- Practicing Medicine in a Black Regiment: The Civil War Diary of Burt G. Wilder, 55th Massachusetts
Burt G. Wilder was a twenty-two-year-old Boston-born medical student when he was commissioned assistant surgeon of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in May 1863. The Civil War was two years old, and the Fifty-fifth was a newly formed African American regiment, a younger sibling of the more famous Massachusetts Fifty-fourth. Wilder, a white man who described himself as coming from a family of "Swedenborgians, homeopaths, haters of oppression and vegetarians," was a perfect fit for the regiment, whose white officers shared with the black enlisted men a powerful desire to defeat the rebellious slavocracy of the South (9 n. 31). This volume, edited with thoroughness and a light touch by Richard M. Reid, is Wilder's account of his two-year medical service with the Fifty-fifth, an engrossing, informative record of the Charleston, South Carolina, campaign; the definition of African American citizenship in terms of black manhood under arms; and the shaky endeavor of Civil War medicine.
Despite the volume's title, Wilder's account is not a diary. As Reid points out, it is based on scores of letters the young surgeon wrote to the woman he would marry in 1868. Sometime after 1910, Wilder retyped the letters and began organizing them as the core of a memoir that was still incomplete at the time of his death, in 1925. He annotated parts of the text and wrote interlinear questions to himself. The text is lively and readable. But it does not have the flexible, open-ended quality of a diary created from the patchwork of familiarity and surprise that make up a person's day. Nor does the text have the intimacy of the personal letters from which it grew. [End Page 274] Wilder was quite clear that he copied only the "historic portions of the letters," meaning by "historic" a big-picture view of the war rather than the thoughts and feelings of individuals (17). Thus, his fiancée and family have vanished from his words, and one wonders what else he may have cut of his own musings, enthusiasms, or misgivings. At the same time, Wilder did not smother his writing with postwar self-justifications. The text reveals a self-aware, critical, somewhat fastidious young man, a sharp observer animated by a sense of personal duty and common cause.
The cause was both the experiment in race and citizenship that the Fifty-fifth embodied and the defeat of the Confederacy. About 200,000 black men served in the Union army, struggling not only with combat and disease but also, for nearly the entire course of the war, against unequal pay based on race and the army's proscription of black officers. This story has been well chronicled, based on the accounts of writer-witnesses such as James Gooding, an African American soldier-correspondent with the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the white commanding officer of the black First South Carolina Volunteers.1 Wilder has none of Gooding's relentless critique of racial inequality or Higginson's excitable, anthropological curiosity. But Wilder's account suggests much about the blunt novelty of black men under arms, especially in the South Carolina campaign. At first assigned to "fatigue" duties such as digging entrenchments and transporting supplies, the men of the Fifty-fifth wanted to fight, and they ended up performing well in battle, especially the battle of Honey Hill in November 1864, showing discipline under fire, comradeship, and persistence—the very qualities skeptics of African American soldiers had questioned. Although he does not write extensively about combat, Wilder clearly trusted the men to fight well and supported their attempts to receive the equal pay and recognition promised them when they enlisted. At the same time, he does not often express an interest in the soldiers as individuals. He tends to view blacks as many other...