Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace


Then there is the letter Thompson wrote on the day of the incident and addressed to “My Dear Wife.” In it he thanks her for the food she sent him, expresses concern for “our wayward boy,” my grandfather (her stepson, whose mother had died of childbirth fever). He tells her matter-of-factly of meeting the Southerners in the clearing, of parleying, and of the agreement to ride in a given direction. The letter ends: “Fortunately, the Union lines were reached first and I was the proud possessor of about 3o Johnny Rebs. Now, with as many kisses as the captured rebels, I am, Your loving John.”

Surely in a private letter, written on the very day of the incident, Dr. Thompson could have said whatever he wished to his wife, since it was long before he was called on to justify his actions. Poor fellow, he only sounded rather proud of himself in the role of modest hero.

Along with the officers of the i a4th and “all of the officers now in the field” of the 86th New York Volunteers, who “cheerfully” testified to his good character, I, too, feel that he was “actuated by no criminal motives or desires.” “His whole record has been an honorable one, and his years have been fruitful in deeds of usefulness and kindness,” sums up Dr. Shrady in 1903. I feel that Dr. Thompson’s value to his country has been proved by his contemporaries; he was too excellent and experienced a surgeon to hazard being shot uselessly as a noncombatant in a noncombat. Had he tried to save his own life by jeopardizing other lives in his care, I, too, would accuse him of cowardice. It appears more consistent with his character to believe, as he did on that day, that to resist was “impracticable.” Caught in “a difficult and embarassing position,” he continued to do his duty, which was to preserve lives, be they Union or Confederate. That is the way he had behaved up to that fateful meeting in the clearing—and that is the way he continued to behave for the rest of his long career as a physician.