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The Wounded River
The Civil War Letters of John Vance Lauderdale, M.D.
By Peter Josyph
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1993 Peter Josyph
All rights reserved.
The Seat of War
The American Civil War was young John Vance Lauderdale's first major appointment as a physician. Fresh from the Medical College at the University of New York, he had just passed his exam for Junior Assistant at Bellevue Hospital in New York City when the offer arrived from St. Louis, Missouri to take one more exam in order to qualify as a surgeon in the Federal Army. His brother Willis, working as a telegrapher in St. Louis, had connected with a fellow New Yorker, Brigade Surgeon Dr. Alexander H. Hoff, who was willing to try the young doctor as his assistant on a commission from the governor of Missouri. Willis was exuberant. "It is my opinion," he wrote to his brother, "and also that of all the Doctors I have conversed with that you would learn more of surgery in one year in the Army than in a life time of private practice or in the hospitals in New York." Equally to the point, Willis added: "Besides, you receive a good salary." According to Dr. Hoff, the Western theatre of the war was just the place for the young novice. "You would probably be ordered into the field at once," Willis continued. "There will be a big fight at Corinth and Memphis soon." In a follow-up letter a week later, unaware of the magnitude of the events which had transpired in the interim, Willis wrote that General Henry W. Halleck, the Federal commander in the West, had left St. Louis for Corinth, Mississippi just that morning, and he concluded his case by saying: "There will be lots of work for surgeons now."
Just how much work there was going to be for surgeons in that region could not have been imagined by either brother or by anyone else on either side of the war. Between Willis's two letters, the Army's view of the war, and of war itself, had been drastically altered. The first letter, dated April 2, 1862, preceded by four days the Battle of Shiloh, which was fought at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, and at first news of the battle Dr. Hoff was hurrying there aboard the hospital steamer D.A. January, sorry not to have had the young Lauderdale with him. Three weeks later, the completely inexperienced Dr. Lauderdale would arrive on that same ship to commence his career in the aftermath of the bloodiest battle yet fought in the history of American warfare, its casualties exceeding all three previous American wars together.
Although he opposed secession and condemned the extension of slavery, Lauderdale had questioned the necessity of the war, suspecting opportunistic motives amongst its promoters in the North. He had no desire to see it continue and showed no interest in joining its ranks. While preparing his thesis in December of 1861, he had written to Willis: "I begin to think that it is no use fighting any longer and wish the finale of this great family quarrel would come." A month later, he wrote to his sister Frances: "I am getting quite disgusted with the war, as well as the generals, and would give more for a picture of the individuals who would put a stop to this miserable capital consuming quarrel than for photographs of all the Union generals." Given such photographs, there would be few whom Lauderdale could identify, his medical studies having prevented him from keeping properly posted. He wrote to Frances: "I must confess (with regret) that I am very ignorant of war news. If I hear of a Generals army defeated, I always have to ask a friend of mine here whether he was Fedr'el or Rebel. Since this war has begun, I do not know who Gen Pope is."
With significant modifications—he did not join the Army, but signed on as a contract surgeon—Lauderdale accepted the offer to enter the war for sound practical reasons. Having secured a leave of absence from Bellevue Hospital until October, he could store up a wealth of experience in his profession while earning the highest pay he had ever received, one hundred dollars per month, which was a hundred per month more than a Junior Assistant at Bellevue was getting, Junior Assistants being paid only in board. As an extra bonus, he would be seeing his brother Willis in St. Louis. It was the best prospect ever to come his way, and it solved, for a time, the great problem of gainful employment which had grieved him since he struck out on his own ten years earlier.
* * *
Lauderdale's father, Dr. Walter E. Lauderdale, was not at all happy as a physician in the rural, northern New York village of Geneseo, and he did not encourage the eldest of his five sons to pursue a medical future. In 1852, at the age of nineteen, John Vance left his family and moved to New York City, aiming at a hopefully more satisfying career in the lucrative business of pharmaceuticals. He rented a shared room in the Chambers Street boarding house of family friends, the Watsons, and a little further along Chambers, opposite City Hall Park at lower Broadway, he was hired as a druggist's clerk with Rushton, Clark & Co., expecting there to learn all of the aspects of the business to which he would not have had access in the country.
What he learned, quickly, was that his employers would teach him nothing which would warrant increasing his salary, not permitting even senior clerks to dispense drugs until they had worked in the store for a full four years. Lauderdale considered this "all humbug," and already, in only his second month, he declared to his father: "My future prospects are not at all flattering. The Drug business is a very good business for the employer, but not for the clerk." Working sixteen and seventeen hour days of putting up medicines, running errands, and attending the soda counter, he was earning barely enough for his room and board. If, as his father insisted, the rural physician's life was "slavish" and "thankless," the son's life as a clerk in New York City was little better.
The senior Lauderdale's letters of this period, typifying a timeless parental duality, were at once sympathetic toward his son's disaffections and concerned that his reputation as an employee should remain beyond reproach and that his material situation would be secure. Reminding his son to "be faithful to their interests," he advised him to stay with his current employers until he learned the profession thoroughly, perhaps even augmenting the job with courses in pharmacology. By turns, the younger Lauderdale appealed first to one of his father's ears and then the other, and the shifts and stretches by which he attempted this were sometimes less than subtle. After one particular recitation of grievances, he suddenly checked himself and hastened to add: "You must not think from what I just said that I am sick of the Drug Business. Oh no, that is not the case because I like the business as well as ever, but I do think that to[o] much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." How well Jack ever liked the exactions of working at Rushton, Clark & Co. can be inferred from the following passages:
Mr. Rushton ... is one of the most particular sort of man I ever saw. He wants everything kept in the strictest order. If he sees the least thing out of place, a little dust on the counter scales or anything, he is sure to speak of it, and scold the boys for being so careless, so that when we see the "old man" (as they call him) we have to rush around, and get things to rights....
I do not think that I shall ever regrett leaving. There are several regulations and rules which we must obey. For instance, we are not allowed to sit when we are in the store. We are not permitted to take a look at any paper or book during business hours. If King [the senior clerk] sees a newspaper any wheres about the store, he makes inquiries about it, who left it in such a place, and if he finds the one, he gives him a scolding. I have had to use the greatest caution to avoid being caught with anything of the kind. We are not allowed to converse with one another, except it is about our business. I do not believe in being so strict.
It is not surprising that during his few free hours, Lauderdale did not attend pharmaceutical courses. But much of his spare time was solitary. His roommate, Hiram Fonda, a grocery clerk, was easy to get along with; the Watson house was frequently full of boarders; and his life was not without its share of personal calls by and to acquaintances or members of his very large circle of relations who were visiting New York City. But in his desire to find a constant close companion in whom to confide, Lauderdale was ruefully disappointed. Social relations in the metropolis were not remotely as simple or as easy as they were in Geneseo. He wrote to Frances:
To be sure, there is enough going on all the time, but I am not acquainted with the people, so I dont take much interest in their affairs. Society here in New York seems to be divided into social strata, if I may use that geological term, one layer overlying the other in regular gradation, and it seems almost impossible to commingle them, and there are only a few who, like veins of granite, are found associated with every strata alike. The amount of ones property assigns him his rank in society.
Lacking entree into Manhattan social circles, Lauderdale recruited himself by devouring the sights of the city and as much of its culture as he could afford, and by chronicling his experience for his favorite correspondent, his sister Frances, who was two years his junior and whom he liked to call Frank. After exchanging letters with her for several years, he told her: "I have some correspondents who are cash customers, and others who write me on a long credit. You are one of the cash ones." A decade older than their kid sister Nettie, Frank was a gentle, loving sister, the only relation who wrote to him frequently, and despite their being seldom in the same city together, she was, in a sense, his closest companion for many years. He described to Frank his view of the Hudson River Palisades from an observation tower on 31st Street; the construction of the spectacular Crystal Palace on the site of what is now Bryant Park on 42nd Street; and the awesome crowds that gathered to hear the wildly popular songstress—the Swedish Nightingale—Jenny Lind. Reports of the store, however, continued bleak. He performed his duties assiduously, but clearly, like Melville's Bartleby who was a scrivner on nearby Wall Street, Lauderdale would have preferred not to. He was even glad for a minor injury to his hand, as it was "very agreeable to have a day once in a while to stay away from the store." He endured the situation until July, when he finally quit.
Anticipating his father's concern for the terms under which he was leaving, Lauderdale assured him that the firm was pleased with his work, and in reiterating the logic behind his departure, he offered as a conclusive factor something with which his father, a pious Old School Presbyterian, could not have taken issue. One may suspect perhaps a trace of filial strategy in his emphasis, but it is nonetheless characteristic of Lauderdale's religious sensibility at the time:
Just as soon as I get another place I shall leave for someplace where they have more respect for the sabbath than they have here. What I refer to is that of selling soda water on Sunday. Last sabbath I had to sell soda most all the time. The call for soda was twice as great as that for medicines. I do not feel as though I was doing exactly right, in selling soda on Sunday, and I will not work for a firm who requires it.
Having found a suitable situation at Boyd & Paul, a pharmaceutical wholesaler on Courtland Street who agreed to start him in August, Lauderdale treated himself to a much needed vacation. Although he lived for nearly a century, as a young man Lauderdale did not have the sturdiest constitution and he welcomed the opportunity to strengthen his health, restore his spirits, and "rusticate" in the country, visiting first with an uncle in Greenbush, New York, then staying with other relations in Dorset, Vermont, where he assisted in getting the hay in and was glad to be joined for a few days by his mother. In writing to Frank of how deeply he missed the country in his small room on Chambers Street, he had quoted a song: "Oh give me a cot in the vally I love/A tent in the wildwood, a home in the grove." It was, in a sense, a song he continued to sing throughout his life.
* * *
Compared to Rushton, Clark & Co., Boyd & Paul was a liberation. In repetitious menial labor, the bracing high spirits of even a superficial camaraderie can be helpful in surviving the dull day, and at Boyd & Paul, which wholesaled to retail druggists and was not open to the public, the boys wore blue shirts and overalls and could "talk and sing and carry on as they please, only they must tend to their business." With few exceptions, however, Lauderdale found his coworkers a rough class of fellows and formed no lasting friendships within their company. "I never felt the need of acquaintance as much as I do now," he told Frank. Nor was he contented with his earnings or his prospects. He was obliged to send his socks home for mending, and his shoes were "most wore out." He was happy to have a dollar sent for extra spending money. But the shorter hours were certainly less of a strain, leaving more time for his favorite recreations, which now included reading and frequenting free lectures. He discovered the Mercantile Society Library, where he borrowed books and enjoyed the extensive selection of newspapers and journals in the quiet of its capacious reading room in the Clinton Hall building, located at the corner of Nassau and Beekman streets. He was impressed at reading Shakespeare and Milton for the first time, and he finally got around to reading the current sensational bestseller, Uncle Tom's Cabin:
It is a very extraordinary story. I liked it very much. What a pity poor old Tom was never permitted to go back to old Kintuck, and see his wife & chillen once more. Mas'r George served him, Legree, right when he lam[e]d him over his head. He ought to have been punished in a more severe manner for his cruelty to his poor slaves. Was not little Eva a lovely little thing?
When one spate of reading delayed his characteristically regular letters to Frank, he explained that he was correcting for having formerly read so little that he was pretending to others' opinions about books he had not read.
Another opportunity for improvement at the Mercantile Library, the winter lecture season in the Clinton Hall auditorium, found him in constant attendance, sometimes nightly, for talks on a wide range of topics, including the American Indian, life in great Britain, "The Discoveries of Science as Applied to the History of Creation," success, India, phrenology, physiology, and psychology. "This last subject is something that appeared strange to me," Lauderdale wrote about psychology, "but I am convinced that there is something in it." The talk on phrenology was given by Orson S. Fowler, of the popular Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet, also housed in Clinton Hall, where a curious Walt Whitman had submitted his head to Orson's brother Lorenzo for a craniological survey—known as having one's bumps read—and where the first edition of Leaves of Grass was displayed for sale in 1855. The speaker on Great Britain was Horace Mann, whom Lauderdale admired both as a lecturer and as a man, his talk having addressed both the pleasing and the dark side of his subject, concluding with a warning lest America should abuse its poorer classes in the manner of Great Britain. Lauderdale told Frank: "I thought that our slaves at the south are much better off than the people there."
Apart from life at the store, where daily routine among the stocks of patent medicine seldom varied, it was generally an expansive time for Lauderdale. He visited New Providence, New Jersey, the birthplace of his maternal grandfather. He went for a "sea bath" at Coney Island. He ferried out of the city for fresh air in Hoboken, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, or to attend Sunday services in the quieter, less bustling Brooklyn churches, although he also attended Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church, which was so well attended that Sunday ferries from New York became known as Beecher's Boats. During a visit to Williamsburg, Lauderdale was enthralled to witness the maiden launch of a steamship, the Yankee Blade. At the foot of Warren Street in lower Manhattan, he watched another steamer, the Cherokee, being destroyed by a fire, which he confessed to Frank was "truly a grand sight," albeit a tragic one. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was walking the decks of the warship Carolina when it thundered its naval salute to the late Daniel Webster, whose funeral pageant he later encountered on Broadway, where "all the principal buildings were festooned with black drapery, & all places of business were closed during the passing of the procession." A demonstration of acrobatics at a gymnasium ranked as high for him as anything at the circus, and he was equally pleased with a convention of the American Canary Birds Fancier Association.
Excerpted from The Wounded River by Peter Josyph. Copyright © 1993 Peter Josyph. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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