John Hill Brinton (1832–1907) met, observed, and commented on practically the entire hierarchy of the Union army; serving as medical director for Ulysses S. Grant, he came into contact with Philip H. Sheridan, John C. Frémont, Henry W. Halleck, William A. Hammond, D. C. Buell, John A. Rawlins, James Birdseye McPherson, C. F. Smith, John A. McClernand, William S. Rosecrans, and his first cousin George Brinton McClellan. John Y. Simon points out in his foreword that Brinton was one of the first to write about a relatively obscure Grant early in the war:
"Brinton found a quiet and unassuming man smoking a pipe—he could not yet afford cigars— and soon recognized a commander with mysterious strength of intellect and character."
Positioned perfectly to observe the luminaries of the military, Brinton also occupied a unique perspective from which to comment on the wretched state of health and medicine in the Union army and on the questionable quality of medical training he found among surgeons. With both A.B. and A.M. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and postgraduate training in Paris and Vienna at a time when most medical schools required only a grammar school education, Brinton was exceptional among Civil War doctors. He found, as John S. Haller, Jr., notes in his preface, "the quality of candidates for surgeon’s appointments was meager at best." As president of the Medical Examining Board, Brinton had to lower his standards at the insistence of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Haller points out that one "self-educated candidate for an appointment as brigade surgeon explained to the board that he could do ‘almost anything, from scalping an Indian, up and down.’" Brinton assigned this singular candidate to duty in Kansas "where Brinton hoped he would do the least amount of damage." Throughout the war, the dearth of qualified surgeons created problems.
Brinton’s memoirs reveal a remarkable Civil War surgeon, a witness to conditions in Cairo, the Battle of Belmont, and the Siege of Fort Donelson who encountered almost every Union military leader of note.
Brinton wrote his memoirs for the edification of his family, not for public consumption. Yet he was, as Haller notes, a "keen observer of character." And with the exception of Brinton’s acceptance of late nineteenth-century gossip favorable to his cousin General McClellan, Simon finds the memoirs "remarkable for accuracy and frankness." His portrait of Grant is vivid, and his comments on the state of medicine during the war help explain, in Haller’s terms, why the "Civil War was such a medical and human tragedy."