Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Bull Run Medical Accounts - Letters to American Medical Times - #1

Harry Smeltzer over at the excellent website and digital history project, Bull Runnings, does us all a favor with his growing archive of documents related to the First Battle of Bull Run, especially when he shares previously unpublished material, as he did recently with the report of Col. George S. Burnham, of the First Connecticut Volunteers.

Recently, Harry put out a call for contributions, and I'm happy to oblige in my own area of interest: Civil War medicine.

To be sure, a lot of medical material can be garnered from official documents such as the Official Records or the landmark Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. Another great source is period medical journals. They often re-printed official reports, but - more important - they also published letters from readers. Such is the case with the American Medical Times, a kind of weekly "reader's digest" for the New York Journal of Medicine.

I've culled the 1861 issues (some in my collection but also available online through Google Books and for Bull Run medical material, and will start with a July 26, 1861 letter ("special to the American Medical Times) written by Dr. Frank H. Hamilton, Surgeon, 31st Regiment NYSV (with more to come!):



Camp Pratt, near Alexandria, Va.

July 26, 1861.

[Special Correspondence of the American Medical Times ]

I have had no time to write to you before, and I have scarcely the time now, but I have seized a few moments of leisure to give you a brief account of one day's experience upon the field of battle.

At half past two, Sunday morning, I was in my saddle, with my assistants by my side, and my ambulance was ready for the march. The column began to move at this early hour, but our Division, under General Miles, did not leave the encampment until after six o'clock A. M. We then followed the long train which had preceded us, and after a march of about three miles took up our position where the battle of the preceding Thursday was fought, upon the brow of a hill commanding a view of the whole valley in which lay the forces of the enemy. The 32d and the 16th New York Volunteers were ordered to support Lieut. Pratt's battery, Col. Pratt, of the 31st, acting as Brigadier- Gen, or commanding officer, while Lieut.-Col. Brown took charge of our own regiment, the 31st; subsequently Col. Pratt took charge of his own regiment and was ordered to support Major Hunt's battery.

As soon as the troops were fairly in position the batteries opened upon the enemy with shell, solid shot, grape, and canister. Their fire was very effective, but it was not answered until late in the afternoon. In the meantime my assistants aided me in selecting a place along the wood, in our rear, where a pretty deep cut or gorge, leading a little off from the main road, would enable us to dress the wounded without exposure. We all went to work with a will, with the help of the drummer boys, and had soon cleared the gorge of stones and bushes. Here we proposed to have the wounded brought on stretchers by the drummers and a few volunteer aids, who together composed my ambulance corps. We then placed our ambulance above and beyond the gorge, in the direction towards a log-house, which was situated one-quarter of a mile further off in the rear. We took down the fences to let the ambulance pass, and planted our red flags at the temporary depot, and at the log-house. We were all ready when we received notice of an expected charge of cavalry upon that road, and were requested to select a building on the opposite side of the road, as the enemy's batteries would range across the old log-house. Accordingly we hastened to make the change, and in a few minutes we had everything as well arranged in a snug wooden house, occupied by negroes, as if we were in Bellevue. The operating table was ready, the bed arranged, and the instruments, sponges, bandages, cordials, &c., in order.

I now rode back to the field, and found we had had one slight skirmish, in which one man of the 16th had been wounded in the head, which Dr. Crandell, of the 16th, had already dressed. It was past mid-day and we were all tired, hungry, and thirsty. Exploring a garden in front and to the right of the batteries I found cabbages, beets, parsley, onions, sage, and potatoes; near by were chickens, and smoked hams in a deserted lodge. Water we found one-quarter of a mile to the left on the borders of the woods, within which lay the enemy, but the drummers brought water, and with the help of Mr. Nourse, Dr. Marvin, and my son, we soon made about four gallons of the best soup I have ever eaten. We had salt and pepper to season it, and good appetites to welcome it. We made also a large coffee-pot full of coffee, and found sugar to sweeten it. This we carried to the rear and fed out first to the Col. and his staff, and then to the line officers and men, as far as it would go, not forgetting ourselves and the drummer boy.

After this precious repast we carried whiskey to those soldiers who had been skirmishing, or who seemed especially to need it; for they were without shelter, under a sky of brass. To those who called for it also we sent or carried water in pails—such water as we could get The men never left their lines, except when ordered to act as skirmishers, and must have perished except for some such refreshments.

At about four or five p. m. a message was sent to us that the enemy were retreating, and that the day was ours, and I immediately returned to my hospital to order, of the black inmates of the South, supper for the Colonel's staff and my own. I was standing at the door, looking out towards the road, when I saw the regiments approaching in order, but rather rapidly; at the same moment came an order from Dr. Woodward, the intelligent and faithful medical director of our division, for me to fall back with my hospital to Centreville, about one mile further back, as the enemy were making an attempt to flank us on the left, in the direction of our division. I immediately had every thing replaced in the ambulance, and having paid Maria, the black woman, whose dinner we did not eat, we started for Centreville. We went along the same road with the troops, who were moving in good order, and without any appearance of alarm. At Centreville I took out my amputating case, general operating case, and medicine chest, and finding a large number of wounded already here, proceeded at once to dress their wounds, extract the bullets, etc. We were occupied for an hour or more in an old tavern. My assistants here were Dr. Lucien Damainville (first Assistant), Dr. — Brown, Mr. Marvine, medical student, Mr. Nourse, and my son Frank, who had been acting most of the day as the Colonel's aid. I think Dr. Arnt, of one of the Michigan regiments, was with us at this time. We had no bandages, no lint, no sponges, no cerate, and but very little water, and I think only one basin. Our first attention was directed to those already in the house. Stooping down as they lay crowded upon the floor, we inquired, "Where is your wound, my poor fellow ?" for they seldom called us until we came to their relief, nor did many of them utter a moan. There they lay silent, waiting their turn. Most of the wounds were made by spherical balls—some had gone through entirely, without breaking a bone or severing an artery—and to them we said, " Bravo, my boy, a noble wound, but no harm done. Mr. Nourse, apply a cloth, wet with cool water." Not a few, encouraged and strengthened by these words, got up, and came on foot to Alexandria and Washington. I saw several at Fort Runyon, from whom I had extracted balls from the neck, arms, and legs, the next morning when I arrived there, and they had walked the whole distance. Three or four had balls through their bodies, and had walked two or three miles to the village ; one was brought up with a wound in his thigh, who had lain on the field since the Thursday preceding. He will recover, I think.

From this building we went to a private house, which was also lull, and then to the old stone church. Here I met Dr. Taylor, of the 1st New Jersey Regiment, who was laboring most industriously, and Dr. _____ , a private, a very intelligent man, belonging, I think, to the 2d Michigan, and who, for his- extraordinary zeal and attention, deserves great credit.

In the old stone church the men were "lying upon every seat, between all the seats, and on every foot of the floor; a few on stretchers, perhaps three or four; a dozen or more on blankets—occasionally upon a litter, hay or straw, but mostly on the boards.

The scene here was a little different; it was dark; we had but two or three tallow-candles. The men had been waiting longer, and were in general more severely wounded; and, although now and then a man asked us to pass him, and to look first after some one lying near who was suffering more, yet from all sides we were constantly begged and implored to do something for them. After a little we concluded to take them in order as they lay, since to do otherwise rendered it necessary to consume time in going backwards and forwards, and we were constantly in danger of treading upon the wounded; indeed, it was impossible to avoid doing so. By this time we had found a hospital knapsack, and were pretty well supplied with bandages; but the time did not allow us to do much more at first, than to extract the bullets, and apply cool water dressings, with lint.

Only two amputations were made by myself; one below the knee, and one above the elbow-joint. Both of them, I confess, were done very badly, but I could, at the time, and under the circumstances, do no better. My back seemed broken, and my hands were stiff with blood. We still had no sponges, and scarcely more water than was necessary to quench the thirst of the wounded men. My assistants were equally worn out—Dr. Taylor alone seemed vigorous and ready for more toil.

At half-past twelve, or about that time, we went out to get a candle, to enable Dr. Taylor to amputate a man's arm at the shoulder-joint. Just then a regiment came up, and the Colonel was challenged by the picket. This reminded me that if we were to stay all night, as we had mutually agreed to do, we should need the countersign; but although we told him we were medical men, in charge of the wounded, and intended to stay, this was refused to us. The colonel told us that his was the last regiment covering the retreat.

We obtained a candle and went to the house where lay Dr. Taylor's patient, with his arm terribly shattered with a cannon ball or fragment of a shell. It was nearly torn off near the shoulder-joint, but the haemorrhage was trivial, he was dying of the shock. We gave him whiskey, the only stimulant we had, with water, dressed the wound slightly, and left him to his fate.

Dr. Damainville and I now lay down upon our backs upon the floor beside the wounded—we could do no more—our last candle was burning. Some of us had seen all the wounded, probably 250 in number, and done for them all that lay in our power. I had drunk some buttermilk and eaten a sandwich that Adjutant Washburn had held to my mouth once in the evening, but none of us had had any other food. I had sent Adjutant Washburn to overtake Gen. McDowell early in the evening, and to represent our condition, but he could not find him, and returned without help. The two bottles of whiskey taken by my son from the ambulance when we first came were already nearly distributed to the wounded. They had not a morsel to eat, the ambulances were all gone and had been for several hours. As we went into the street again, we found it was silent as the grave—the pickets even were gone, and except a few men so soundly asleep under the trees that we could not awaken them, there was no one left in the road. After a second consultation we determined to go also. My assistants and myself soon found our horses, but the servant was gone, and with him the bridles, nor could we after much search and loud and long shouting find him. I went back to the old stone church, and found one soldier just brought in, whose wounds I dressed, and then said aloud to the poor fellows within: " Thank God, my boys, none of you are very seriously injured; you will probably all get well." To which I heard one or two feeble responses: " Thank you, Doctor, thank you." I could not tell them I was about to leave them, and I trust in leaving them so I did them no wrong. I could be of no more service to them until morning, and then I presumed they would be in the hands of a civilized and humane enemy who would care for them better than we could. As I passed along out of the village I requested one gentleman who lived there to look after them, and also a family composed of a man and wife with two daughters. They all promised to do what they could.

Our instruments we could not take. There were five of us and two horses, and my son had sprained his ankle and could scarcely walk, so we went on towards Fairfax Court-House, and in half an hour we began to overtake the rear regiments, and soon I saw Dr. Woodward's cheerful face begrimed with dirt like our own. I told him how we had left the wounded. There was no remedy, said he. They must be left. We hurried on and at Fairfax Court-House overtook Gen. McDowell, to whom I at once reported the condition and number of the wounded, and requested to be sent back if he thought it best. He replied, " You have done right, keep on to Washington." As I was leaving the gate he sent a messenger to call me back, and to ask me if I were walking. I replied that I was. "Gen. McDowell has here ten or twelve ambulances," said he, "for the wounded, which he obtained by a dispatch to Washington. He wishes you to ride." From Fairfax I rode until our ambulance broke down, filled with wounded. The wounded were transferred to another ambulance, and I again took to my feet and occasionally to my horse. I reached Fort Runyon, opposite Washington, at about 10 A.m., and here washed my bloody hands and arms, for here I found the first water.

The wounded were scattered the whole distance from Centreville to Washington, not in large numbers, but here and there one could be seen walking by the aid of one or two associates. In reference to the ambulances, the occasion of their absence from Centreville was simply, that the drivers became frightened, and to turn them back would have been impossible. Nor do I think it would have been possible for Gen. McDowell to have sent one vehicle back beyond Fairfax at the time I saw him.

It is remarkable that most of the wounds seen by me were not of a character which would be likely to prove fatal. Perhaps the men most severely wounded were left upon the field, or were dressed by those noble surgeons who were near them, and some of whom lost their lives, while others gave themselves up as prisoners.

In no case did a wound seen by me require the use of a tourniquet, although some soldiers had their limbs tightly girded so as to have already occasioned great swelling and pain.

Most of the balls extracted were spherical; and of those which I removed, the majority were removed through counter openings, the balls lying close against the skin.

Nearly all the soldiers that I have seen since the battle, in Washington and Alexandria, are doing well.

I must not omit to state that after I had left, and when I supposed our whole party were in front of me, Mr. Nourse, acting assistant apothecary in our regiment, went back with three horses, and placing three wounded officers upon them, sent them off, for which he would accept of no compensation. He then walked himself the whole distance to Alexandria. This, with many other signal instances of this young man's courage, endurance, and humanity, deserves an especial notice.

My own regiment having, under its excellent commander, Col. Calvin E. Pratt, of Brooklyn, N. Y., covered the retreat of most of the forces, and especially of Hunt's Battery, which took up a new position near Centreville early in the evening, left the ground at 11 P.m, and returned in perfect order to its old encampment near Alexandria. Before they left they received five successive volleys from the enemy s infantry, but not allowing their own fire to be drawn they saved themselves and their battery from being overwhelmed and taken. I must regard the coolness and discretion of Col. Pratt under these circumstances, as the highest evidence of his capacity as a military commander.

Frank H. Hamilton. Surgeon 31st, Regiment, N. Y. St. V.


Terry Johnston said...


Wow. The American Medical Times looks to be a potentially terrific resource. I wonder if you're finding many letters of such length and substance, and how varied the military correspondents are.

I hope your book is selling well; I plan to pick up my own copy soon.

Keep up the great work.

P.S. If you come across anything re: the 79th NY or any of the Irish regiments, I'd love to know!

B. Forbush said...

Jim, This is a great letter. It is just the kind of thing I like to read, and use in my own research.
Thank you for posting it.

Jim Schmidt said...

Terry and Brad - Thanks o much for the comments.

American Medical Times (AMT) was a weekly and every wartime issue has updates on military affairs (surgeon appointments, etc) as well as post-battle accounts from surgeons. As the war went on, it includes surgical and medical notes. I'll keep my eye out for info on the 79th NY for you Terry (and the 13th Mass for you Brad!).