DescriptionUnion Surgeon's Extensive Archive of William C. Towle, of the 23rd and 12th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Approximately 190 letters, with more than 110 from Towle to his wife Anne and at least 20 from Anne to Towle. The remaining letters to Towle are from various family members and miscellaneous correspondences. The letters, most dating from January 1863 to March 1866, are of various sizes, with most filling four-page bifolia, and are arranged in file folders. Many of the letters are accompanied by transmittal covers with stamps excised. There is one file folder containing research notes on Towle and his regiments.
Soon after enlisting in the 23rd Maine Volunteer Infantry in January 1863, Towle and his fellow soldiers were sent to Washington, D.C., where they assisted in the defense of the city. The next month he had moved to Maryland, where his medical experience came in handy when he arrived in camp in Edwards Ferry. In a February 8 letter, he wrote of visiting a camp near his headquarters, in which he found "two cases of measles, two of pneumonia, four of Typhoid Fever and three or four of Dysentery." Within an hour of arriving in his own camp, he was at work dealing with cases of "Small pox," which had broken out "in one of the companies two or three days ago causing quite a commotion among those who had never been vaccinated....There are twenty in the Hospital to day." A week later, in a February 15 letter to Anne, Towle admitted that he was sick with dysentery and had to resort to taking opium. "I then began to feel as though something must be done for myself. The med which I took were of an astringent kind and I soon found they were doing no good. Things grew worse until the next day when I had the true dysentery discharges. I have took a good portion of Calomel followed it up with a mild dose of physic. This I found did me good. I then resorted to Opium, Ginger & Brandy....To day I am feeling very well indeed and my appetite is returning to me."
Outbreaks of disease in camps were to be feared just as much as severe battle wounds. In an undated letter from early March 1863, Towle wrote that small pox had broken out in a nearby company and that he had vaccinated himself. He criticized the army for enlisting men who had not been vaccinated. "I wonder that so many men should have been permitted to have entered the Army without any marks on their arms showing if they had ever been vaccinated for the law is strict upon this point, and the fault must lie at the door of the examining surgeons."
While Towle's letters consisted primarily of updates on his medical duties, he often commented on life in camp and on reports, some inaccurate, of military news, and his hopes of witnessing battle before leaving the service. In a March 29, 1863 letter to Anne, he mentioned his regiment's reputation for thievery. "We have quite a number in our Regt. who 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 one of 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." On April 21, 1863, Towle enclosed a pencil sketch of his tent at camp in Edwards Ferry, Maryland, in a letter to Anne. "I will send a drawing of my tent. The front part is a wall tent & the back part which is the sleeping apartment is stockaded, built up with logs on the sides. In the front part the medicines, wash stand stove & etc." In his next letter, dated April 24, he sent another sketch to Anna, this one of the whole camp at Edward's Ferry, which showed the location of his tent and the hospital.
During his time in the army, Towle came to believe that homesickness could be fatal. In a May 18, 1863 letter, he wrote of what he had witnessed: "I never supposed before that a man would die of 'home sickness' but I have seen enough of it here to be convinced of the fact. We have had men who wasted away day to day without any other perceptible cause, have finally sent them to the Gen. 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."
By the summer of 1863, Towle was practicing medicine in camps in Alexandria, Virginia, and Poolesville, Maryland, where he did get close to fighting. In one letter, dated June 21, 1863, he commented on what he heard concerning Confederate soldiers' aim to injure rather than kill Union troops: "There were about a thousand sick & wounded stopped at Alexandria & I saw a good part of them. I saw wounds in 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 as their reason that they would rather wound than kill, for it takes two men to take one wounded man off the field, while a dead one is not removed at all."
Towle completed his service with the 23rd Maine at the end of June 1863. He re-enlisted the following November as an assistant surgeon in the 12th Maine Volunteer Infantry and was sent immediately to Camp Parapet, outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was soon back administering to patients and examining new recruits for their respective regiments. In February, he performed his first amputation, which saved a soldier's life. As he wrote to his wife on February 23, 1864, "In just two weeks after I performed the amputation...my patient was moved and he will go his business again the first of next month. Every one think he would die & that it would be useless for me to operate, but I could see but one chance for him & that was immediate amputation." He enclosed with the same letter a sketch of the interior of the hospital at Camp Parapet with a written description.
Writing a letter to Anna on May 18, 1864, during the bloody Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, Towle commented on General Ulysses S. Grant's campaign against General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. "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 grants that this may result in the speedy termination of this wicked rebellion." In a June 2, 1864 letter, Towle offers additional comments on Grant's campaign. "Grant appears to be crowding 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."
During the summer of 1864, Northern Democrats against the war were gaining political traction as Grant's campaign in Virginia appeared to stall and battlefield casualties mounted at a horrific rate. Towle showed little patience with the rise of the Copperhead movement in Maine. In a June 21, 1864 letter to Anne, he had this to say about Copperheads: "They say that they found more Copperheads in Maine than they had seen in La. I think it is time that this Copperhead business was played out when Southern men with Southern property are willing to sacrifice all to save the old Union."
In Mid-July 1864, Towle and his regiment moved from Louisiana to a camp in Washington, D.C. In an August 9, 1864 letter to Anne, he finally had some positive military news to report plus a rumor that turned out to woefully inaccurate. "We have good news this morning from Farragut at Mobile and also forces on the Potomac. We have a report this morning that Gen. Butler has been appointed Secretary of War. We hope it is so for we think he will be more efficient than the present incumbent." Despite the hopeful reports concerning Union forces, Towle was concerned about the high rate of dysentery in camp, which in an August 13, 1864 letter he blamed on the soldiers' diet, and the fact that officers were drinking the whiskey and brandy that was supposed to be given to the sick. "I get awfully provoked sometimes to see Dr. Thompson giving the whiskey & Brandy, which is furnished for the sick men, to the officers. Nearly all our stimulants goes 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 which is furnished for the sick. I have not yet learned to treat officers any better than enlisted men."
At the end of August, the 12th Maine marched from Washington, D.C. to Harpers Ferry, joining other companies in addition to a large force of cavalry totaling some 50,000 men under the command of General Philip Sheridan. On August 25, 1864, Towle wrote Anne from camp near Harpers Ferry "We are skirmishing with the Rebs who are reported in large force. None of our Regt have been killed or wounded yet, though there have been a considerable number from others. I expect we shall have some wounded to day as our Regt is out 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...I am busy most of the time looking after the sick. We had a pretty hard march which used up a good many of our men but have lost none."
Towle wrote Anne from a camp in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on October 6, 1864 and bemoaned the destruction of the local towns and countryside as the result of the war: "How sad it is that such a beautiful country so admirably adapted to the production of everything which the human heart could desire should be devastated and laid waste by contending armies. Our cavalry are now destroying all of the grain up the valley which can afford subsistence to the rebel army. Many families are going North for there will be nothing left for them to subsist upon here. It seems hard to chase people from their homes, but I can see no other way for the present...There have no doubt been many cases of cruelty & inhumanity practiced by our men on the citizens. I have known of some myself 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...most of the families on the march have been stripped of everything, some even of their clothing. I think they will get enough of Rebellion before this war is over."
In a December 18, 1864 letter to Anne from Camp Russell in Winchester, Virginia, Towle expressed joy at the good news coming from recent victories of generals William T. Sherman and George Thomas. "What 'glorious news' we are receiving from Sherman and Thomas. Yesterday and day before a salute of one hundred guns were fired...and the Bands were all playing 'National Airs.' The boys were all called out in line and three rousing cheers were given for the great victory and three times for the Old Union. The Confederacy is evidently just 'playing out' and the old Flag must soon again wave over free and united people."
Early in the year 1865, Towle and his regiment were stationed in Savannah, Georgia, where a small pox outbreak occurred. In a March 10, 1965 letter to Anne, he informed her that he was given responsibility to make sure residents in the affected part of the city be vaccinated. "I received an order last night directing me to...see that all whites & blacks are vaccinated if they have not been. The Med. Director told me to day that he would relieve me from all other duty until I got through with it....I shall not have all the work to do myself, but aim to see that it is done. 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 primarily to the colored people, but is now on the decrease." Eleven days letter, on March 21, he reported to Anne "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 at this work 9 days and have vaccinated 1293 men, women, and children. I think that I am about half through. They are mostly 'colored individuals.'"
Towle makes a passing reference to Lincoln's assassination in a letter written from Savannah on Tuesday, April 18, 1865, three days after Lincoln's death, in which he referred to his letter of the previous Sunday that had been written "in a gloomy and desponding state of mind. To day the clouds have passed away and a gleam of sunshine penetrates the gloom."
Extensive archives of Civil War physicians and surgeons are uncommon in today's market. This remarkable archive offers a fascinating look at the life of a Union Army assistant surgeon and his day-to-day responsibilities in a time of war.
Condition: Overall condition is very good, with most letters being legible. Many are accompanied by handwritten transcriptions. Should be reviewed for content.
More Information: William Clement Towle (1830-1900) was born in Fryeburg, Maine, and after spending time in California during the gold rush years, he returned to his native state to study medicine. He graduated from Bowdoin Medical School in 1855 and settled in Fryeburg to practice medicine with his father Ira Clark Towle (1796-1873). In 1858 he married Ann Elizabeth Warren (1828-1901), and together they had three children, Annie Laurie, William Warren, and Lucia. Towle served as an assistant surgeon in the 23rd Maine Infantry from January to July 1863. In November 1863, he re-enlisted as an assistant surgeon in the 12th Maine Infantry and served until April 1866.
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