WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST
By James M. Schmidt
But whether on the scaffold,
or in the battle’s van
The fittest place for man to die,
is where he dies for man.
– Michael J. Barry, 1844
The old (and inaccurate) bromide, “Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?” could be applied as equally (and as inaccurately) to surgeons during the American Civil War. Over the course of the war, hundreds of medical officers were killed in action, died of battle wounds, by accident, in prison, or by disease and exposure.
Some have been justly and ably recognized. For example, Dr. Robert R. McMeens, a surgeon with the Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry who died in October 1862 from disease, was recently inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame. Others were eulogized anonymously, as when Confederate surgeon Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire – many years after the war – wrote of an unnamed surgeon who fell at Strasburg, “amid the cheers of soldiers at the evidence he gave of devotion to duty.”
One Union surgeon, Dr. James M. Newell, fell also; not in battle, yet no less heroically. Indeed, as one of Newell’s friends wrote, “there are other places besides the battlefield where heroism is to be displayed and where honor and infamy are to be won.” For Dr. Newell, that “other place” was the deck of a sinking army steamer on the
James Newell was born in
In May 1862, “influenced by a desire for a still wider field of labor, and for improvement in his profession…and impelled by a patriotic desire to do something for his country in the hour of its peril,” Newell determined to offer his services as a surgeon in the army. He went first to
In a letter home, Dr. Newell wrote, “Tell the people of Sutton that, if I live, I shall certainly return and resume my practice there. There seems a duty more important than taking care of the dear people at home just now. I know not how soon I may be upon the battlefield, but I shall try to do my duty.” In another, he wrote, “I have no doubt we shall see hard times, but I hope to be able to do my share in putting down this rebellion.”
One account has Newell with the 48th
Late on the evening of August 13, 1862, just off Ragged Point, the passengers on the
Reports of the accident circulated quickly and widely in the press. “Dreadful Disaster on the
The news of Dr. Newell’s loss came to Sutton by telegraph, “filling all hearts with sadness, though not without a gleam of hope that he might have been saved.” Indeed, more than two hundred people were rescued soon after the collision, and a few bodies were recovered that same night. Dr. Newell’s body eventually washed ashore in
How did Dr. Newell “pass the test”? One report told of the surgeon being “last seen on the upper deck of the West Point…standing nearly up to his waist in the water holding the little boy in his arms, while the ladies were standing by him and clinging to him for protection…exhorting them to be calm.” Another dispatch declared that the “survivors testify to [Dr. Newell’s] gallant conduct in endeavoring to the last to rescue the unfortunate ladies. He remained by them exerting himself for their safety, and had he been less chivalric might have escaped with his life.”
A Sutton man brought Dr. Newell’s body back home from Virginia, and on September 14, 1862, the Rev. George Lyman administered a burial service at Sutton’s Congregational Church, where the “national flag, draped in black, hung from the gallery…and military standards rested upon the coffin in front of the pulpit, also draped in black.” Lyman’s moving sermon – from which many of the details in this article were drawn - was published as a twenty-page pamphlet in 1862: A Discourse Commemorative of the Late James M. Newell, M.D. of Sutton, Mass., Surgeon in the U. S. Army, Who Was Lost on the Potomac River, Aug., 13, 1862.
In the sermon, Lyman gave a brief biography of Newell’s youth and arrival at Sutton, his desire to serve the Union, details of the steamer collision, his heroism, death, and lessons that could be found in Newell’s life. Lyman also spoke of what he saw as the qualities of a good physician, all of which he saw in Dr. Newell: “requisite skill…genuine benevolence…and love for his profession.” While much has been written about the relationships of surgeons with their regiments, Lyman reminded his parishioners that “a good physician is an invaluable blessing to a community,” and that when Newell – and thousands like him – left to join the ranks as an army surgeon, he was sorely missed at home.
In closing, Lyman declared, “Among all those heroic men who have given up their lives on the battlefield, none have died more honorably or heroically than our friend. It is well that he died as he did. It was a most fitting close to a laborious, useful and honorable life.”
For my part, I am very interested in learning more about the 1862 collision of the West Point and