This week I’ve been working on transcribing some letters written by a Civil War surgeon to his wife. Though it is tedious at times trying to decipher the faded, cramped writing, it is also fascinating to read a first-hand account of the life of a Civil War surgeon. So, I thought I’d share some of his writings.
This is an ambrotype of the author of the letters, Assistant Surgeon Isaac F. Kay, Company K, 110th Pa. Infantry, in his uniform. Isaac Franklin Kay was born March 21, 1828 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. He attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia starting in 1852. He enlisted in September, 1861 at the age of 33, and left his wife, Catharine, and three young children at home. This card was an admission ticket into one of his medical classes. His signature is at the bottom, and the professor, Dr. Thomas Mutter, also signed the card. If you’ve ever visited the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, this name may be familiar! It was difficult for Surgeon Kay to be separated from his wife and family. In a letter dated March 4, 1862 from a camp near Winchester, Virginia he writes, “….[I’ve heard] Genl. Jackson and half his army are captured this evening about 20 miles from here, [but] it needs confirmation. If it is correct I don't know when we will have to fight. So darling you need not feel uneasy about me for I don't believe the war will last long, indeed I wish it was over, for darling I never can be happy without you and the dear little children. Oh, darling I miss you & enjoy [the] likenesses so much. I sent them home thinking I would [illegible word] them and was afraid they would be broken in the carpet bag, but you are too dear to me to ever be forgotten.” This small daguerreotype was donated to the museum along with other items which belonged to Dr. Kay. Though it was not identified, it is likely this image is of Mrs. Kay. It is possible this is one of the “likenesses” he refers to in his letter. Though Southerners are generally known for their hospitality, Surgeon Kay complained to his wife of his treatment by the locals, “Women insult us in passing by. They call us "Blue Bellied Yankees." Considering his location at the time, I suspect he’s lucky that’s all they called him! Surgeon Kay also wrote of the physical hardships he endured. In a letter from Martinsburg, Virginia, dated March 11, 1862 he writes, “We marched here today. The Regt. will encamp about 4 miles from town. We walked on the R Road 12 miles today and my feet are so sore & my stockings worn out that my feet are blistered so badly that I can hardly stand that daily…. I could not get one pair of stockings in this place. Cotton you know. I wear nothing else…. Darling I must close & join the Regt. which is 3 or 4 miles ahead. My feet are so sore I can scarcely travel. I am going on as soon as I finish this to get with them.” On March 21, 1862, he writes, “We stopped overnight, layed down on the cold ground. I did not sleep any was so cold and had nothing to cover myself with, but am used to that.” And in an undated letter, he writes, “We returned to Strasburg and were put in a low bottom field to pass the night, it [was] raining & mud 6 inches deep. We nearly all got sick. My throat is very sore…. It was one of the hardest nights I put in in my life. I have no [illegible word] and nothing to cover me. Stood by the fire all night nearly frozen. I commenced to write to you sitting by the fire on a rail but it was too cold & too hard for me. I could not finish it. In the morning we were ordered to return to this camp on this place through the rain and mud 6 inches deep. I don't believe there was ever an Army in the United States had to endure the hardships we have been obliged to endure.” Surgeon Kay seemed to spare his wife the worst of what he saw during the war. He mentions in one letter that he will have to wait until he is home to tell her of some of the things he has seen. He does briefly describe one bloody scene for her though, “There was a little fight where we were encamped. Ten Rebels killed and Col. Ashby's horse leg shot off by a Canon ball, it is lying in sight of me while I am writing. I saw the blood along the stone fence [where] the Rebels were killed, it occurred the day before we came here.” The war and the separation from his family soon begin to take their toll on Surgeon Kay. On April 3, 1862 he writes from Winchester, Virginia, “Oh! My dear my darling wife, This is the 7th letter I have written to you since the Battle & Oh! this day I have been almost frantic not having had an answer to any one of them. Must I die darling because I cannot hear from you? You have been so punctual before…. how can it be that I cannot hear from you, when almost every member of the Regt. has had letters. I cannot sleep my dear my darling wife! Oh! No, if I do not hear from you soon I do not know what I shall do for I will die for want of not but a letter from you…. Oh! my dear wife I pray to God [daily] that you and the dear little children may keep well. We are in the midst of an awful war we are not safe to leave Camp. This country is full of Rebels.” The depth of his homesickness, and possibly depression, are revealed when he proceeds to tell her, “Oh! my dear my darling wife to relieve an absent and affectionate husband's brains, write immediately to me. Oh! I only think (in this dark time of trial) of my dear family & my God…. I am disconsolate and only because I am separated from you. Oh! When I think of home, you, & our dear children I cry like a child and every one notices it. I sometimes feel ashamed.” Despite all of this, Surgeon Kay was clearly pleased to be doing his part in the war. He often commented on the good and brave soldiers who were in his Regiment and Brigade, and also remarked on what a splendid country he served. He writes from Winchester, “We had no rations…. [in] our Regiment, [though] all the rest of the Brigade had. We had nothing. Genl. Tyler called our Regt. out and said, officers and soldiers to day there will be a big Battle at Winchester and if you will agree to march with the balance of the Brigade at Winchester and if you without anything to eat, you can do so, and if you would prefer waiting until you get rations, you can do so. Every man said, we will go without anything to eat and fight as hard as those who have something to eat. We cheered the Genl. vigorously several times & away he went for the field of Battle, but he was proud.” It seems that Surgeon Kay was also rightfully proud. Dr. Kay was able to return home after the war. After reading his letters it is not difficult to imagine that he was very happy to be back with his family! Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.