TARNISHED SCALPELS by Thomas P. Lowry

TARNISHED SCALPELS

The Court-Martials of Fifty Union Surgeons

KIRKUS REVIEW

Psychiatrist Lowry (Tarnished Eagles, not reviewed) and physician Welsh (Medicine/Univ. of Oklahoma) sift through the 80,000 court-martial transcripts in the National Archives to produce one of the few recent Civil War histories based on original research.

As with all court records, one never learns what really happened. The charges are often terrible (refusal to attend a dying patient, gross incompetence, mutilating a corpse), the prosecution is invariably damning, but the defense is always entirely convincing. In the end, the verdicts are unpredictable and only vaguely related to the testimony. Yet it doesn’t matter. These cases illuminate not only Civil War military life but the social, political, racial, sexual, and medical world of the mid–19th century. Although Lowry and Welsh divide their study by subject into 12 chapters, these divisions seem arbitrary because most of the trials dealt with multiple offenses. There are three basic categories of accusation. The first is largely made up of the traditional offenses found in court-martials through the ages (drunkenness, desertion, dereliction of duty). More titillating are charges particularly offensive to the Victorian age (consorting with lewd women, sex with a mare). Finally, and most peculiar, are accusations that strike us as trivial but were a deadly serious matter to the Civil War military—such as those brought against a dozen surgeons charged with eating with enlisted men. Snobbery was not the issue here: enlisted men ate at government expense during the Civil War, but officers were responsible for feeding themselves. Surgeons on trial for dining with their staff were suspected, often correctly, of freeloading off the taxpayer. No matter how lurid the subject, however, the verbatim account of a trial makes for tedious reading. Lowry and Welsh sensibly summarize each court-martial in their own words, interspersing them with quotes from the transcript and adding an expert, sometimes wryly amusing commentary.

An illuminating portrait of the Civil War, seen from an unusual perspective.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8117-1603-1
Page count: 288pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2000




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