Dr. John G. Perry:
Letter-Writing Civil War Surgeon
A young Harvard-educated surgeon from a well-to-do Boston family experienced the bloody horrors and the amazing heroism of the Civil War and described what he saw in letters to his fiancee and then bride. Forty years later, his wife turned dozens of those letters into a book that is still widely quoted — and reprinted — a century later.
Dr. John G. Perry underwent experiences — including being trapped in the New York City Draft Riots — that seem unimaginable today. He later became a top New York City surgeon and had a summer home — the predecessor of Sunset Hall — on West Mountain for more than 20 years. He was one of many New York City physicians around the turn of the 20th Century who found Ridgefield a healthful place to take a break.
John Gardner Perry was born in 1840 in Boston. His father, Dr. Marshall Sears Perry (1805-1859), was a well-respected community physician while his mother, Abby Stimson Perry (1816-1857) “exerted a particularly strong influence on the moral and spiritual character of her son,” according to a 1918 biography.
While his parents oversaw a top-notch education for their boy that included private schooling and attending Boston Latin high school, they also grounded him in the “real world” by sending him each summer to work on a farm. He said later that his love of nature and country life came from these summers; it may have led to his decision to buy an old farm in Ridgefield.
Perry had always been interested in the profession of his father and, as a boy, was called “the little doctor.” In 1858 he entered Harvard College but soon transferred to study at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. He then entered Harvard Medical School.
While he was studying medicine, the Union Army issued a call for surgeons and, wishing to serve his country and gain surgical experience, Perry enlisted in April 1862 at the age of 22 as a contract assistant surgeon — because he did not yet have his medical degree, he could not be commissioned.
He was sent to northern Virginia where he treated countless badly injured soldiers, including Confederate prisoners. By August Perry fell ill from the exhaustion of working almost non-stopunder trying combat conditions, and was sent home. During this break he finished his Harvard medical school studies and graduated with the class of 1863. He also married his longtime sweetheart, fellow Bostonian Martha Derby Rogers, in March of 1863. He returned to the war a month later, now a commissioned officer in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment.
During his periods of service, Perry wrote scores of letters to his fiance and then bride, describing his experiences. Forty years later, Martha Perry came across them in “a much weather-beaten trunk, which since the Civil War has travelled from one attic to another.”
She got permission from her husband to put together the book, “Letters from A Surgeon of the Civil War.” Published in 1906, the book was widely read, has been often quoted by Civil War historians over the past century, and is today still available in many reprint editions.
“Letters” offers a well-written, frequently dramatic look at the often heroic and horrible results of combat. It also describes in non-technical language how the wounded were treated.
Here is a sampling of Perry’s experiences:
- “I hear that the surgeon who served before me, while dressing a [Confederate] soldier’s wound, laid the knife for a moment on the bed. The man seized it and made a lunge at the doctor, but instead of killing him, as he had intended, only ran it into his arm; whereupon the doctor instantly shot him. I suspect that the surgeon may have been rough in this instance, possibly intentionally so; I am careful, however, not to leave my instruments within reach of these prisoners, although they seem friendly and I do not fear them. —May 18, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital at Fortress Monroe
- “This afternoon I collected all my convalescents in the kitchen of the cottage, placed them about a blazing fire — for it was chilly and raining hard outside — and started the singing of Methodist hymns. The music caught like an epidemic, and soon from every side came doctors, nurses, patients, negroes, until we had a rousing chorus. All of them sang with their whole souls, each one asking for his favorite hymn, and the concert ended with ‘Old Hundred.’ How I did enjoy it!” — June 15, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
- “A new contingent to-day of sick and wounded; in fact, the men arrived in such numbers that we laid them on the grass and dressed their wounds there. I was obliged to perform an operation on one man and cut off two of his fingers. He sat up perfectly straight and did not wince a particle. I called him a ‘man,’ for he truly deserved the title, though he, poor fellow, was a mere boy of eighteen years.” —July 1, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
- “Home! Oh, how that word still haunts me! Yet I am calmer now and take the situation more reasonably; but an awful sinking at the heart still sweeps over me, and I can easily understand how soldiers die of homesickness.” — Sept. 26, 1863, Culpeper, Va. (Many doctors back then believed both nostalgia and homesickness were deadly, says one scholar who quotes Perry and adds, “The idea that nostalgia and homesickness were lethal illustrates the fact that physically unwounded soldiers suffered debilitating symptoms, making them unfit for duty.”)
- “We had a drunken row in camp last night, owing to some villain’s having sold whiskey to the men, and it was one o’clock before the noisy ones were secured and all became quiet. These conscripts, or rather substitutes, behave disgracefully, deserting at every possible chance, even to the enemy. Notwithstanding that two who belonged to our regiment were shot, thirty-four deserted immediately after. One fellow, having failed to escape in the direction of his home, attempted to go over to the enemy, but was prevented. He then shot his finger off, with the hope of being sent to the hospital, where the opportunities for desertion are greater, but the result is that he will serve with one finger less.” —Oct. 1, 1863, Culpeper, Va.
- “Colonel Mallon was at that time with me in the rear, for, as the brigade had made a breastwork of the railroad embankment, he could not be in front; and we were lying side by side, flat on the ground, so as to be out of range of the enemy’s guns, when the colonel, who was very fond of Major Abbott, said he must take a look round and see if he were safe. I begged him not to, saying that he would surely be shot, but he answered, ‘No, I cannot stand the suspense, and it will take but a moment’; where upon he rose, and was instantly shot through the abdomen. I dragged him to a little muddy stream — the only place of safety — where the poor fellow lay with water almost running down his throat. He lived until the fight was almost over, and finally expired in my arms. He was just married.” —Oct. 22, 1863, at Auburn, on the banks of the Bull Run River. (In a footnote, Mrs. Perry adds that “Major Abbott was shot through the body, and lived for about eight hours after. He left all his money to the widows and orphans of the regiment.”)
- “Exhaustion and confusion, worse confounded. Although perfectly well, I am tired and hot, having slept only a couple of hours out of the last forty… the thought of sleep makes me absolutely silly. I now sit on the ground in the woods, leaning against a log and writing on my knee. I am surrounded by soldiers, bon-fires, and kicking horses — but out of their reach, I assure you; dust is sweeping over me like smoke; my face is black with dirt and perspiration, clothes soiled and torn almost to pieces. I am too tired to sleep, too tired to stand, and should dislike to have you see me just now. Although we have been steadily banging away at each other for a week, neither side has gained much advantage. The enemy has gradually fallen back, but each day shows a bold front.” — May 8, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
- “It seems to me I am quite callous to death now, and that I could see my dearest friend die without much feeling. This condition tells a long story which, under other circumstances, could scarcely be imagined. During the last three weeks I have seen probably no less than two thousand deaths, and among them those of many dear friends. I have witnessed hundreds of men shot dead, have walked and slept among them, and surely I feel it possible to die myself as calmly as any — but enough of this. The fight is now fearful, and ambulances are coming in with great rapidity, each bearing its suffering load.” —May 24, 1864, near Hanover Junction, Va.
- “Every day there is a fight, and every day the hospital is again filled. For
four days now we have been operating upon the men wounded in one battle, which lasted only about two hours; but the wounds were more serious than those from former engagements. I am heart-sick over it all. If the Confederates lost in each fight the same number as we, there would be more chance for us; but their loss is about one man to our five, from the fact that they never leave their earth-works, whereas our men are obliged to charge even when there is not the slightest chance of taking them. Several times after capturing these works, our troops were unsupported and had to evacuate immediately, with great loss. The men are becoming discouraged, but there is plenty of fight in them yet.” —June 4, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
- “We have had thirty of our division wounded to-day by shell which the Confederates manage to throw into our pits, but we are successful in dropping some into theirs also. The heat is intolerable, and the roads are covered with dust six or eight inches deep, which every gust of wind sweeps up, covering everything with a dirty, white coating.” —June 10, 1864, Cold Harbor
- “I had to follow the hospital wagons, look after the stores, and attend the sick and wounded in the ambulances. These wagons took the same route as the troops but kept far in their rear. The heat each day was intense, and the dust beyond any expression of which I am capable; but suffice it to say that most of the time I could not even see the head of my horse.” —June 21, 1864 near Petersburg, Va.
By the middle of August 1864, Martha Perry had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Perry was discharged from the Army to go home and care for her. After her recovery, the Perrys settled in New
Among his patients in the early 1870s was Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873), chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who had been secretary of the treasury under Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps recalling his childhood summers on Massachusetts farms, Dr. Perry decided to buy a summer place in Ridgefield. In March 1891 he paid Stephen Burt $1,100 for about seven acres and buildings on Old West Mountain Road. The Burt family had farmed this land since the 1700s. In the coming years, John and Martha bought more adjacent land.
It is unclear whether Perry built a new country home or modified the old Burt farmhouse, but his “cottage” was considered a showplace at the turn of the 20th Century. A picture of the house, taken in the late 1890s by Marie Kendall, shows a residence more modest than the 22-room mansion called Sunset Hall that is now on the property. Sunset Hall may incorporate parts of the Perrys’ place, or may have been built from scratch by Ambassador James Stokes, who bought the estate from the Perrys — by then including some 27 acres — in 1912.
Dr. Perry was among the physicians cited in an 1894 New York Times article, headlined
Perry left Ridgefield after he had left New York. By 1912, he and Martha had retired to a
John Perry witnessed untold suffering during the Civil War, but also experienced it himself well north of the battlefields. On June 15, 1863, somewhere near Fredericksburg, Va., he fell from his horse, badly breaking his leg. “Seeing the sole of my boot facing me, I knew what had happened — a multiple fracture,” he wrote Martha.
He was put in an ambulance where, for some reason, he was left for more than 24 hours. “The next day after my accident a wounded officer was placed beside me in the ambulance, who died during the following night, and to add to my torments, the body of this poor man incessantly rolled over and against me, rendering my condition absolutely unendurable.”
After pleading for assistance, he was eventually moved to a railroad freight car and shipped to a hospital in Alexandria, Va. There a surgeon removed his boot, revealing “a black and angry-looking limb,” Perry said. The surgeon quickly declared, “It is gangrene and the leg must be amputated!"
Perry refused amputation, maintaining his leg was just swollen and dirty. “Determined to save that leg, and to avoid any serious conflict, [I] felt that I must, as it were, escape from the hospital. I called one of the nurses to me, told the circumstances, and asked her to find two trusty
Arriving in Washington, he convinced a doctor at a military hospital to send him to New York where he hoped to get his leg properly cared for. In New York, however, “one physician after another was called to set my poor long-suffering leg, but each left with the same response, ‘I am not a surgeon-doctor; call this one and that.’ At last, in sheer desperation, I asked my wife’s brother to find splints, plaster, and bandages, and we, together, set my leg.”
But the tale doesn’t end there. During his recuperation in Manhattan, John and Martha Perry found themselves in the middle of the famous Draft Riots of July 1863 (featured in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”).
“About noon that same day we became aware of a confused roar,” Martha writes in the book. “As it increased, I flew to the window, and saw rushing up Lexington Avenue, within a few paces of our house, a great mob of men, women, and children; the men, in red working shirts, looking fairly fiendish as they brandished clubs, threw stones, and fired pistols…
“The mass of humanity soon passed, setting fire to several houses quite near us, for no other reason, we heard afterward, than that a policeman, whom they suddenly saw and chased, ran inside one of the gates, hoping to find refuge. The poor man was almost beaten to death, and the house, with those adjoining, burned.”
As the days of rioting continued, she witnessed more fires and “men, both colored and white, were murdered within two blocks of us — some being hung to the nearest lamp-post and others shot,” Martha said. “An army officer was walking in the street near our house, when a rioter was seen to kneel on the sidewalk, take aim, fire, and kill him, then coolly start on his way unmolested.”
At one point, “a crowd of boys arrived with stout sticks, threw stones at our house, called for the ‘niggers,’ and then rushed on. This added to my alarm, I having heard that a rush of street arabs always preceded an attack by the mob. Parties of Irishmen passed and pointed to our house, and a boy ran by shouting, ‘We’ll have fun up here to-night.’ My heart felt overloaded as I looked at John in his helpless condition. What were we to do?”
Fortunately, patrols of citizens and police protected their neighborhood that night and soon federal troops arrived to quell the riots. John was unaware of much of the goings on; Martha kept him away from windows and did not reveal the seriousness of their situation, feeling it would interfere with his recovery.
Ninety days after he signed himself out on medical leave, Dr. Perry returned to his unit in Washington where he had to meet with the surgeon-general to be approved to return to service. He hid his crutches so that the surgeon-general would not send him to the “invalid corps” and he “managed with great difficulty” to walk unaided across the superior officer’s office. His infirmity went undetected.
Eventually his leg fully healed and for the rest of his life, John Perry’s favorite form of exercise was walking.
(Note: Dr. John Perry was not related to the Perry family that produced three generations of respected Ridgefield physicians, Dr. David Perry, son Dr. Nehemiah Perry and grandson Dr. Nehemiah Perry Jr.)
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