The Arkansas in the Civil War Message Board

"I Acted from Principle"

I Acted from Principle: The Civil War Diary of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon in the Trans-Mississippi, edited by Cynthia DeHaven Pitcock and Bill J. Gurley [The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2002].

Whenever I start thinking that I’m an expert on the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi, along comes a manuscript that takes my ego to the woodshed and smacks it around. This is such a book.

Dr. William Marcellus McPheeters was a native of North Carolina who set up his medical practice in St. Louis several years before the Civil War. He was happily married, with four small children, and was beginning to gain national prominence, presenting research papers and speaking at the American Medical Association. He moved in the highest circles of St. Louis society, and counted among his friends many prominent and influential men. When the war started, however, a kind of mass hysteria swept through the city. First, Southerners were socially ostracized; then they were spied upon by former friends and neighbors. Gradually, their property was seized, they were arrested and imprisoned, and, in some cases, banished from the city. Because of his social position, Dr. McPheeters was afforded the opportunity to avoid such treatment by taking the oath of allegiance. Although he opposed secession as a practical matter, he believed in the Constitutional right of secession. He therefore refused, as a matter of principle, to take the oath of allegiance. What followed was outrageous. He was abandoned by his friends, his property was confiscated, and, finally, he received word that he was to be arrested and placed in the underground dungeon of the notorious Myrtle Street Prison. He escaped from the city, made his way to the South, and joined the Confederate army as a surgeon. That brief introduction sets the stage for what follows – the diary of a Confederate army surgeon.

I read this book when it was first published, referred back to it often in the course of my own research, and recently read it through for the second time. I’ve wanted to write a review of this important book for you all for some time, but I’ve been dragging my feet, because I didn’t think I can do it justice. I still don’t think I can, but I’ll give it a try. Perhaps the best way to illustrate just how detailed Dr. McPheeters’ diary is, would be to talk about just one episode.

For example, in my research of the Compiled Service Records, I knew that most of the Confederate casualties at the Battle of Helena were carried to a makeshift field hospital at the Polk plantation, near Helena. I knew about how many wounded were treated there, and I knew that when the Confederates withdrew from Helena after the battle, the Yankees paroled the severely wounded, and the less severely wounded were sent to prisons in the North. That’s about all there is to know, right?

Well, after reading Dr. McPheeters’ diary, I now know the exact location of the Polk plantation, the names and ages of the Polk family, the names of the Confederate surgeons who manned the field hospital, the names of the Yankee surgeons who offered medical assistance, the type and quantities of medical supplies provided by the Yankees, the date on which the Confederate surgeons were relieved from duty there, etc., etc., etc. Now, multiply this kind of detail on this one episode, times the 1000 days covered by the diary, and you get an idea of the sheer volume of detail-detail-detail contained in this book. It is staggering.

You couldn’t have picked two better editors for an undertaking such as this. Pitcock and Gurley are members of the faculty of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In addition, Ms. Pitcock is a medical historian, and Mr. Gurley is a renowned Civil War historian and researcher, known nationally for his expertise in the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war. They edited the manuscript only to the extent absolutely necessary for clarity. For example, as was the custom of the day, Dr. McPheeters referred to his friends and fellow officers by last name, so the editors added full names in brackets. You can see the meticulous research of Bill Gurley in the voluminous footnotes that take up nearly 50 pages.

Those of us who have studied the Civil War know that the actual fighting took up a relatively small portion of the army’s time. The bulk of the time was spent in marching, drilling, setting up and dismantling camps, taking care of paperwork and reports, performing various details, going on furlough, and sitting around in winter quarters. Those who have only a superficial or passing interest in the Civil War will probably find much of this book boring, but those folks who participate on this message board will find the details of army life in the Trans-Mississippi anything but boring. The details recorded by this observant and articulate army surgeon make this book an absolute treasure trove.

Here’s another example of a minor detail recorded by Surgeon McPheeters that completely changed the way I view the battle of Helena. I knew, for example, that many of the officers and most of the soldiers felt that the planned attack on Helena was a mistake, and that it was with reluctance that they marched to fight that day. Then I read McPheeters’ description of the troops’ demeanor as they got ready to go in. Unlike other battles when the soldiers cheered and yelled, at Helena they were ominously and eerily silent. Dr. McPheeters himself was spooked by the complete and utter silence of the men as they prepared to step off on what they felt was a suicide mission. As if they were dead men walking.

Time after time Dr. McPheeters throws these little vignettes at you. The near mutiny of Price’s starving and defeated army on the retreat from Missouri; the utter confusion and panic of civilians when Little Rock was evacuated; the terrible, miserable aftermath of the fighting at Jenkins’ Ferry.

Of equal importance to Civil War researchers, though, are the thousand little details of camp life, distances marched, the location of various camps and headquarters, rations, discussions around the campfire, etc.

The editors divided the diary into 11 chapters, each with a well-researched introduction written by Bill Gurley, that provides context for the diary entries which follow.

Well, as I feared, I’ve probably failed to do this book justice. All I can say is that if you’re a Civil War “nut” you’ll treasure the diary of Surgeon McPheeters.

This superbly-edited book includes maps, photographs, comprehensive bibliography, and is thoroughly indexed.

Very highly recommended.