Glimpses of Soldiers' Lives: Alexander Harris
Prints and Photographs
Alexander Harris enlisted on December 5th, 1862 as a surgeon with the 15th Virginia Infantry during the American Civil War. His first engagement with the regiment was at the Battle of Suffolk, Virginia, from April 13th to 15th, 1863.
The photograph on the right shows his bag of instruments. The photographer, Charles R. Rees lived in Richmond, Virginia.
Information on Harris and his work in the Confederate army is scarce—but the writings of other Civil War surgeons describe the grimness and gore of their daily life.
When the Provisional Congress organized the Confederate Army on March 6th, 1861, it intended to require a surgeon and assistant surgeon to serve with each regiment. However, the copyist transcribing the official army regulations somehow forgot to include the medical officers. Thus, the medical branch of the Confederate Army, on paper comprising only eleven doctors, was off to a rocky start.
Many regiments ignored the regulations, physicians enlisted as privates were pressed to change jobs, and finally, with the appointment of David C. DeLeon as surgeon general, the medical corps began to take shape. Harris enlisted, at the end of the next year, as the now-required surgeon for his regiment. (Freemon 28-29)
Harris faced a near-impossible task—wielding the few medicines and instruments the Confederacy’s waning budget afforded him to stave off disease, infection, and death. The Confederate surgeon Joseph Jones estimated that, on average, each of the Confederate soldiers was plagued by disease or wounds six times over the course of the war. In the end, disease claimed twice as many men as did battle (Cunningham 3-5). Harris was with the 15th regiment for the battles of Suffolk, Beverly Ford, Gettysburg, and Chester Gap—and in camp and on the march, when even-more-cunning disease was the enemy.
S. D. Gross’s Manual of Military Surgery was reprinted in Richmond in 1862 and formed the basis for the Confederacy’s Manual of Military Surgery. Its introduction stresses the importance of a competent medical force in the army, reasoning that “No men of any sober reflection would enlist in the service of their country, if they were not positively certain that competent physicians and surgeons would accompany them” (Gross 18).
In the field, as the manual goes on to instruct, a surgeon is responsible for researching the sanitary condition of the regiment’s camp site, and its common diseases; monitoring clothing and dietary needs; and insisting on personal cleanliness. If all was well, time outside of battle was generally slow for the surgeons, filled with letter-writing and leisure. But when the regiment entered battle, the surgeon’s job soon became all-consuming. Said William H. Taylor, a medical officer, “Diagnosis was rapidly made, usually by intuition, and treatment was with such drugs as we chanced to have in the knapsack and were handiest to come at. …our science could rarely display itself to the best advantage on account of the paucity of our resources” (Cunningham 111).
"15th Virginia Infantry Regiment (Confederate).” The American Civil War Research Database. http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/cwdb/cwdb.object.details.aspx?handle=regiment&id=200764 [subscription resource - access inside Library of Congress buildings]
"Alexander Harris.” The American Civil War Research Database. http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/cwdb/cwdb.object.details.aspx?handle=person&id=200268595 [subscription resource - access inside Library of Congress buildings]
Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.
Cunningham, H. H. Doctors in Gray: The Confederate Medical Service. Louisiana State University Press, 1958.
Gross, S.D. "Chapter II: Importance of military surgery." In A manual of military surgery. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 186. http://jdc.jefferson.edu/milsurgusa/4
Compiled by: Ann Tyler Moses, Liljenquist Family Fellow, 2012. Last updated 2012 July.