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Dr. Lauderdale Goes To War

June 2024
6min read

He wrote down everything he saw in a career that stretched from the Civil War well into this century

Sometimes if you wait long enough, things just work out. More than twenty years ago, when I was living in Boston and editing a longvanished magazine called Audience , I was lunching with Gerald Lauderdale, the adman who handled our direct-mail solicitations, and mentioned to him idly that I was thinking someday of writing a book about my great-grandfather. Gerry listened politely until I said that I’d recently been to upstate New York to have a look at the old family home in Geneseo. “Geneseo!” he said. “That’s where my family comes from. We have books of my grandfather’s letters. He was a doctor in the Civil War. Would you like to see them?

I said I would. A Dr. Walter E. Lauderdale had been my family’s doctor in those years, I knew, and ^ the Lauderdales had been members of the Old School Presbyterian congregation over which my greatgreat-grandfather, the father of my subject, presided. The letter writer must have been one of Dr. Lauderdale’s sons.

The letters were eventually delivered to my office. The most I’d hoped for was two or three slim little volumes in which, if I were lucky, my ancestors’ physical frailties might now and again be mentioned. What I got were several big cartons crammed with oversized volumes containing thousands of letters home—detailing, almost day by day, a medical and military career that stretched from the late 185Os well into this century—all carefully arranged chronologically, written in a big, clear hand, and supplemented with sketches, photographs, souvenirs.

It seemed to me that these documents needed a safer harbor than they’d had, and with Gerry Lauderdale’s permission I described them in a letter to Archibald Hanna, then the curator of the Western American Collection at Yale’s Beinecke Library. He agreed to give them a home.

I was pleased but also a little guilty. I knew that someone should edit the Lauderdale papers into a book—or series of books—and as the years went by and no volume ever appeared, I began to feel that I had been derelict, somehow, in not trying to produce one myself.

I needn’t have worried. This summer, to my surprise and pleasure, appeared The Wounded River: The Civil War Letters of John Vance Lauderdale, M.D. , ably edited by Peter Josyph (Michigan State University Press, $29.95).

John Lauderdale was a conventional young man, not especially brave or notably sensitive and more prim than most (he did not marry until late in life and seems to have been generally tongue-tied and disapproving around women). And he was prone to pious judgments all his life, many of which, I’m sorry to say, were likely inspired by the grim sermons to which he was subjected twice each Sunday by my ancestor: He went to hear Louis Agassiz speak one Sunday, for example, but was unable to enjoy it because he questioned “very much the propriety of such a [scientific] lecture on the sabbath.”

But what matters is that he compulsively wrote down everything he saw and everything he thought about what he saw for nearly half a century. “I can only give you the facts as they are transpiring this minute,” he once wrote to the sister who was the recipient of most of his letters, and that, of course, is why they are invaluable.

After studying medicine at the Medical College of New York University, Lauderdale found himself aboard the January , a U.S. Army steamboat fitted out as a floating hospital, on the way down the Mississippi to Pittsburg Landing to help bring away the wounded and the dying from Shiloh. “I am very tired,” he wrote after his first day’s nursing. “I have been waiting on over 70 patients, dressing their wounds and stumps & relieving their numerous wants. … These men … talk among themselves of the incidents to which they were eye witness, and participators. One soldier told another who received a wound in the side of his foot, that he made a great mistake in not raising his foot 1/8 of an inch higher, at the same time remarking that he the speaker would not have had his arm shot off, if he had not raised it quite so high.”

He took a politically incorrect view of the women volunteers aboard: “There are three ladies on board who are acting the part of Florence Nightingales. … These three go around to … the patients, and pretend to minister words of comfort & attend to little wants. I saw one reading in a Testament to a dying one. With all these kind arts, they take some liberties, such as suffering the patients to complain of the attentions of the Physicians, when they are doing their best. … Dr. [Alexander H.] Hoff [Lauderdale’s superior] is ‘down’ on them and says if they don’t keep their mouths closed that he will set them on shore. He don’t appreciate their attentions at all and shows them very little respect. They appear to be of the strong minded variety of femininity.”

But Lauderdale also shared Hoff’s disgust with the civilian patriots of Cincinnati who sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the Union by refusing to help the wounded Confederates his men carried ashore: “On our boat we … have treated all alike, & we have been paid for our attention by expressions of gratitude from them. These Ohio men are disposed to show a bad spirit. … For instance, the sexton was very particular to know which coffins contained confederates, so that they might not be buried in the same cemetery with union men.”

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.

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