A medical student just would not do for the 5th Maine

in early 1863, Maine Gov. Abner Coburn approved the appointment of Dr. Francis G. Warren as surgeon of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. Warren had served for some time as the regiment’s assistant surgeon. (Photo courtesy of Biddeford Historical Society)

When the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment sought a doctor in the house in 1863, officers discovered that a medical student just would not do.

The 1,000-odd men and boys who had marched to war with the 5th Maine two years earlier had encountered germs, diseases, Confederate bullets, and viruses galore. Carried on the muster rolls as “surgeons” and “assistant surgeons,” the regimental doctors had poked and prodded myriad patients, many of whom had died or gone home unfit for military service — or much of anything else.

Competent doctors could be hard to find, but when a double vacancy occurred in the 5th Maine in midwinter 1863, two qualified volunteers applied.

Writing from “Headquarters 1st Brigade … near White Oak Ch.[urch] Va.” on Tuesday, Feb. 10, Dr. L.W. Oakley informed Maine Gov. Abner Coburn that “I have been intimately acquainted with Dr. F[rancis]. G. Warren,” the 5th Maine’s assistant surgeon, “for some months.” The doctors had worked in the same hospital after the Battle of Antietam; Oakley described Warren as “eminently fitted for the position of regimental surgeon.”

Oakley’s recommendation came a month late. On Friday, Feb. 13, regimental adjutant George W. Bicknell reported that the appointments of Warren to surgeon and Dr. William S. Noyes to assistant surgeon “were duly received” at regimental headquarters. The appointments were dated Jan. 7.

But a slight problem arose. Writing to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon on Tuesday, March 31, Noyes announced, “I found after accepting the commission” as the regiment’s assistant surgeon a month earlier “that I could not obtain a leave of absence for the purpose of finishing my studies and taking the requisite degree.”

He was still a medical student.

Because he could not “qualify myself for the proper discharge of the responsible duties” of “an assistant surgeon,” Noyes told Hodsdon that “I have resigned.” Back to square one went the search for a qualified 5th Maine assistant surgeon.

Make that two. Looking around the medical tent, Warren counted the number of doctors “present and accounted for” at one: himself. He hurriedly told Coburn on Friday, April 1 that “as we are soon to engage in an active campaign it is very desirable that the vacancies in this department be filled as early as practicable.”

Warren had someone in mind. “Doctor Melville H. Manson of Lymington [sic]has been suggested to me as a candidate for one of these [assistant surgeon] vacancies, and I would respectfully submit him to the position, knowing him to be in every way qualified for it,” Warren told Coburn on April 1.

“I have been acquainted with him for some length of time and feel assured that he would fill such a position with great credit to himself and the Regiment,” Warren concluded.

Wounded Union soldiers lay beneath the overspreading limbs of a tall tree on Saturday, May 2, 1863. Wounded near Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville campaign, these men received the best medical care available in the field. Pain etched on his weary face, the bearded soldier sitting at left has lost his right hand; bandages cover the stump of his arm. The young soldier laying on the stretcher has lost his right foot to an amputation. By the time that he was appointed surgeon of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment in winter 1863, Dr. Francis Warren had performed his share of amputations. (Library of Congress Photo)

The 5th Maine’s commanding officer, Col. Clark S. Edwards, leaped at the opportunity to snag the good doctor Manson. Writing to Hodsdon on April 6, Edwards claimed that the nominations of Manson and another doctor as assistant surgeons “are made at the request of the Surgeon in Chief of the [1st] Division to which we are attached.”

The division surgeon “says that it is necessary to have both vacancies filled,” Edwards wrote.

He was correct; the Battle of Chancellorsville lay a month away, and the 5th Maine would need every doctor available.

Warren wrote Manson and asked him to became an assistant surgeon. “I would like the position and would go cheerfully with your assent,” Manson assured Coburn from Brunswick on Friday, April 8. Manson hoped “to give aid and relief in some degree to those who may be unfortunate in losing health and in receiving wounds while fighting to maintain their country’s rights and honor.”

Manson stressed to Coburn that “I have not received my diploma yet, but this is my third course of medical instruction and should you see fit to appoint me to that position, I can have a premature examination and take my degree.”

Writing from Bowdoin College on April 10, Dr. Israel T. Dana, M.D. stated that Manson, “now a member of the Medical Class of this institution,” was “expecting to graduate in medicine at the close of the present term.”

Dana recommended with “great pleasure” that Manson be appointed an assistant surgeon with the 5th Maine Infantry; “he would be found truly useful, competent & worthy in that position,” Dana wrote.

Then Warren informed Coburn on Wednesday, April 13 that “under late orders from the War Department … only one Asst. Surgeon will be allowed for each Regiment.” If the 5th Maine Infantry could have only assistant surgeon, “I would earnestly recommend Doctor Manson for the position,” Warren lobbied for his candidate.

Coburn acted quickly.

“Dear sir,” Melville H. Manson wrote him on Friday, April 20. “I see by the Lewiston Journal that you have appointed me assistant surgeon of Maine 5th Reg.”

Manson had received no official letter announcing his appointment; instead, he had read about it in a newspaper that a friend had likely forwarded from Lewiston.

Still a medical student, the determined Manson asked Coburn “about what time you would have me join the regiment as I wish to take my degree before going.” The Bowdoin “medical faculty must be called together, which will require a short notice” of “two or three weeks if possible,” Manson explained.

A medical student just would not do as the 5th Maine Infantry headed to war that spring.
But Dr. Melville H. Manson, M.D., would suffice.

He passed his medical exam and went to war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.