Writing on the Operating Table Part Two: The Letters of James Langstaff Dunn, Civil War Surgeon

By Sarah Johnson ’15

After discussing the war letters of James Langstaff Dunn through the lens of Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage and challenging the idea of mass disillusionment among Civil War soldiers, it becomes necessary to revisit the Dunn letters to discuss a more helpful framework for viewing Dunn and his war experience. Frances Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North sets up the Civil War against a backdrop of notions of Victorian suffering. By using Clarke’s approach, Dunn is revealed as an individual dedicated to cultural notions of suffering and sacrifice for cause and country.
Instead of courage, Clarke uses of framework of suffering. Victorian people lived very close to death. It was not uncommon to lose children, spouses, or parents at young ages and because of this, pain was ever present in the lives of many Victorian people. Instead of running from it, however, Victorians embraced it. Christian beliefs about suffering permeated the culture. Christ-like suffering gave inspiration to many and there was a pervading belief that suffering accompanied anything worthwhile. Many Victorians were comforted by the thought that suffering was under the hand of Divine Providence.

Clarke argues that these Christian views of suffering dominated American culture at the time of the Civil War and was one of the primary ways in which Victorians understood their world. This can be seen through Dunn, who, although not appearing to be an overtly religious person, still subscribed to the cultural ideas of suffering for a purpose. “To be an ideal Northern patriot during this war,” Clarke writes, “was to sacrifice self-interest in order to uphold the democratic republican system, either by suffering on behalf of the nation or by tending to those who suffered.” Dunn could not agree more. Speaking of a wounded comrade, Dunn wrote, “He did his duty like a true soldier. If he dies Conneautville will have offered one of its purest and best citizens on the altar of the nation.”

Each time Dunn lost a comrade, he repeated similar sentiments. After losing a close friend, J. W. Patton, to what he deemed as an unnecessary amputation, Dunn wrote his wife in anguish, expounding on his views of suffering. Dunn wrote:

“Death is the certain fate of us all at some time. To die at our post of duty is all that our friends can ask…To die nobly defending one’s country, home and the liberty of his people is the proudest epitaph that can be written on his tomb. He has not loved in vain, merely for self alone, but for the benefit and of his country and mankind.”

This willingness to suffer and sacrifice perhaps helps the reader better understand Dunn’s hatred of Copperheads and Peace Democrats. As one who seemingly valued sacrifice to country above all else, Dunn could not fathom how others felt differently. After a tirade of insults aimed at the “miserable fools,” Dunn wrote, “Such are my sentiments with regard to the rotten people for whom our soldiers are sacrificing their lives and health in the wet and open field.”

Through Clarke, the reader can see how pervasive these cultural ideas of suffering and sacrifice were and that even those who did not otherwise seem particularly religious could subscribe to inspirational suffering as a meaningful way of viewing life. Dunn was able to use suffering as a way to justify his cause as the right one and to continue to sacrifice until it was achieved.

Further Reading:

Clarke, Frances. War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Kerr, Paul. Civil War Surgeon-Biography of James Langstaff Dunn. MD: AuthorHouse, 2005.


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