Saturday, January 14, 2023

De Wolf’s last stand

James Madison DeWolf, a surgeon with the US army regiment that fought and lost the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn, was born 180 years ago today. He is only remembered today because he left behind eyewitness accounts - a diary and letters - of the three to four months leading up to his death. (See also Calhoun in the Black Hills.)

DeWolf was born in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, on 14 January 1843. He worked as a farmer until the start of the American Civil War, when, aged 17, he enlisted in the Union Army. He saw combat at the First Battle of Bull Run; and, he was promoted to Corporal. Severely wounded in the arm, he was discharged in October 1862. Two years later, he re-enlisted and served in the artillery until 1865. A few months later, though, he went to work for the regular United States Army. He was promoted from private to hospital steward. In 1871, he married Fannie J. Downing at Camp Warner, Oregon Territory.

In the early 1870s, DeWolf determined on a career in medicine, and appealed to be allowed to study at Harvard Medical School. He graduated in 1875. Although discharged from the army, he was re-employed on contract as a private physician. Later that year, he was appointed to Fort Totten, and the following spring he was assigned to Major Marcus Reno's battalion. At the Battle of the Little Big Horn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand) he was shot from his horse and then - according to Wikipedia - scalped next to his orderly in full view of the retreating cavalry. 

Dewolf is only remembered today because he left behind eyewitness testimony - in a diary and letters - of the battle. This was published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2017 as A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn: James DeWolf’s Diary and Letters, 1876 (edited by Todd E. Harburn). Some pages can be sampled at Googlebooks and Amazon. They can also be read in full online at the website of the State Historical Society of North Dakota in a transcript titled: The Diary and Letters of Dr James M. Dewolf, acting assistant surgeon, US Army; his record of the Sioux expedition of 1876 as kept until his death (transcribed and with editorial notes by Luce Edwards). 

Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb for A Surgeon with Custer:

‘While researchers have known of DeWolf’s diary for many years, few details have surfaced about the man himself. In A Surgeon with Custer at the Little Big Horn, Todd E. Harburn bridges this gap, providing a detailed biography of DeWolf as well as extensive editorial insight into his writings. As one of the most highly educated men who traveled with Custer, the surgeon was well equipped to compose articulate descriptions of the 1876 campaign against the Indians, a fateful journey that began for him at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and ended on the battlefield in eastern Montana Territory. In letters to his beloved wife, Fannie, and in diary entries - reproduced in this volume exactly as he wrote them - DeWolf describes the terrain, weather conditions, and medical needs that he and his companions encountered along the way.

After DeWolf’s death, his colleague Dr. Henry Porter, who survived the conflict, retrieved his diary and sent it to DeWolf’s widow. Later, the DeWolf family donated it to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Now available in this accessible and fully annotated format, the diary, along with the DeWolf’s personal correspondence, serves as a unique primary resource for information about the Little Big Horn campaign and medical practices on the western frontier.’

Here are several sample extracts.

24 May 1876
‘Young Mens Buttes at 5 AM went 8 miles & crossed stream nearly dry 8 miles or 9 miles camped in a valley on Heart River passed a butte 3 miles from camp, no unusual incident see the usual amount of chase of Antelope by the Hounds band plays at every fish in the stream camped at 3 P.M. had to bridge the coolie 8 miles back Marched 18 miles’

7 June 1876
‘5 AM to 8 P.M. 32 miles about go direct across to Powder River from O’Fallon Creek keep up on the divides a bad pass & several deep ravines about 4 miles from Powder river steep banks & liable to wash would be impassable in wet weather. Cloudy & cool all day some fine misty rain not enough to wet the ground found several remnants of Buffalo carcases that Indians had killed game getting scarce no doubt due to the presence of Indians in the vicinity found some wild Heilatrope as found in Oregon some sage brush and some Rolling Prairie & Badlands.’

8 June 1876
‘Remain in camp on Powder River Genl Terry & 2 Co Cav start for Boat at mouth of river fair’

19 June 1876
‘41/2 to 4 P.M. 33 miles marched 91/2 miles back from the river on the bluffs 8 miles along river bottom then the balance on Bluffs tlie last mile was dreadful badlands & almost impassable found lots of Agates some pretty’

24 June 1876 [De Wolf’s last entry]
‘5 A.M. to 7 P.M. 3 hour halt, marched 10 miles & large branch nearly as large as main stream found another 7 miles beyond marched within a few miles of the forks found lots of new signs old camps in profusion they begin not to be so high’

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