Did Christopher Loperfido's Death, Disease, and Life at War do the Trick?
Civil war letters are windows into the private lives of soldiers. I love them...I read them all the time. As a Civil War scholar, I'll jump at any chance to check out some wartime correspondence. And if the stars align, the collection will be complete and the individual's handwriting will be legible. Of course, some letters are better (or rather, more useful) than others. There is always a chance that the correspondent didn't really have much to say. One might also assume that depending on the intended recipient, a soldier might tailor a letter in a specific way - leaving out, for example, troubling aspects of their lives for the sake of the sanity of those at home. My point here is to suggest that quite often, a Civil War era letter won't tell us much.
Good news! Death, Disease, and Life at War: The Civil War Letters of Surgeon James D. Benton, edited by Christopher E. Loperfido, tells us a great deal. Here we have something quite unique. While Benton writes to both of his parents and his wife discussing the usual military themes we find in Civil War letters, the majority of the letters contained in this collection address his father specifically, who is also a physician. Ah!!! A physician writing (primarily) to another physician!! All of this means that Benton (the younger) can get pretty specific about issues of a medical nature....a great boon to modern readers wanting to understand such things.
On slavery, Benton was no abolitionist. Far from it, in fact, he explicitly states that he was opposed to emancipation...which complicates the matter for those who think that the "North" was some monolithic unit fighting to end slavery. Yes, some soldiers enlisted to abolish the institution, and others would eventually accept emancipation as a war measure. But we cannot dismiss the sentiments of those whose support for the cause ended at the preservation of Union. Such ideas help modern readers understand complicated national issues involving race, hierarchy, and the relationship between the federal government and its constituent parts in a 19th-century context.
Loperfido has offered a valuable contribution to the ever-growing collection of edited volumes. Death, Disease, and Life at War includes helpful explanatory appendices by Meg Groeling and Dennis Rashbach that will certainly assist those unfamiliar with topics ranging from the U.S. Sanitary Commission to 19th-century amputation techniques. Read this book.