The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon


The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon

J. Franklin Dyer
Edited by Michael B. Chesson

323 pages


June 2003


$25.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

J. Franklin Dyer’s journal offers a rare perspective on three years of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of a surgeon at the front. The journal, taken from letters written to his wife, Maria, describes in lengthy and colorful detail the daily life of a doctor who began as a regimental surgeon in the Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers and was promoted to acting medical director of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac.
This firsthand account traces Dyer’s attempts to manage his Gloucester household even as the Second Corps fought on the Peninsula, at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and from the Wilderness to Petersburg. Over time his letters to his wife become fraught with the tension of a man losing his early martial ardor as he witnesses the ghastly procession of suffering and death.
Both a talented surgeon and a careful administrator, Dyer nevertheless declined opportunities to work at hospitals in the rear in order to stay near his old regiment and the fighting. He confronted the aftermath of battle—thousands of wounded and dying men—with a small staff and simple instruments. He and his fellow surgeons saved lives as best they could—often at the cost of amputated limbs—then dropped to the ground from exhaustion and slept in blood-drenched uniforms until the cries of the wounded woke them and induced them back to work. Dyer also provides a glimpse of the most devastating opponent the armies faced: disease. He and his medical colleagues fought cholera, typhus, dysentery, measles, and, despite official denials in Washington , a scurvy outbreak that weakened Federal units during the Peninsula campaign.

Author Bio

Michael B. Chesson is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


"Dyer's text is a wealth of primary source material for the battlefield impressions. . . . He was a skilled observer, a severe critic, and a fine prose stylist. . . . Chesson's scholarship is impeccable."—Eric von der Luft, The Journal of Military History

"The publication of [Dyer's] journal is important because there are but a limited number of available works by Civil War surgeons, and his letters are well written with apt descriptions of battles and leaders of the war. . . . The entries are thoughtful and lucid, providing a rare glimpse of the Civil War through the eyes of a man who came face to face with death and used his considerable medical talents to try and defeat it."—C. David Dalton, Journal of Southern History

"This is a very well edited volume and [it] provides one of the best insights in the daily life of a front line medical officer during the most turbulent period in our country's history."—Peter D'Onofrio, Civil War Book Review

"A well-informed viw of the war's effects on Virginia's society and its people."—Brent Tarter, Virginia Libraries

“J. Franklin Dyer’s journal is a rare find, and Michael B. Chesson’s edition is a worthy presentation. . . . Chesson’s editorial work is commendable.”—P. C., Council on National Literatures Book Diges

"There is a surprising amount to be learned from doctors' diaries, and J. Franklin Dyer's The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (edited by historian Michael B. Chesson) is one of the best. . . . A reader of this excellent diary will encounter a skilled physician, a dedicated American, and an engrossing writer. . . . [Michael B. Chesson] with his many assistants, has chased down thousands of details about Dyer's life, his associates, and his descendants."—Thomas P. Lowry,