A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn
James DeWolf’s Diary and Letters, 1876
Edited by Dr. Todd E. Harburn
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2017, 288 pages
Book Review published on: November 24, 2017
When people consider the 25 June 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, their thoughts often lead to such things as Custer’s last stand, Sitting Bull, and the massacre of 267 other soldiers, Indian scouts, and civilian contractors. Many books, movies, and documentaries focus on the key personnel or tactics, but few give insight to other lesser-known participants. One recent volume, which does provide this insight, is the superb book A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn. It allows the reader to become acquainted with Dr. James Madison DeWolf, a civilian doctor contracted by the U.S. Army.
Thanks to Dr. Henry Porter, a close friend of DeWolf and the only 7th Cavalry Regiment physician to survive the battle, the diary was recovered and sent to DeWolf’s wife, Fannie. Until her death in 1918, she cherished the memories of her late husband. In 1941, the family donated the diary and letters to Maj. Edward S. Luce (superintendent of the then-named Custer Battlefield National Monument). The diary can be seen today at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Editor Todd Harburn is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor who became interested in writing this book after visiting the national monument in 2008. As a doctor, a scholar, and a person interested in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Harburn wished to build upon Luce’s 1958 publication of the diary and letters in North Dakota History. Harburn utilizes DeWolf’s own surviving diary and personal correspondence to tell the story of DeWolf’s experiences from March to June 1876. He augmented DeWolf’s writings through research and extensive endnotes for each chapter, which provide even greater enlightenment about DeWolf, other participants in the military campaign, and the campaign itself. DeWolf’s handwriting, punctuation, spelling, and abbreviations made the diary difficult to read and understand. However, Harburn’s own medical knowledge and previous transcriptions of the diary and letters enable a writing style that is easy to read, as the words flow smoothly and simplify complex ideas.
The book is broken into five main sections. The extensive introduction discusses some of the DeWolf family history and the early life of DeWolf. Most importantly, it describes how DeWolf morphed from a wounded Civil War soldier to an Army hospital steward, to a Harvard-trained doctor, and ultimately, to a civilian contract physician serving in the Dakota Territory. Through DeWolf’s diary, letters to his wife, and context provided by Harburn, the next three chapters take the reader on the “adventure” of the Spring Campaign of 1876. In addition to the details of the campaign, DeWolf’s diary and letters provide an interesting look at frontier army life, proving no matter when a person has served in the military, soldiers will be soldiers, and many things remain the same. Chapter 3 concludes with DeWolf’s last letter to his wife, written on 21 June 1876, in which he expresses his opinion on how the campaign will likely conclude without the Army seeing any Indians; in the last three diary entries, he mentions seeing many deserted Indian camps.
In the final chapter, Harburn utilizes historical references to describe the events of 25 June 1876 and the death of DeWolf. He does an excellent job weaving into the narrative DeWolf’s experiences with Maj. Marcus A. Reno’s division within the overall context of the battle. The excitement of DeWolf’s experiences builds up to the halt of Reno’s attack and the fateful retreat across the river to high ground.
Although DeWolf played a minor role in the campaign that would lead to his death during the Battle of Little Big Horn, his surviving diary and correspondence have allowed a small look into his life, his love for his wife, and his love of serving as a civilian contract physician. Harburn’s editing, extensive research, and notes allow him to share the story of DeWolf in an entertaining manner that is easy to read. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in seeing the campaign leading up to the Battle of Little Big Horn from a different perspective or for anyone interested in learning more about military life on the frontier.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David E. McCulley, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas