly complimented by an English Surgeon at Fort Monroe.”