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A Michigan Civil War Physician's Diary - Primary Source

A Michigan Civil War Physician's Diary

Dr. Cyrus Bacon, Jr. (1837-1868), Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Army, was a physician from Edwardsburg, Cass County, Michigan. He kept a diary about his experiences caring for the wounded, sick and dying. The following are excerpts from his complete diary, which is in the Archives of Michigan.


As you read these passages, think about what it must have been like to be a doctor traveling with the troops while they fought in the Civil War. What would it have been like to take care of injured, sick and dying soldiers? What would it be like to take care of others while you are sick? How would it be different or similar to serving on the battlefield in a contemporary war or in an emergency unit of a hospital today?

Excerpts from Dr. Cyrus Bacon's Diary

Oct 22nd, 1861 I crossed into Virginia for the purpose of obtaining nurses for the sick in camp. At this time numbers were sick with measles as the hospital nurses had been taken away by the captains. Crossed the Potomac in a row boat. Found the regiment encamped on the right. While resting, the confederates fired from the woods & retreated. Howitzers opened. Gen. Lander was shot in [the] leg while lying in corner of fence. [Ed. note: Battle of Ball's Bluff]


Terrible night. Continuous cold rain. Such [also] was the following day and the wind blew very hard. Many thousand men lay at [the] Ferry on this side apparently waiting for the wind storm to moderate. Before crossing darkness came on. River still foaming savagely. Under cover of night, Gen. McClellen who had ordered a retreat, effected it.


This is the first I have seen of war. God save my Country. . . .


July 2 [1862] Am still required to be abed most of the time. My stomach is very irritable, vomit much. There is so much prostration in this diarrhea that it is with much difficulty I force my mind to anything. . . .


July 7 After dinner went ashore, occupy a room in the hotel. Last night was quite sick. Crowds of people on the shore. I was able to dispense with the offered services of citizens to carry some of my articles. [Ed. Note: Bacon and his patients have been sent to Rhode Island because there is not sufficient hospital space in Washington, DC.]


Portsmouth Grove is on the island of Rhode Island six miles above Newport on Naragansett Bay. It is simply a summer resort. Hotel with the small outbuildings of sheds, saloons, swings, bowling alley, bathing houses. Tents are being rapidly pitched for the sick. Necessarily slow. . . .


July 8th Very warm removing sick. I am so unwell as to be only able to be around. Can eat but little.


The committees & Ladies & Gentleman of the vicinity & Cities are very abundant in their supplies of oranges & lemons, cake, bread and in assisting to put up tents, ice, newspapers. The citizens have met us with a liberality truly very great. Citizens unloaded boats, put up tents.


A body of the artillery from Fort Adams have volunteered their services. Am very unwell today. Took my blanket and lay out in the shade part of the afternoon. . . .


Jan 8th, 1863 . . . . The whole army of Potomac lies here . . . . One can ride through division after division in a little time and their camp fires go up so numerously as to even make these warm days murky. By night the atmosphere is heavy and dense. The great quantities of smoke cause the night--besides its natural dews which are heavy in these low lands which form a large part of the Southern Country--to deposit very much moisture. And the damp flakes down through these linen A tents (which mine is) making by morning my things quite damp. When it rains the first dash of rain causes the canvas to stretch and then the canvas turns the water well. Never-the-less it requires experience of camp life to preserve one from the effects of exposure. (My first nights I took cold easily and my secretions were easily colored through exposure. But now I am quite a soldier.) [I] do not take cold so easily, and dwell in comfort. I think could I but have books I would like this camp as well as a post. I get up at reveille or as soon as my fire is warm. Have had sick call soon after but shall have it later hereafter. Sick call does not number more than 30 men and my work is done before breakfast. The papers are a little wearisome, but all in all the work is not hard. . . .


Jan 20, Tuesday Orders to March, Do so at 11 A.M. Cold disagreeable day. Go toward [the] river 1 3/4 miles. After a sort of heavy working, get to our place on an open plateau on the East side of the woods where we bivouac. Early in the evening the rain begins to fall and now came up a wind storm and wind and rain the night through. [It] is a doleful night. I sleep with Dr. Jacquet in the ambulance. Plenty of blankets, but by morning they were quite heavy with damp. One of my shoes had partly filled with water. Dried it as well as it could be before getting up. It was a cheerless view looking out in the night through the driving storm over the mass of soldiers hovering under their blankets. Such nights are the devastation of armies. They will lose us more men than a battle. Sent back 3 sick. . . .


Jan 21st Reveille at 5 A.M. Still raining. At 7 A.M. are moving. My wet shoes make my foot cold but it is too muddy to walk. March some 5 miles. I never saw men toil so on the march. The mud was deep, (and too, a clayish soil that made the walking heavier) and then twas cold and the rain [was] still continuing.


The men move along spiritless. Burnside cannot fight with troops out of heart. The artillery . . . would be down in the mud. Still all are toiling on. Rain all day. Sleep in the ambulance. To bed at 7 P.M. . . .


Feb. 16th Quite pleasant today. Instruct the Doctor in his duty. Man stabbed in neck in the 3rd Regt. Go to see him.


In the afternoon [an] orderly came riding in speed from the right of the picket, saying Dr. Grant was about and I was wanted at his station without delay. Mounted his horse and rode off. Found a man accidentally shot. Balls had passed through his face sweeping one half the teeth from the lower jaw and the inferior maxillary broken twice in two. Bullet had also removed the fore part of the tongue. Lieut. Penrose had washed away the blood. It took long to sew [up] the arteries of the tongue, wire up bone . . . . Nearly 2 hours or more before completing. Drs. Grant & Hale came up. Could not use chloroform. So gave him morphine. . . .


April 23rd . . . . A boy 16 years old in company E, 14th Infantry was recently brought into my hospital with pneumonia, (slight). Examining I found a malformation of chest by which right lung is badly compressed. An imperfect physical development of chest, also of entire frame. The boy is from the guard house, having been tried by Court Martial for the offense of "Sleeping on post," and is now waiting sentence. I, in consideration of his physical unfitness for service, wrote a letter recommending the mitigation or entire remission of any punishment that may have been awarded him. This the commanding officer forwarded. I think it will save the boy and I feel bad to see a delicate boy like him punished because he was not able to endure fatigue. The boy should be discharged from the service. His offence is a grave one. In time of war the punishment, except the mercy of the court is declared by some mitigation, is death. . . .


Friday, May 1st, 1863 Fine day, warm. After breakfast I go into the woods to pray. An inspection of arms takes place, and ammunition. The regulars never load till about the time we go into fight. A fight is expected this day. General Hooker has issued an order to the troops congratulating the army on its success and hoping much of them, saying we have the enemy on our own chosen ground and they must fight us thus. The troops cheer. On Wednesday an order had been read regarding our long march saying it would be expected of us. I commit myself to God. I know he will care for me.


At 11 A.M. the Division marched along the Fredericksburg road. The 2nd Brigade in front. Scarcely had we started when firing began in front, double quick. . . .


Now I am called to see a man struck with a piece of shell. It is lodged in his abdomen. The piece is nearly as large as my hand. I remove him to the edge of the woods so that he might in some measure be protected. . . .


For something like an hour the Division had fought, driving the enemy. On neither the right by the 12th corps, nor on the left were we sustained, so a retreat was ordered. Ambulances came to remove the wounded. I saw the last ambulance loaded then rode off with the train [of ambulances] . . . . I now came in about on a line with the rear of our troops, passed through the line of cannon pointed up the road, took the wounded to the brick (Chancellor) house. Here we worked till in the evening operating. There was a fine library of books here. Some valuable medical books towards which my eyes looked but would not be permitted to take for I felt it was not right. I even set a man to picking the books from the floor and piling them carefully. I placed a guard to protect them.


In the evening I went into the parlor nearby, as other places seemed occupied. I got on top of the piano and slept like the servants of Radamanthus, though not on flowers, yet on music. Billings had volunteered to sit up with the wounded.


In the night there was some work among the forces but I slept too soundly to hear it. Dr. Hitchburn had gotten under the piano. . . .


Saturday May 2nd, 1863 Up early, not very early though.


General Hooker and staff had made their Headquarters at this house. . . . The artillery planted around the house was large. Seemingly covering largely the plateau, save to the front on the plank road. At times the artillery fire was tremendous. On morning, the enemy attempted to pass the center front here but of course could not stand shot & shell. Two confederates were brought in with legs badly torn which we amputated. The women of the house asked permission to care for one, which I granted & sent them also the other.


June 3rd My second letter from Belle. I guess I am glad. She is dear, so pure and beautiful and good. How greatly I love her. My Belle. A letter from James.


Threatens rain. I ride to General Hookers Hd. Qtrs. to Dr. Webster, USA, acting Med. Inspector of the army who was with me in the confederate lines. He is absent, sick. . . .


No opportunity to write to Belle. Is very warm. Take the up river road. 1st Brigade goes toward Bank's Ford of the Rappahannock. 3rd Brig[ade]. on the Hartwood Church road. We (the 2nd Brigade) proceed to Benson's Mills between. As we arrive near our intended camping place, Lieut. Abraham Grafius, 2nd Inft, falls in the road in convulsion. I was having my horse led in front of me but came up at once. Convulsions severe. Respiration nearly ceasing. I took him by the side of the road on a blanket, put a bower over him to protect him from the sun. Again and again his convulsions occurred. I had to work Marshall Hall on his breathing twice. Toward evening I had him taken to his tent. I had sat right over him the whole day, scarcely being away from his side. It is the result of drinking. He drinks hard. If he wants to live, he had better sign the pledge.


My tent is put up for me. The adjutant has boughs placed in the bottom.

Dr. Cyrus Bacon's diary was donated to the Michigan Historical Commission by S.C. Bacon on July 8, 1945. The diary was transcribed and edited in 1996 by Henry L. Henson of Okemos, Michigan. The original diary and transcription are housed at the State Archives of Michigan.


Dr. Bacon entered service as assistant surgeon with the Michigan 7th Volunteer Infantry on August 16, 1861; he became Assistant Surgeon with the regular U.S. Army on April 16, 1862. Dr. Bacon died near Springfield, Illinois, on September 1, 1868, while returning to his home in Niles, Michigan.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/19/2010

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