"A sadder if not a wiser man:" Transcribing the diary of a Civil War surgeon

As an intern in the museum's Paper Conservation Lab, Greg Waters got to spend time with the diary of a surgeon in the Union Army. The diary's first entry appeared on January 30, 1863, 150 years ago today. 

The journal arrived in the paper conservation lab just a few days after I did. As a new summer intern at the museum, I was immediately fascinated by it. The medical history division had brought it to the lab and I was assigned to go through it and transcribe what was written within. All I was told is that it was written by a Civil War surgeon named M.A. Henderson. With no idea what to expect, I put on gloves and very carefully opened the front cover.

M.A. Henderson turned out to be Mathew A. Henderson. He was somewhat older than his fellow soldiers but decided to volunteer nonetheless. In January of 1863, he left his home in southeastern Pennsylvania and joined the 150th Pennsylvania infantry as assistant surgeon. They spent the early months of the year in Washington, D.C., where he describes the sights and sounds of the city. During his time in the city, he was able to watch congressional debates and attended the same church as President Lincoln and his wife.

 

The Henderson diary in the Medicine and Science collections, National Museum of American History. Transcript of left- hand page follows: “The “Smithsonian Institute” occupies a large space near the Potomac, + with its towers, domes, + spires constitutes a striking object imposing in its size + interesting for its history + the various uses to which it is appropriated. On returning from my visit to the north was conveyed in a different direction so as to see more of the City; met the various congregations again, coming from their churches, blacks + whites mingling indiscriminately — at 3 p.m. went to hear “Vespers” in a Catholic church nearby. On entering, found a funeral discourse being delivered over a colored child. The mourning cortege were well + fashionably drest — velvet bonnets with waving ostrich plumes overshadowing a sable brow presented to me an unwonted sight. The first colored Catholics I have ever seen.”
The Henderson diary in the Medicine and Science collections, National Museum of American History. Curator Diane Wendt is currently working to refine the transcript. The diary opens with Henderson's description of Washington, DC, including his surprise at finding blacks and whites in close proximity. It was not unusual for white northerners to have had little interaction with blacks. Henderson's regiment was on guard duty in Washington until mid-February 1863, when they shipped out to Belle Plain, Virginia, not far from Fredericksburg. The remainder of the diary gives an account of his experience in the field in the Spring of 1863. 

My transcription of the left-hand page provides a look at Washington, D.C., through Henderson's eyes in February 1863: "The 'Smithsonian Institute' occupies a large space near the Potomac, + with its towers, domes, + spires constitutes a striking object imposing in its size + interesting for its history + the various uses to which it is appropriated. On returning from my visit to the north was conveyed in a different direction so as to see more of the City; met the various congregations again, coming from their churches, blacks + whites mingling indiscriminately — at 3 p.m. went to hear 'Vespers' in a Catholic church nearby. On entering, found a funeral discourse being delivered over a colored child. The mourning cortege were well + fashionably drest — velvet bonnets with waving ostrich plumes overshadowing a sable brow presented to me an unwonted sight. The first colored Catholics I have ever seen."

After their time in Washington, the 150th Pennsylvania was ordered to march. By early May they found themselves in the vicinity of Chancellorsville, Virginia. Although not directly involved in the battle that took place there, Henderson described the incredible noise of the cannons in the distance and the sights and sounds of war. Shortly thereafter, being ill and in constant pain, Henderson put in a request for his discharge papers. He finally received his discharge papers at the end of June 1863 and was able to return home to his family shortly thereafter.

 

Kit belonging to Assistant Surgeon Henderson
Kit belonging to Assistant Surgeon Henderson

Kit belonging to Assistant Surgeon Henderson. The vial with a red ribbon around the neck probably contained opium.
Kit belonging to Assistant Surgeon Henderson. The vial with a red ribbon around the neck probably contained opium. In addition to Henderson's diary and drug kit, our collections include a letter that was tucked into the diary.

As fate would have it, Henderson's regiment arrived at Gettysburg within days of his departure. On the first day of that battle, the 150th Pennsylvania infantry found itself on McPherson's Ridge where they were involved in intense fighting. Of the 397 members of the regiment present that day, 288 were killed or wounded.

The final entry of the journal was written on the day he returned home. The last line reads: "[I] Hope soon again to be able to fight the battle of life as best I may under existing circumstances, a sadder if not a wiser man."

Research continues on the Henderson diary. "Many individual accounts of the war exist in the letters and journals of the participants, and Henderson may not be the most observant or eloquent writer," said Wendt. "Yet I am interested to explore what his diary has to offer about an 'ordinary' person's experience of war."   

Greg Waters was an intern in the Paper Conservation Lab during the Summer 2012. Waters liked the internship enough to come back for another semester as he prepares to attend graduate school in public history. More information about internships can be found here

 

 

Posted at 8:00 am EST in Civil War 150,From the Collections

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