Civil War re-enactor, retired dentist, revels in avocation

Hershel L. Stroud enjoys the camaraderie involved

June 06, 1999|By JOE POPPER | JOE POPPER,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Last July, more than 30,000 fully uniformed Civil War re-enactors gathered in Gettysburg, Pa., to travel back in time and "see the elephant," which in 19th-century parlance meant experiencing combat.

They came to restage the fateful, three-day battle fought there in 1863. Among them was a 68-year-old retired dentist from Topeka, Kan., Herschel L. Stroud.

Seeing the elephant and not actually getting shot at is a wondrous experience, said Stroud, a wiry, goateed, hyper-energetic man who scuba dives, plays trumpet in a swing band, sings in a barbershop quartet and races sailboats on Lake Shawnee.

But above all he is an avid re-enactor.

"It is hard to explain the lure of it," he said. "But I can say that the battle scenarios are only a small part of the experience."

The camaraderie, the music, the hardtack and beef jerky, and the unscripted campfire conversations in period language all combine to create a feeling that's almost magical. At its best, it's a rare form of improvisational acting that seems to actually place you in the 19th century.

That heady and apparently addictive sensation has made Civil War re-enactment one of the country's fastest-growing hobbies. It is a pastime both fascinating and strange.

In his best-selling book, "Confederates in the Attic," author Tony Horwitz describes an encounter with one re-enactor who specializes in bloating, that is, eerily re-creating the appearance of a battlefield corpse to increase the sense of realism experienced by his colleagues.

Stroud is an anti-bloater. A nationally recognized expert on Civil War medicine, his re-enactment specialty is portraying a field surgeon desperately struggling to save lives.

Stroud is the official surgeon for the Frontier Brigade of the 1st Western Division. The brigade, made up of Civil War buffs, sponsors seminars and battle re-enactments like the annual one at Mine Creek, near Pleasanton, Kan.

During such a mock battle, his main task is a modern one supervising safety procedures.

"You get a bunch of 40- to 70-year-old geezers running around playing soldier, you certainly need first aid," he said.

"But after the battle, I go to my hospital tent, where I present a special scenario to the spectators."

Wearing a bloodied apron over his uniform, Stroud walks out of his tent to examine a wounded soldier carried in on a stretcher.

"I've got a shoulder wound here without sucking [no lung involvement]," he shouts to his aides. "There's a bullet in it. I think I can get it out."

He calls for chloroform as the victim is placed on a barn door laid across hay bales. Medical aides place a nose cone on the wounded man, who struggles for a moment and then lies still.

Stroud then artfully fakes the cutting of a deep incision. With tubes of red theatrical goo hidden in his hands, he creates a dramatic display of spurting blood, frantically sponging the wound as he seemingly probes it with an ungloved finger.

"I feel the slug," he says. "I think I can get it. Give me a probe. Give me an extractor."

Sweat covering his face, he simulates a tense struggle to wrench the bullet free.

"Got it," he says finally, holding up a large-caliber slug and tossing it into a tray.

The surgery completed, he turns to the enthralled and queasy crowd, and begins a scholarly talk about the glories and horrors of Civil War medicine.

"In my talks," said Stroud, "I try to make people understand that although popular history characterizes Civil War medicine as being something from the darkest Middle Ages, most army surgeons actually did a superlative job with the knowledge they had."

He paused for a moment as though lost in memory.

"You see, we are often portrayed as butchers and drunkards and incompetents, but for the most part, it just isn't true at all," he said, his narrative voice sliding seamlessly from the third to first person.

"We knew our anatomy. We knew our neurology. We had good diagnostic techniques. We had chloroform and ether for general anesthesia, quinine for fever, opiates for pain. And most of us were dedicated doctors who struggled to overcome our shortcomings.

"What we didn't have was a comprehensive germ theory of disease. That breakthrough was still ahead. And that lack was devastating. And so, yes, we wiped our instruments on dirty rags, honed our scalpels on our boots, failed to wash properly and were saddled with useless medications such as blue-mass pills -- chalk and mercury good for nothing.

"But we began to understand this. We came to see the consequences of our ignorance, and we were horrified. More than 620,000 soldiers died during the war, and two-thirds of those deaths were caused by diseases we were helpless to prevent. But there were areas in which we made great strides. Most importantly, we transformed orthopedic surgery from a crude frontier necessity into a medical art.

"During the war we performed more than 30,000 amputations, and by the end we could do them skillfully in 10 or 15 minutes.

"We even experimented with skin grafts and what is now called plastic surgery in an attempt to somehow repair the horrible, disfiguring wounds caused by the new rifled muskets.

"We tried everything we could think of, because we cared.

Several years ago, Ken Burns, the filmmaker who created the monumental Civil War documentary for PBS, commented that too many of people suffer from the modern conceit that those who lived in the 19th century were somehow lesser because they knew less. And that, echoed Stroud, is his main point.

"Most Civil War doctors did their very best," he said.

"They picked up threads of lost knowledge and searched constantly for new answers. And it is quite possible that the war in which they served, the war which created a new America, could not have been fought without them."

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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