Who Shot J.L?
One of the turning points of the Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5-6, 1864, was the wounding of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet by his own troops on the second day of the battle. Drs. Robert Steckler and Jon Blachley, Medical City Hospital, Dallas, Texas, reach new conclusions about the incident in their article, “The Cervical Wound of General James Longstreet.”
On May 6, 1864, Longstreet utilized an unfinished railroad bed to launch a surprise assault on the Union left flank. The Southerners rolled up Union Major General Winfield Hancock's unwary troops "like a wet blanket." As Longstreet trotted eastward with his staff on the Plank Road in the wake of the splendid attack, shots rang out from across the road. Longstreet reeled in his saddle, the victim of an errant volley fired by his own troops. He remembered feeling “a severe shock from the Minie ball passing through my throat and right shoulder...and my right arm dropped to my side.” With a bloody discharge bubbling at his mouth and throat, Longstreet whispered to Major General Charles Field to “assume command and press the enemy.” Longstreet would survive his wound, but the tragedy arrested the Rebel’s momentum.
Drs. Steckler and Blachley researched firsthand accounts of the wounding, the medical literature describing the general’s care, Longstreet biographies, and narratives of the battle. They agree that Longstreet was wounded by “friendly fire,” that he received appropriate care from the Army of Northern Virginia’s First Corps medical director, Dr. John Syng Dorsey Cullen, but they reach new conclusions on the route of entry of the bullet and the soldiers responsible for the accident.
Most historians (and Longstreet himself) have been of the opinion that the entry wound was frontal. Indeed, differentiating entry wounds from exit wounds is not always straightforward (the authors point to the continuing argument surrounding Kennedy’s assassination as an example). Drs. Steckler and Blachley conclude that “given the trajectory of the bullet, slightly upward from posterior to anterior, it is more likely that the cervical wound was an exit wound or Longstreet would have had to have been leaning far forward in the saddle, which is unlikely.” The doctors explain that a rear entry wound would account for the paralysis of Longstreet’s right arm, his weak voice (which persisted for the rest of his life), and the bloody froth.
The posterior entry of the bullet points to a regiment north of the Plank Road as likely responsible for Longstreet’s wounding, rather than south of the road as has generally been reported. Drs. Steckler and Blachley place Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone’s 12th Virginia north of the road, forced there by one of many brush fires started by the fighting. The 12th, seeing mounted troops in dark uniforms, fired at the unidentified forms. The remainder of the brigade south of the road returned the fire, assuming it came from the enemy.
Dr. Steckler was kind enough to share with me some additional insights regarding his interest in Civil War era medicine; an interest prompted by the personal narratives and detailed treatment records left by some of the war’s physicians. “General Longstreet’s case was of particular interest to me because I’m a practicing head and neck surgeon,” he stated. “The exact course of the missile wounding General Longstreet could be predicted accurately because of the anatomic structures injured,” and the result of the injuries.
The most challenging aspect of the study for Drs. Steckler and Blachley was determining the location of the units involved at the time of the wounding, and determining which unit(s) most likely fired the shot based on their suspected course of the bullet. Dr. Steckler stated that history-related studies are very well received by medical journals, and especially at medical conferences: “They often serve as a change of pace,” admitting that the routine scientific presentations become monotonous after awhile.
The article includes a brief biography of Longstreet, an account of his wounding and care, a meticulous medical description of the wound, and a detailed bibliography. The paper is well illustrated, with photographs of Longstreet and Cullen, and excellent maps by noted cartographer George Skoch. Most interesting are the anatomical diagrams (in color) and simulated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan showing the passage of the bullet through Longstreet’s neck and shoulder.
The paper was published in the March 2000 issue of Archives of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (Vol. 126, No. 3, pp. 353-359). A link to the abstract of the the article by Drs. Steckler and Blachley can be found here.