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Extensive archive of over 110 letters by Dr. William C. Towle, assistant surgeon with the 23rd and 12th Maine Infantry regiments, with detailed medical content. Though Towle didn't participate in battles, his activity as a doctor during the War provides fascinating insights, especially his passion for vaccinating against small pox - testing different mixtures on himself, and even sending samples home to his wife to vaccinate their children. Based on his expertise, Towle was tapped to vaccinate the city of Savannah late in the war, which he describes in these letters home. Towle also writes about attending to the wounded, mostly during the Valley Campaign in 1864 with the 12th Maine.
Towle begins his service in early 1863 with the 23rd Maine, tasked with defending Washington DC. In one of his first letters home on 8 February 1863 from Edward Ferry, Maryland, the issue of vaccines comes up, "…A case of small pox broke out in one of the companies two or three days ago causing quite a commotion among those who had never been vaccinated…Dr. Livery had sent for some matter and it arrived a short time after 2 o'clock hence there was work to do to vaccinate. We went at it and went through with the company when the case had appeared, not having matter enough to go through with any men at present. There are twenty in the hospital to day. One died yesterday morning…I called upon the col. yesterday and in the course of our talk he wanted to know what kind of a physician Lamson was. I told him I was not much acquainted with him. He then told me he must be a d_n blockhead for passing such men as he did & exempting others who ought to have passed…"
He writes on 15 February regarding remedies on himself for dysentery: "…I visited all my patients and prescribe for them which took me some 2 hours. I then began to feel as though something must be done for myself. The med which I took were of an astringent kind & I soon found they were doing no good. Things grew worse until the next day when I had the true dysenteric discharges. I now took a good portion of calomel and followed it up with a mild dose of physic this I found not any good. I then resorted to opium, ginger, & brandy. Geratic sweetened well with white sugar. Today I'm feeling very well indeed & my appetite is returning to me. I think it will be a good thing for me for the most of them here tell me they had similar attacks when they first joined the show…"
On 13 March Towle travels to Washington DC to secure vaccine "matter", "…I arrived here last night after a hard day's ride on horseback. I am here after vaccine matter for our regt & brigade…I shall call on the surgeon gen this morning for the matter. We have had two men died of smallpox & have one more that is likely to…" A week later, Towle sends some of the vaccine home to his wife, before writing on the effects of quinine, "…I will send you some matter which is good so that you may prick a little of it into the children's arms if you like. Our number of sick are some less than they were a few weeks I go. In regard to…the effect of quinine. I should say that she ought to have received some benefit from its use by this time that is if it was having a good effect. Quinine is given in many diseases by the surgeon in the army. I've been reading lately some reports of quinine in large doses given & diseases peculiar to this climate, setting aside its specific effect & fevers of a melodious origin is a powerful salutive & tinnie. Sometimes a stimulant depending entirely on the state of the system when taken. Is a promoter of nerve power & its fervent supporters claimed it is has in itself the constituents of nerve matter some of the bad effects when long continued is deafness partial or complete, blinding some sometimes salivation similar to Mercury or calomel…"
On 29 March 1863 he writes an interesting letter regarding vaccines and the less than sterling reputation of the 23rd Maine, "…The Hobbs boy with diphtheria is better. I gave him large doses of chlorate potash & put pork rines around his throat. This is all I did for him. I believe it to be the best treatment…I think you are doing quite a business in the drug line. The vaccine matter which I sent you I obtained in W[ashington] and it undoubtedly is the pure lines from the cow…We have quite a number in our regiment you have a great propensity to steal whatever they can lay their hands upon & it will give us rather a bad name if they don't reform. Already the remark has been made by the natives here that the quickest way to take Richmond would be to send down the 23rd Me and they would steal it in one night. Be this as it may they are nothing compared with the Cavalry called the Scotty Nine Hundred since I've known them. Whenever they see a horse bridle or saddle better than their own whether it belong to an officer or anyone else, they quietly watch their chance and make the exchange…"
On 4 April, he describes a gruesome incident attending to the victim of a hatchet attack, as well as personal hygiene in camp and his regiment's fitness: "…Some of the boatmen on the canal had a little fight yesterday & one of them got a blow on the head with a hatchet. I was called upon to do it up…Our Colonel has issued orders that the men must wash their hands and faces twice a day and they are whole body twice a week. The hair to be cut close to the head, those that shave their faces must attend to it twice a week & those that do not must keep the whiskers neatly trimmed. It is a very proper & good order & will add much to the comfort and health of the regiment. Some of our men were getting very slack on these points. I have broken up quite a number of cases of threatened fever lately by giving quinine, capsicum, & powder in large doses…I believe if taken in season it will very often prevent a run of fever. I have a great many teeth to extract and some of them are pretty hard customers. Our med have come and we now have enough to last us during our time of service…Our co reported this morning 'none sick' 'all fit for duty.' This is the first instance of the kind I have known…" In mid-April Towle again travels to Washington "for the purpose of visiting some of our sick in hospitals here & also to obtain some disinfectant agent to clean the clothing of the men in the company which had the smallpox. The clothing of those that died has all been destroyed but there were quite a number that had it…"
On 18 May, Towle writes an interesting letter regarding dying of homesickness, "…I never supposed before that a man would die of homesickness but I have seen enough of it here to be convinced of the fact. We have had men who wasted away day by day without any other perceptible cause. Has finally sent them to general hospital where they have either died or been discharged. It is a difficult disease to treat & I find that other surgeons have had similar cases. I was talking the other day with the surgeon of the NY artillery and he concurred with me fully on this point…"
Beginning in May, Towle reports activity to increase defenses around Washington after the Battle of Chancellorsville, with enforcements continually heightening until Gettysburg. He writes, "…The people here have been more quiet the past few days in regard to the movement of Rebel Cavalry. For 3 or 4 nights they took up the planks on the bridges fearful of a raid on or near Washington…" He then describes a difficult forced march to Alexandria, "on account of fears entertained the rebs…The rebs were reported at 6000 under Stuart five miles from here yesterday. There was quite a large force here before we came. Our men are at work digging rifle pits that the rebs will meet with a warm reception if they come this way…" On 27 May he writes presciently, "…There is evidently grounds for believing that the rebs are meditating on attack…" And on 16-19 June in a diary style letter he writes, "…You're probably seen by the papers of the raid into Maryland and Pennsilvania…Gen Hooker has sent all of his sick & wounded here & to W…troops are moving to near the rebs in Maryland & Penn…" On 21 June 1863, he writes of the skirmishing before Gettysburg, "…There were about a thousand sick & wounded stopped at Alexandria & I saw a good part of them. I saw the wounds on all parts of the body, but the most were in the legs. They say that the rebs fire lower than we do and they give this as their reason that they would rather wound then kill for it takes two men to take one wounded man off the field while a dead one is not removed at all…" Just days before Gettysburg on 24 June, Towle writes from Maryland Heights, "…The 10th VT battery & five co's of cavalry came with us. Gen. Howard was a little way behind us with 12,000 men. He left us a little below here & will strike the river above us where I understand he will form a junction with Hooker who is advancing up on the other side of the river. The report here is the rebs are about 6 miles above here 40,000 strong under Buell. Their camps could be seen from here yesterday. Many think that they are a going onto the old battle ground Antietam. This place is now well fortified & has plenty of troops to defend it. It is not at all probable that the rebs will attempt to take this place…"
Towle's next set of letters are with the 12th Maine Infantry, after he mustered in November 1863. Several of his early letters tell stories of the southerners he encounters: "…one southern lady…has lost her husband & 120 slaves. She is quite secesh in feeling and I think mourn full as much for the loss of her slaves as for her husband…" A few days later on 5 December from Camp Parapet, Louisiana, he writes, "…There is part of a Negro Regt camped here, real plantation niggers. Shiny blacks. They eclipse all other darkies for color that I ever saw…" He writes again about Colored Regiments on 17 April 1864, just days after Fort Pillow, "…A battalion of 600 colored boys landed here yesterday from R. Island. The surgeon called to tell me that the state paid 300 bounty for them. The first state that has done it…I see by the paper that the Rebs have taken Fort Pillow & the Negro garrison. The poor darkies will fare hard in the hands of the Confederates. In the fight the Rebs captured Col. Dudley's entire wagon train consisting of over 150 wagons. Gen. Banks will have to be careful or he will gain the same name here which he did on the Potomac viz 'The Commissary for the Confederate Army'…"
On 21 April, Towle reports on an outbreak of smallpox and his efforts to eradicate it, including testing a vaccine on himself first: "…I am going down this afternoon to get some vaccine matter to vaccinate our boys over again. The small pox is in the city and up the coast. I shall try a little on my arm though I don't think it will take as I tried it a year ago on the Potomac…" He updates his wife of the vaccination progress and other events on 8 June 1864 from Lake End, Louisiana, "…I have vaccinated all of the men over again. Some of the new recruits have never been vaccinated. Dr. Adams of the 14th has resigned and Jim will probably be ordered to report to his regiment. Dick Bradley is in town. He was out here last Sunday, came down sick diarrhea looks rather thin. He has many marvelous hair breath escapes to relate shooting the buttons from his coat…I was ordered into town last Monday as witness on a stabbing case which occurred in the parole camp. I dressed the wound…"
During this time Towle also writes about fighting by General Grant in Virginia, and attending to the wounded during the Valley campaign; after Spotsylvania Court House he writes, "…The news from Virginia looks as though Grant was either a going to crush the rebel army or lose his own. What terrible fighting the world has never seen such before. God granted it may result in the speedy termination of this wicked rebellion…" and then during Cold Harbor, "…Grant appears to be troubling Lee back slowly towards Richmond, but at an awful sacrifice of life. I hope this campaign may be successful in The Taking of Richmond and it certainly appears as though it would. Our parole prisoners have been exchanged and have gone to join their respective regiments. I understand today that a lot of negroes are coming here men, women, & children from Rebeldom…" On 20 August "Near Charleston", South Carolina, Towle writes, "…The rebel guerrillas are hanging around our rear occasionally. They picked up our stragglers…" and then on 25 August 1864 in "Hazeltown near Harper's Ferry", "…We are skirmishing with the rebs who are reported in large force. None of our regt's have been killed or wounded yet, though there have been a considerable number from others. I expect we shall have some wounded today as our regiment is skirmishing. There is a continual popping of musketry and occasionally a shell or solid shot. There is heavy cannonading on our extreme right this morning…" On 14 September, he comments on the Confederate Gray Ghost, "…As regards the operations of 'Mosby'. I think that there is a good deal ascribed to him in which he takes no part. I imagine there are a good many 'Mosby's' among the citizens all along the line of our march. The cannonading is heavier and nearer and I thought I just heard musketry. Let them come on, I should have no fears for the result and should be glad for them to get a good drubbing before the winter sets in…"
From Harrisonburg, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley, Towle writes on 6 October 1864 about the ruin of Southern towns and the cruelty of Union soldiers, "…There have no doubt been many cases of cruelty & inhumanity practiced by our men on the citizens. I have known of some negroes and have heard of many others. We have many bad men in the army, it cannot be otherwise, and they will at times get away from their commands and plunder and destroy all they can get hold of. The most of the families on the march have been stript of everything, some even of their clothing. I think they will get enough of Rebellion before this war is over…"
Stationed in Savannah, Georgia in March 1865, Towle was tasked with the monumental challenge of vaccinating "nearly half of the city", soldiers and citizens alike. He writes on 10 March, "…I received an order last night directing me to vaccinate nearly half of the city, establish an office, & my orders are to see that all White & Black are vaccinated if they have not been…The people are to be notified to come to the office and failing to do so a guard will bring them. The small pox is confined principally to the colored people…One boat load of colored troops have arrived here more are to come…" On 21 March, he writes, "…I am resting to day from the vaccinating business. The 'Vaccine Virus' gave out this morning and we can get no more under a day or two. I have been on the work 9 days and have vaccinated 1293 men, women, and children. I think that I am about half through. They are mostly colored individuals. We have good news from 'Sherman' he's doing up the work at a great rate and the Rebs will soon have the opportunity of dying in the last ditch. The brave Sheridan is pressing them hard…" He updates on 2 April, "…I have vaccinated all of the new companies. I found some that never had been vaccinated at all…" before commenting on Colonel William Kimball, who had recently been promoted to General, "…Col. Kimball was not with the regt. in the valley and indeed he has hardly had command of it since I have been with it. He is a broken down politician and unprincipled demagogue. I don't wonder that he is trying to get Thompson back for he always furnished him hospital liquor…" On 8 April he's finally completed his mission, "…I am about through vaccinating in the city, am now picking up those that come in…"
Towle's comment regarding General Kimball speaks to his high ethics as a doctor, with interesting stories peppered throughout the collection of what he refuses to do that other doctors would: giving liquor (that was set aside for the wounded) to the officers in order to get promoted, discharging well-connected soldiers, passing medically unfit soldiers, etc. He writes on 24 April 1863 during his time with the 23rd Maine: "…I have known as quite a number of discharges when I knew there was not the slightest proximity to disease. I don't wish you to infer from that I have ever signed papers for such applicants for I have not. If there is anything I detest in the army it is the manner in which such matters are conducted…" And then on 5 May, "…I left Lieut Stacy very comfortable last eve. He is from Porter and is a very fine man. He seemed very grateful for what I did for him and urged me quite hard to accept renumeration, but I told him that Uncle Sam renumerated me sufficiently and I would not be guilty of taking pay on any consideration. It is a bright spot in the army to find such a man who are so truly grateful…" On 6 July 1864, he writes, "…Dr. Day of the 29th & Dr. Conn of 30th were just charged by the authorities at Washington for taking into their regiments so many disabled men. The case was represented to the Surgeon General by Langer's in charge of hospitals in the city where the most of the sick of the 29th and 30th were sent. I thought when I was at Augusta that doctor Day was not very particular in his examinations but seemed to be anxious to get his regt filled up. There is some men among the new recruits that were sent out to us who have done no duty since they have been here and probably never will. I've been thinking of representing the case to the gov. We have enough taken sick here without sending those that are already so. We have one bounty jumper who has been in the service twice before and discharged for disability. He came to me after he had been here about a month and said he was suffering from heart disease and thought he should be of no use in the army. I examined him carefully and finding no nervous difficulty about him, advised him to go to his quarters and do his duty and in my opinion he had got the last bounty or any rate for three years…" And on 13 August 1864, he writes, "…I get awfully provoked sometimes to see Dr. Thompson giving the whiskey & brandy which is furnished to the sick men to the officers. Nearly all of our stimulants go in this way. He never would have received his promotion but for this. They don't get much from me for I tell them plainly that we have nothing but what is furnished for the sick. I have not yet learned to treat officers any better than enlisted man, that is professionally…"
In addition to the 110+ letters written by Dr. Towle, archive also includes approximately 80 letters from his wife Anne and other family members to him, as well as miscellaneous documents. A file of research on Towle is also included, with details of his time in California during the Gold Rush. A very enjoyable archive to read, with many original covers included. Letters, most spanning 4pp. are in very good plus condition. Near full transcriptions included.PAYMENTS
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