Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/Dr. Charles Lane

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Charles Lane
Mecklenburg County, Virginia
Davie County, North Carolina
OccupationDoctor, Abolitionist
ReligionAtheism, Agnosticism

Overview[edit | edit source]

Camillus Lanier, most commonly known as Charles Lane, was a doctor and abolitionist who lived during the Civil War era. Lane studied medicine at Jefferson College in Virginia. After moving to Davie County, North Carolina in 1851, Lane served as a trauma surgeon in the Civil War, healing soldiers from the Confederacy and the Union. He was interviewed by William Edward Hennessee for the Federal Writer's Project in March, 1939. His exact death date is not specified.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Charles Lane was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Little is known about his parents or his lineage other than that his grandfather had been a friend and follower of Voltaire in France and was one of the original Encyclopedists of France. For unspecified reasons, Lane's grandfather was ordered to leave the country, and thus, arrived in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Lane's original name, Camillus Lanier, was handed down to him by his father, whose name was Camillus Voltaire.[1]

The Prestwould Plantation located in Mecklenburg County, Virginia is similar to how Charles Lane's plantation would have appeared.

Career[edit | edit source]

Lane studied medicine at Jefferson College, Virginia in the late 1840's and started establishing his own plantation upon his ancestral property in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.[1]

Upon graduation, he married Harriet Speed and continued practicing medicine in his clinic in Virginia. Here, Lane refined his surgical technique and developed sterilization tools, which allowed his patients to avoid developing infectious diseases as a result of open wounds.[1]

In a time before the acceptance of the Germ theory of disease, Lane was instrumental in his advancements relating to sanitization in medical settings and aseptic surgical techniques- partly through the use of phenol (carbolic acid) as an antiseptic.[1]

In 1850, Lane gave manumission to the enslaved persons on his plantation and "paid fair wages" to the people who chose to continue working for him.[1] In the interview, Lane describes how he became "poorer and poorer each year and lost the respect of his neighboring plantation owners". [1] In 1851, Lane moved to Davie County, North Carolina, where among small slave owners and independent planters, he hoped that his views would not outrage his neighbors and patients.[1]

At the brink of the Civil War in 1861, Lane was called to join the Confederate Army as a surgeon. He refused this offer because his abolitionist beliefs did not align with the Confederate cause. However, two months later, Lane joined General Hill’s Army and treated wounded soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy.[1]

Religion[edit | edit source]

Lane was an atheist and agnostic. These viewpoints were rare in the US South during the 1800's and 1900's, where most people followed some denomination of Christianity.[2] One instance that illustrates this was when Lane saved the wife of Hinton Rowan Helper after a near death experience. “It’s a miracle” said Helper when Lane was healing her infected wound. “It’s no miracle, you old fool”, Lane responded. “There’s never been such a thing. It’s knowledge and luck and hard work and study on my part and a good constitution on hers. And next Fall, when you sell your crops, don’t start thinking that your Lord saved her, because he didn’t. I did and a miracle will be no excuse for not paying me then.” [1]

Death[edit | edit source]

Lane died in his hometown in Davie County, North Carolina. His specific date of death is unknown.[1]

Historical Context[edit | edit source]

Medicine and Surgical Care in the Civil War[edit | edit source]

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States of America. Two percent of the population (approximately 620,000 people) died in this conflict. Soldiers died from two typical causes: battlefield injuries and disease. Contributing factors to combat related deaths were the lack of a coordinated system to get the injured off the battlefield quickly, and wound infections, since sterile techniques were rarely used. Contributing factors to disease-related deaths included poor sanitation, overcrowded camps, few specific treatments for disease, and poor diet.[3] Physicians were treating soldiers in an era before the germ theory of disease was created, before sterile techniques and antisepsis were used, with ineffective medications, and usually operating 2-3 days straight with no sleep.[3] Both the Union and Confederacy surgeons were unprepared for this massive loss of life. Despite this, many medical advances and discoveries were made during the Civil War era; many are used across hospitals today in modern medicine. [4]For instance, a system of triage was established in the Civil War era and is still used today. Surgical techniques and specialization were advanced, where great strides were made in orthopedic medicine, plastic surgery, neurosurgery, and prosthetics.[4]

Religion in the Civil War[edit | edit source]

The role that religion, more specifically, Christianity played in American culture and politics during the Civil War was transformational. Both the Union and the Confederacy used religion as justification to send millions of men into battle.[2] In the article, “Did Religion Make the American Civil War Worse?”, Guelzo writes, “The sense that God was decisively at work in the crisis of the Union also profoundly altered the way in which church leaders dealt with the problem of slavery. At the war's outset, Northern churches were far from unanimous in their attitude toward human bondage. A few denounced the practice as a sin and called for immediate emancipation or abolition. At the other extreme, some argued that the Bible treated slavery as a morally legitimate institution.” [5]Moreover, religious revivals were becoming increasingly common in both the Union and Confederate armies. They were often marked by frequent, zealous, and popular religious ceremonies, including preaching services, organized prayer meetings, or simply gatherings where solders could share their individual experiences with God throughout the war.[6]

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

Folder 513: Hennessee, W. (interviewer): Dr. Charles Lane, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Guelzo, Allen. “Did Religion Make the American Civil War Worse.” The Atlantic. n.d. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/did-religion-make-the-american-civil-war-worse/401633/

Moorhead, James. “Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective.” National Humanities Center. n .d. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/cwnorth.htm.

Reilly R. F. “Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center) 29, no, 2 (2016): 138–142. https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2016.11929390

Reimer, Terry. “Medical Improvements in the Civil War and Their Affect on Modern Military Medicine.” Maryland: National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 2016. https://www.civilwarmed.org/surgeons-call/modern/.

Woodworth, Steven. “Religious Revivals during the Civil War.” Encyclopedia Virginia. (2017): https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Religious_Revivals_During_the_Civil_War.

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Folder 513: Hennessee, W. (interviewer): Dr. Charles Lane, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Moorhead, James. n.d. “Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective.” National Humanities Center. Accessed October 1, 2020.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Reilly R. F. (2016). Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), 29(2), 138–142.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Reimer, Terry. 2016. Medical Improvements in the Civil War and Their Affect on Modern Military Medicine. Maryland: National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
  5. Guelzo, Allen. n.d. “Did Religion Make the American Civil War Worse.” The Atlantic.
  6. Woodworth, Steven. 2017. Religious Revivals during the Civil War. Encyclopedia Virginia.