This Day in Jewish History, 1861

Jewish War Hero Named Surgeon General of the Confederate Army

Yet David Camden de Leon, ‘the fighting doctor,’ wouldn’t keep that title for long; he seemed by external signs to have been shattered somehow — ‘he is always drunk.’

Charles Edward / Wikimedia Commons

On May 6, 1861, three weeks into the American Civil War, Dr. David Camden de Leon was appointed surgeon general of the Confederate States Army.

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A member of a distinguished Sephardi-Jewish family from South Carolina, De Leon had been a hero in the recent Mexican War. When his state seceded from the Union, he struggled with the course he should take, writing to his brother that “every star and stripe is dear to me,” before deciding to resign from the Northern army. Yet, once he made the leap and was rewarded with the position of the Rebel army’s chief medical officer, De Leon’s life took a strange, downward trajectory, leaving historians — and De Leon himself, apparently — wondering what brought him down.

David Camden de Leon was born in 1816 in Camden, South Carolina, and became known by his middle name, “Camden.” His family had been in the southern colony since before American independence. Camden’s father, Mordecai Hendricks de Leon, was a physician and a three-term mayor of Columbia, the state capital. His mother was the former Rebecca Lopez.

Camden had two younger brothers who were also accomplished: Edwin (1829-1891), a journalist and diplomat, and Thomas (1839-1914), a playwright and popular novelist. There were also two sisters.

‘The Fighting Doctor’

Camden earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1836. Two years later, he joined the U.S. Army as an assistant surgeon. He served in the Second Seminole War, and in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War he was among the forces that invaded Mexico City. His bravery in battle earned him the nickname “the Fighting Doctor” and two congressional citations.

South Carolina’s secession from the Union, in December 1860, confronted De Leon with a painful decision. With clear-headed insight he observed, in a letter to his brother Edwin, that “Treason and patriotism are next door neighbors and only accident makes you strike the right knocker.” Yet, though “I have loved my country [and] have fought under its flag,” he felt that he had no choice but to sign on to the Confederate cause.

On May 6, 1861, De Leon was appointed surgeon general of the Confederate forces. He also served on a committee to design a uniform for Southern soldiers.

Unfortunately like King David?

But on July 12 De Leon was relieved of his new post. In the months that followed, he was appointed medical director of the army of Northern Virginia, but he did not hold that job for long, either. In July 1862, he resigned his commission altogether.

It is not clear how De Leon spent the remaining three years of the war, though apparently in January 1863 he was in Europe carrying dispatches for his diplomat brother Edwin, who was pleading the Confederate cause to the French and British governments. After the war he lived in Mexico for a time before settling in New Mexico, where he farmed, practiced medicine and, according to one source, engaged in his “favorite amusement ... to break the wild mustangs.”

Even before he faced the trauma of secession, Camden showed signs of personal instability. In 1860, while traveling in the Middle East, he wrote to Edwin of suffering from an “unaccountable mental depression foreign to my naturally sanguine temperament.” He then went on to joke, tellingly, how he thought “that my namesake Old King David who was a bad man as well as myself and occasionally was guilty of much indiscretion must have suffered in a similar way.”

Several references to De Leon appear in the Civil War diary of Mary Chesnut, which offers a vivid record of Southern society during the war years. She notes that De Leon seemed to have a drinking problem, observing, in July 1861, that “Camden de Leon is sure to lose his place as surgeon general ... [he] is always drunk.” The following March, she complained of how, in social encounters, he repeated “every thing over & over” and “bored us to death.”

David Camden de Leon never married. He died on September 3, 1872, aged 58 or 59.