Showing posts with label Casualties. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Casualties. Show all posts

Sunday, January 07, 2007

War: A Commentary

Over the last year, many of these blog entries have addressed the looming spectre of a casino on the outskirts of the sacred fields of Gettysburg. During that time, some who supported such a venture questioned the meaning of these grounds. Responses frequently discussed the soldiers' sacrifices and their impact on our future while rightfully underscoring our duty to honor the dead of our country. In focusing on such, we often avoid the issue of war itself for without war, without the colossal spilling of blood on these fields, few would view Gettysburg with such reverence.

A Small Section of Arlington National Cemetery

Throughout our history, witnesses to sanguinary struggles often expressed their desire that the conflict they experienced emerge as the last of its kind. Few would question these sentiments. During the American Civil War, casualty numbers eclipsed anything the nation had previously suffered. Single battles left dead and wounded in greater numbers than those produced by multiple combinations of previous wars. However, after sectional hostilities ended, the United States would continue their war with the Indians in a quest to control the lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. In the 1880s, a collection of Union and Confederate soldiers would volunteer to fight with a new wave of soldiers in the Spanish American War. With the birth of a new century, as Civil War veterans became fewer in number and the memory of their struggle faded, the United States would join the war to end all wars.

World War I, the Great War, produced devastation on a scale that, in comparison, relegated the American Civil War to a mere skirmish. Estimates for World War I vary but consistently range between 8 and 9 million deaths with a staggering overall casualty list of 30 to 35 million. In the summer and fall of 1916, the Battle of the Somme, which degenerated into a bloody struggle of attrition, would contribute over one million casualties to the angel of death's ghastly harvest. Civilian deaths added perhaps another 6 million or more to the war's grim total.

As the world suffered through the aftermath of World War I taking stock in what they had lost, the seeds of an even greater conflict already threatened germination. A few short decades later, the soul of humanity would cry out in sustained agony as over 60 million soldiers and civilians would lose their lives during World War II. At the end of the millennium, estimates for all wars conducted in the 20th century would range from between 170 and 216 million deaths worldwide.

Holocaust & Andersonville Camp Survivors

The Second World War will forever be linked with the atrocities of the holocaust. The temptation exists to view this immense tragedy as an event which, if remembered, will not occur again. But when viewing the skeletal forms of those who suffered through the years of Nazi persecution, one is reminded of the similarly emaciated forms of Civil War soldiers who emerged from our own prisoner of war camps. Motivations and intentions differed but this did not change the cruelty and suffering experienced by the individual prisoners.

In late July, 1861, as the press disseminated the casualty figures for the Battle of Manassas / Bull Run, many responded with horror that the conflict had killed over one thousand men in a single day. Less than one year later, Shiloh’s 23,000 casualties, with over 3,000 dead, would induce some to label General Grant a "Butcher" as Americans struggled to reconcile the costs of this expanding war. Antietam, Fredericksburg, Stones River, Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg would bring new levels of horror as the countless lifeless forms laying on precious American soil exploded in number. Gettysburg’s 50,000 casualties with nearly 10,000 dead continued to shape how the populace viewed war. The shock after Bull Run had long since faded into a very distant memory.

The Overland Campaign of 1864 would numb the senses as the number of dead and wounded continued their ascent from the previous year. General Grant would lose 60,000 men between the Battles of the Wilderness and the initiation of the Siege of Petersburg. That dreadful count closely matched the total number of men General Robert E. Lee commanded when the campaign began. General Lee would likewise see some 30,000 of his men fall. Despite the sorrow that enveloped much of 19th century America, these terrible numbers served only as an omen of the conflagration yet to come.

The Dead of Cold Harbor

War is fraught with contradictions. General Stonewall Jackson, one of the south’s fiercest warriors, would offer in a letter to his wife, "People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for; they don't see all the horrors that must accompany such an event." General Grant, although acknowledging the advantages of war, also stated in his memoirs, "But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future." Just a few paragraphs later however, he would also state, "We must conclude, therefore, that wars are not always evils unmixed with some good." After the war, General Sherman, whose forces devastated vast regions of the south, would offer to a gathering of Michigan students, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, vilified by some with accusations of a ferocious lust for blood, would offer to his defeated countrymen, "Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and, so far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested, and heretofore so widely but honestly differed. Whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society or to individuals, meet them like men." Of course, perhaps the most famous quote along these lines came from General Lee at Fredericksburg, site of an overwhelming Confederate victory. "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it."

Few could advocate successfully for the general desirability of war. Yet a similarly small number could discount its necessity as long as men pursue power on a vast scale at the expense of the lives and liberties of others. Perhaps the despair expressed at the loss of 3,000 US soldiers in the current Iraqi war serves as an encouraging indication that we have learned from experience. Regardless of the degree of support or disagreement with the current administration’s policies, as a nation, we express sadness at the loss of each life while supporting the soldiers who at this very moment risk death or dismemberment while we read this article.

We must preserve the relics and reminders of our history so that such lessons do not surrender to forgetfulness or indifference. Our Civil War battlefields must survive the pervasive threat of the developer’s shovel so that current and future generations can remember the lessons so painfully learned at the cost of so much of our ancestors’ blood.

Without the perspective of history, we cannot fully understand the context of today’s public affairs. Lacking both, we cannot act to the better good and will remain captive within the same prison of ignorance, violence, and retribution. With several thousand years of history, the human race, taking stock in all of the lessons learned, should prove capable of finding practical solutions to most interpersonal and international conflicts. Perhaps then and only then, will we yield to the better angels of our nature and end the slaughter of millions.



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Project Gutenberg - Grant's memoirs
National Park Service
BBC: The Somme: Hell on earth
A Path Divided
The Quote Database
Century, Bloody Century
Wars and Conflicts
AMG Publishers

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Mourners for the Dead

Unhappy with General Don Carlos Buell, on October 24, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln elevated Major General William S. Rosecrans to the command of the Army of the Cumberland in the war's western theater. In the more politically sensitive east, he would wait another two weeks, just after the mid-term elections, to replace another General with whom he had expressed his displeasure. Major General George B. McClellan "had the slows" Lincoln had said, and so he placed McClellan's subordinate Major General Ambrose E. Burnside at the head of the grand Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln expressed to both Rosecrans and Burnside his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as both armies’ previous lack of aggressiveness. He expected a more vigorous campaign.

Fredericksburg's Reconstructed Stone Wall

Uncomfortable with having been ordered to accept overall command of the East's Army of the Potomac, its new leader began to move on Richmond. On December 13, 1862, General Burnside launched assault after bloody assault on the entrenched Confederate positions outside of the historic Virginia town of Fredericksburg. The slaughtered blanketed the cold December ground. The vast number of Union casualties appalled even some of their southern counterparts. Of the estimated 17,929 total for both sides, the Union lost about 13,353 men to the Confederates 4,576. Nine days after the battle, President Lincoln would write to his General and the men of his army.

"Executive Mansion,
December 22, 1862.

To the Army of the Potomac:

I have just read your commanding general's report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an intrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and recrossed the river, in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government.

Condoling with the mourners for the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively so small.

I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.

A. Lincoln."

About one month after accepting command of the Army of the Cumberland, General Rosecrans received a telegram from the General-In-Chief of all Union armies. It read in part, "If you remain one more week in Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal." Washington again found itself dissatisfied with a perceived lack of resolution. A few weeks later, shortly after the Union disaster at Fredericksburg, General Rosecrans would fight the bloody Battle of Stones River or Murfreesboro. This contest would see a higher percentage of casualties than any other battle during the entire war. Of the just over 80,000 men involved, almost 24,000, about one-third, were killed, wounded, or missing.

Like he had with General Burnside, President Lincoln would express his thoughts to General Rosecrans. "I can never forget, if I remember anything, that at the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the country scarcely could have lived over."



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American Battlefield Protection Program
NPS: Stones River Aftermath
NPS: The Battle of Stones River
Wikipedia: William Starke Rosecrans

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Walt Whitman and the Wounded Soldiers

I thought I might post a few excerpts from Walt Whitman's wonderful work "Specimen Days" about his time spent helping wounded soldiers during the war.

"Fifty Hours Left Wounded on the Field

HERE is a case of a soldier I found among the crowded cots in the Patent-office. He likes to have some one to talk to, and we will listen to him. He got badly hit in his leg and side at Fredericksburgh that eventful Saturday, 13th of December. He lay the succeeding two days and nights helpless on the field, between the city and those grim terraces of batteries; his company and regiment had been compell’d to leave him to his fate. To make matters worse, it happen’d he lay with his head slightly down hill, and could not help himself. At the end of some fifty hours he was brought off, with other wounded, under a flag of truce. I ask him how the rebels treated him as he lay during those two days and nights within reach of them—whether they came to him—whether they abused him? He answers that several of the rebels, soldiers and others, came to him at one time and another. A couple of them, who were together, spoke roughly and sarcastically, but nothing worse. One middle-aged man, however, who seem’d to be moving around the field, among the dead and wounded, for benevolent purposes, came to him in a way he will never forget; treated our soldier kindly, bound up his wounds, cheer’d him, gave him a couple of biscuits and a drink of whiskey and water; asked him if he could eat some beef. This good secesh, however, did not change our soldier’s position, for it might have caused the blood to burst from the wounds, clotted and stagnated. Our soldier is from Pennsylvania; has had a pretty severe time; the wounds proved to be bad ones. But he retains a good heart, and is at present on the gain. (It is not uncommon for the men to remain on the field this way, one, two, or even four or five days.)

The Wounded from Chancellorsville

May, ’63.—AS I write this, the wounded have begun to arrive from Hooker’s command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first arrivals. The men in charge told me the bad cases were yet to come. If that is so I pity them, for these are bad enough. You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving at the landing here at the foot of Sixth street, at night. Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. A little after eight it rain’d a long and violent shower. The pale, helpless soldiers had been debark’d, and lay around on the wharf and neighborhood anywhere. The rain was, probably, grateful to them; at any rate they were exposed to it. The few torches light up the spectacle. All around—on the wharf, on the ground, out on side places—the men are lying on blankets, old quilts, &c., with bloody rags bound round heads, arms, and legs. The attendants are few, and at night few outsiders also—only a few hard-work’d transportation men and drivers. (The wounded are getting to be common, and people grow callous.) The men, whatever their condition, lie there, and patiently wait till their turn comes to be taken up. Near by, the ambulances are now arriving in clusters, and one after another is call’d to back up and take its load. Extreme cases are sent off on stretchers. The men generally make little or no ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppress’d, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.

Bad Wounds—The Young

THE SOLDIERS are nearly all young men, and far more American than is generally supposed—I should say nine-tenths are native-born. Among the arrivals from Chancellorsville I find a large proportion of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois men. As usual, there are all sorts of wounds. Some of the men fearfully burnt from the explosions of artillery caissons. One ward has a long row of officers, some with ugly hurts. Yesterday was perhaps worse than usual. Amputations are going on—the attendants are dressing wounds. As you pass by, you must be on your guard where you look. I saw the other day a gentleman, a visitor apparently from curiosity, in one of the wards, stop and turn a moment to look at an awful wound they were probing. He turn’d pale, and in a moment more he had fainted away and fallen on the floor.

Death of a Hero

I WONDER if I could ever convey to another—to you, for instance, reader dear—the tender and terrible realities of such cases, (many, many happen’d,) as the one I am now going to mention. Stewart C. Glover, company E, 5th Wisconsin—was wounded May 5, in one of those fierce tussles of the Wilderness—died May 21—aged about 20. He was a small and beardless young man—a splendid soldier—in fact almost an ideal American, of his age. He had serv’d nearly three years, and would have been entitled to his discharge in a few days. He was in Hancock’s corps. The fighting had about ceas’d for the day, and the general commanding the brigade rode by and call’d for volunteers to bring in the wounded. Glover responded among the first—went out gayly—but while in the act of bearing in a wounded sergeant to our lines, was shot in the knee by a rebel sharpshooter; consequence, amputation and death. He had resided with his father, John Glover, an aged and feeble man, in Batavia, Genesee country, N. but was at school in Wisconsin, after the war broke out, and there enlisted—soon took to soldier-life, liked it, was very manly, was belov’d by officers and comrades. He kept a little diary, like so many of the soldiers. On the day of his death he wrote the following in it, to-day the doctor says I must die—all is over with me—ah, so young to die. On another blank leaf he pencill’d to his brother, dear brother Thomas, I have been brave but wicked—pray for me.

Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier

OF scenes like these, I say, who writes—whoe’er can write the story? Of many a score—aye, thousands, north and south, of unwrit heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells? No history ever—no poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds. No formal general’s report, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands,) crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death-shot—there sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass and soil, with red blood—the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by—and there, haply with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him—the eyes glaze in death—none recks—perhaps the burial-squads, in truce, a week afterwards, search not the secluded spot—and there, at last, the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown."



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Source: Walt Whitman: Specimen Days

Monday, September 11, 2006

In Memory of the Fallen



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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Not Shot But Bayoneted

While the American Civil War offers endless examples of inspirational gallantry and heroism, we must not fall prey to the ever lurking temptation to romanticize this fascinating yet dreadful conflict. In a letter written to General John L. Hodsdon of Augusta Maine, Captain James Hall of the 2nd Maine Artillery speaks of the many facets of war. In this instance, he writes of the Battle of Gettysburg.

2nd Maine

"We again bore the brunt of the battle at Gettysburg on the 1st day of July (and the first of the fight). I was the advance Artillery of the Army of the Potomac and was engaged for more than an hour before any battery came to our assistance. And you may well know we got badly hurt. 36 horses & 22 men in about one hour and a half - My loss in men was many of them slightly wounded and several taken prisoner so close was the action. We were so reduced in horses that we were obliged to drag two guns off by hand. The boys fought like the D-, never better. You may judge when I tell you that many of our horses were not shot but bayoneted that it was a close and desperate struggle for our guns, two of which they actually had hold of at one time. I have seen hard fighting before. And been badly smashed up, but I never saw a battery taken from the field and its guns saved in so bad a state as the Old Second came of that day. On Thursday and Friday we were engaged on Cemetery Hill and suffered only slightly. - The victory on our part on Friday the 3d was most glorious.

We are in line of battle and momentarily expecting a battle although I think at times Lee has escaped. - As soon as we get into camp, the monthly return for June will be forth coming.

I have the honor
to be very Respectfuly
Your Obt. Servt.
James A. Hall"



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Source: Maine State Archives

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Such is War

20th Connecticut
20th Connecticut Monument on Culp's Hill
Gettysburg National Military Park

After the fighting ended on July 3, 1863, the grim task of caring for the wounded and of burying the dead occupied the time of the soldiers until ordered to move from the battlefield. Corporal Horatio Chapman, 20th Connecticut, described it thus.

"We built fires all over the battle field and the dead of the blue and gray were being buried all night, and the wounded carried to the hospital. We made no distinction between our own and the confederate wounded, but treated them both alike, and although we had been engaged in fierce and deadly combat all day and weary and all begrimed with smoke and powder and dust, many of us went around among the wounded and gave cooling water or hot coffee to drink. The confederates were surprised and so expressed themselves that they received such kind treatment at our hands, and some of the slightly wounded were glad they were wounded and our prisoners. But in front of our breastworks, where the confederates were massed in large numbers, the sight was truly awful and appalling. The shells from our batteries had told with fearful and terrible effect upon them and the dead in some places were piled upon each other, and the groans and moans of the wounded were truly saddening to hear. Some were just alive and gasping, but unconscious. Others were mortally wounded and were conscious of the f act that they could not live long; and there were others wounded, how bad they could not tell, whether mortal or otherwise, and so it was they would linger on some longer and some for a shorter time-without the sight or consolation of wife, mother, sister or friend.

I saw a letter sticking out of the breast pocket of one of the confederate dead, a young man apparently about twenty-four. Curiosity prompted me to read it. It was from his young wife away down in the state of Louisiana. She was hoping and longing that this cruel war would end and he could come home, and she says, "Our little boy gets into my lap and says, `Now, Mama, I will give you a kiss for Papa.' But oh how I wish you could come home and kiss me for yourself." But this is only one in a thousand. But such is war and we are getting used to it and can look on scenes of war, carnage and suffering with but very little feeling and without a shudder."



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More of this quote and further information on the 20th Connecticut can be found at 20th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Civil War Medicine

Surfing the web for something interesting, I found these fascinating excerpts from the journal of J. S. Billings, a Civil War surgeon who served the men fighting around Petersburg in 1864. Nothing further need be said. His words speak clearly even from 142 years past.

"... The character of the surgery performed in the field hospitals during the campaign has been unprecedently good. The majority of cases have been properly dressed, and operated on, before being sent to the rear, and, for this reason, the number of primary operations has been very great. The great majority of wounds have been caused by the conoidal ball, but a few wounds from grape or canister have been observed. The treatment of flesh wounds has been simple and uniform, consisting of a small piece of wet lint placed on the wound, or wounds, and retained in position by a turn of bandage, or a slip of plaster ..." - Billings, J.S., Asst. Surg., USA, Army of the Potomac, near Petersburg, VA."

"Setting Up A Hospital
Page #1
June 17, 1864
I do not believe that my work at hospitals will ever end. I almost feel the same about this war. I arrived at City Point on an afternoon in mid-June, as the steamers were being unloaded with medical supplies. The General had moved our army yet again, crossing the James River to target Petersburg. Of course, we moved when the army did, and now we worked to get another hospital ready for the soldiers already fighting near the city.

Page #2
Two days later, the first 500 wounded soldiers arrived at the hospital before we were even ready for them. Before that day was over, more than 3,500 patients were seen by the staff. I think I saw a couple hundred myself. So many faces, I can’t recall. The following days were much the same, so there was little time for us to rest.

Page #3
Hardly a day passed, when we did not hear the roar of the cannons from the Petersburg front. Even when there was no report of battle, soldiers arrived at the hospital by the train load. I tried to help the men who poured into the hospital day after day, many suffering terrible wounds. Under the knife, I operated on so many misshapen bodies, knowing that these men would never be the same again. Afterwards, I rested, while watching the nurses wash the blood-stained floors of the operating room. Even after three years of war, I still found it difficult to deal with the horror of it all.

Page #4
I always felt rewarded when I saw a wounded soldier slowly healing from his surgery and gaining their strength. They were fortunate to be in a hospital that was so well supplied. I was pleased to be finally working in a hospital where the patients had a clean bed to lay their head, good food, and experienced doctors and nurses to care for them. This was not the only change I noticed in hospital care by this time in the war. The Medical Department had made some changes to hospital care, and one was the addition of women nurses, who seemed to take great care with the patients, even so far as hanging colored papers over the walls, the windows, and doors to make this depressing place a bit more cheerful for its occupants. Our patients really appreciated these small gestures of kindness.

Field Station
Page #1
The army was planning a big battle near the end of July, so I was one of the surgeons who volunteered to go to the front line for a few days. I had some experience working in the field dressing stations, so I traveled down to the front line with some assistant surgeons. I had no idea what a disastrous day it would be for our men.

Page #2
How many wounded men passed through my shelter that day, I could not possibly recall. The battle had started before daybreak with the sound of a big explosion followed by artillery fire across our lines. Thankfully, I was safely behind the lines, waiting for the confusion to begin. I prepared my station for all of the wounded that would be arriving once the battle began. The image of the wounded still stands out in my mind.

Page #3
The wounded never stopped coming through my tent, located just a few hundred yards behind the Union lines. Equipped with a pile of bandages and some bottles of medicine, the first aid tent was barely more than shelter with blankets scattered on the ground. Men continually carried the soldiers off the battlefield behind our lines to the dressing station. There it was my job to give these men quick care before they were taken on to the Field Depot Hospital near Grant's Headquarters. There were others there to help me, but there were so many wounded that we could not take care of them all.

Page #4
I gave the men who had been shot in the leg, the arm, or the stomach, opium to numb their pain. I tried to clean and wrap as many wounds as I could, before many of the soldiers took their trip to the hospital. There was little I could do to comfort them. Most of the fighting was up the hill on the other side of our trench. We were behind the dirt walls, where we had pretty good protection, though an occasional bullet sometimes whizzed past. As the hours passed, my hands grew tired from the care I gave to hundreds of wounded that day. Fortunately, most of them would make the trip to City Point, where they would get much better care in our hospital. Still, a few breathed their last under my tent that day.

Page #1
From Battlefield to Hospital
A few days after the terrible battle, I received orders to head back to the main hospital at City Point. I made the trip with the latest group of soldiers wounded on the front lines. There was a lot of confusion, as I watched ambulance workers load the wounded onto the horse and carriages that would carry us the short distance to our railroad.

Page #2
Once the ambulance delivered us to the railroad depot, I boarded the railroad train with the wounded, to try to assist them in some way. We were packed very tightly on these railroad cars, so that the bed of hay offered no comfort. Men screamed in pain as their mangled bodies constantly knocked against one another from the jolting of the railroad car. Blood was everywhere, as I sit among the men and the smells were almost unbearable. Thankfully, the trip to the hospital was a short one. I was quite relieved when the train finally pulled up to the center of the hospital tents, and I worked quickly to help the severely wounded to the operation area.

Page #1
I worked late into the night performing surgery after surgery on the wounded who streamed into the hospital. There was no end to the trainloads of wounded who continued to arrive at the hospital throughout this long day. I really just wanted a few minutes to sit down and rest, to get away from the depressing scene of thousands of young, wounded soldiers whose lives would never be the same again.

Page #2
My tired hands were getting stiff from the chill in the air as the evening slowly passed. I could hardly look at the faces of these men whose bones were splintered by bullets and whose bandages were soaked with blood. I had to block out the shrieks and moans of those who still lay in the field waiting for their turn to come to the surgeon's table. It was how I got through the horror of it all. ‘

Page #3
I ignored the pile of arms and legs that sat in the corner of the operating room. When I became a doctor, I had never imagined performing so many surgeries at once. The truth be told, before the war, I had only operated on one person who was injured from a gunshot wound. I had to learn quickly how to amputate an arm or leg. On nights such as this, I moved from patient to patient hardly washing my hands and instruments I used to perform the amputations.

Page #4
Finally, the last wounded soldier of the day was brought to my table. He had already been given medicine to put him to sleep for his surgery, and he lay on the table white and still. When I looked down at his young face, I hesitated a moment. He looked so much like my own brother who was somewhere else fighting. As I was about to remove his leg, it made me sad to think this young boy would live his life a shattered wreck. I trembled for a moment to think that he could easily have been my brother, and somewhere a family had no idea what was about to happen to him. I picked up my saw and got to work."

To read more excerpts from journals about medical care and other aspects of life during the war, please click here.



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Views of the National Parks.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Mangled Heap of Carnage

With his 35th birthday a few weeks away, Frank Aretas Haskell marched north with the Army of the Potomac. The blue-clad men picked up the gauntlet General Robert E. Lee had thrown down and now covered 20 to 30 miles a day in search of their familiar adversaries. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, somewhere in the vast mountainous countryside, had broken away from their lines near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The oft victorious Rebels pushed forward onto northern soil, their aims and goals entirely unknown. As the Union Army fanned out in pursuit, Frank Haskell noted, "The people of the country, I suppose, shared the anxieties of the army, somewhat in common with us, but they could not have felt them as keenly as we did. We were upon the immediate theatre of events, as they occurred from day to day, and were of them. We were the army whose province it should be to meet this invasion and repel it; on us was the immediate responsibility for results, most momentous for good or ill, as yet in the future. And so in addition to the solicitude of all good patriots, we felt that our own honor as men and as an army, as well as the safety of the Capitol and the country, were at stake."

86th New York MonumentHe could not know that in a few short days, after colliding with their elusive foe, thousands would lay dead aside the tens of thousands wounded like so many ashes born of this sanguinary, windswept conflagration. In a description of events that Haskell penned for his brother, he conveyed the grim visage presented in the aftermath of the bloodshed of July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"The fight done, the sudden revulsions of sense and feeling follow, which more or less characterize all similar occasions. How strange the stillness seems! The whole air roared with the conflict but a moment since-now all is silent; not a gunshot sound is heard, and the silence comes distinctly, almost painfully to the senses. And the sun purples the clouds in the West, and the sultry evening steals on as if there had been no battle, and the furious shout and the cannon’s roar had never shaken the earth. And how look these fields? We may see them before dark-the ripening grain, the luxuriant corn, the orchards, the grassy meadows, and in their midst the rural cottage of brick or wood. They were beautiful this morning. They are desolate now-trampled by the countless feet of the combatants, plowed and scored by the shot and shell, the orchards splinted, the fences prostrate, the harvest trodden in the mud. And more dreadful than the sight of all this, thickly strewn over all their length and breadth, are the habiliments of the soldiers, the knapsacks cast aside in the stress of the fight, or after the fatal lead had struck; haversacks yawning with the rations the owner will never call for; canteens of cedar of the Rebel men of Jackson, and of cloth-covered tin of the men of the Union; blankets and trowsers, and coats, and caps, and some are blue and some are gray; muskets and ramrods, and bayonets, and swords, and scabbards and belts, some bent and cut by the shot or shell; broken wheels, exploded caissons, and limber-boxes, and dismantled guns, and all these are sprinkled with blood; horses, some dead, a mangled heap of carnage, some alive, with a leg shot clear off, or other frightful wounds, appealing to you with almost more than brute gaze as you pass; and last, but not least numerous, many thousands of men-and there was no rebellion here now-the men of South Carolina were quiet by the side of those of Massachusetts, some composed, with upturned faces, sleeping the last sleep, some mutilated and frightful, some wretched fallen, bathed in blood, survivors still and unwilling witnesses of the rage of Gettysburg."



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References for this article:

The Harvard Classics, American Historical Documents, P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, New York 1969

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Real War

Over the past few weeks, I have invested several late evenings re-editing those of my web site pictures which seemed less than inspiring ( Obsessing over the minutia of the site becomes an increasingly common activity during the months when the lack of foliage deadens my enthusiasm for picture taking. Although re-editing occasionally proves a frustrating endeavor, each minor success brought with it the corresponding happy reminiscences of the brief but blissful moments exploring the now peaceful battlefields. Considering the impact I hoped each picture might have, I tested combinations of color, contrast, and tone, hoping to create a realistic window into the bloody fields of our past. As much as I enjoyed the work, an uneasy presence knocked at the edges of my contentment. The question grew. By expressing my admiration for the men who fought and love of the fields upon which our nation grew, have I contributed to an overly-romanticized, sanitized image of war?

Walt Whitman’s words came to mind. In his seminal work "Specimen Days", the great American poet said of the war through which he had just lived, "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books." Still, he offered more than a small glimpse as he spoke of the dead.

"The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up

THE DEAD in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

And everywhere among these countless graves—everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are now, I believe, over seventy of them)—as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles—not only where the scathing trail passed those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land—we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown."

I have to wonder if perhaps Mr. Whitman’s small glimpse is a bit more realistic than that which I have offered. Perhaps moving away from romanticization and underscoring the raw brutality of war more fittingly honors those men and women who sacrificed tremendously that we might enjoy all we have today.



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References for this article: Prose Works

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Brothers War

While recently enjoying a three-day trip to some of the battlefields in Virginia, I decided to stop by Chatham Manor which overlooks the Rappahannock River and the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Chatham served as headquarters to Major General Edwin Vose "Bull" Sumner, commander of the Army of the Potomac's Right Grand Division, during the battle of First Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Although certainly looking forward to my visit, having walked the grounds there many times previously, I thought not much new would likely present itself.

However, one of the new National Park Service volunteers, stationed at the Manor for just over one month, made my visit much more meaningful than anticipated. Eager to provide a tour of the grounds, she enthusiastically instructed me concerning the history of the property. While enjoying her presentation, I waited somewhat impatiently for her to address the mid-19th century and the era that has become my consuming passion.

Moving throughout the old manor, we made our way to the northern most room. Void of furnishings, the somewhat small room had a solid, dark wood floor, white walls, a painting of George Washington, and a tattered Federal Division flag. As her discussion progressed to the battle's aftermath, she mentioned the building's use as a hospital, somewhat reverently mentioning that the room in which we stood served as the main center for surgery. Now thoroughly riveted to her words, she relayed that Walt Whitman had come to Chatham after learning that his brother, serving with the 51st New York, had been wounded during the fighting. At some point, he sought him here.

What Whitman saw horrified him. From this very room, a steady stream of lifeless severed limbs flew towards the yard from the open westerly-facing window. Fragments of shattered humanity piled under the two still present catalpa trees just outside the room.

Wounded soldiers experienced immense suffering on a sustained and grand scale. Many of those treated on these grounds would be buried here, resting under its sod until re-interred at the National Cemetery on Marye's Heights. Ironically, the ground no Union soldier could take, the ground whose attempts to storm would destroy thousands of lives, now served as the hallowed resting place for over fifteen thousand.

One of the included displays at the manor housed the grim instruments of Civil War medicine that earned the physicians of the time the epithet "Sawbones". Bone saws, scalpels, and needles now harmlessly encased in glass meant pain and misery to the men who obeyed their orders and braved the fields east of the solid Confederate lines. All around lurked reminders of what these men endured, underscoring the degree of valor and bravery each displayed as they, knowing what could be their fate, advanced forward as volunteers for the Union Army.

But this day, one other scene surprisingly lacking in horror would singularly capture the imagination. Also housed safely behind glass sat a sword scabbard with fading, chipped paint, obviously not of the original form. A closer look revealed the word "Fredericksburg" and several scenes painted on its sides. To my astonishment, the display's interpretive note reported that a convalescing soldier painted the vastly incongruous images on this instrument of war. Towards the top of the scabbard, clear for all to see, a Union and Confederate officer shook hands in reconciled friendship. Just beneath it, hands labeled "US" and "CS" embraced with similar sentiments.

This soldier, this man, surrounded by suffering, misery, and death, wounded during one of the Union's most tragic bloodbaths, thought only of rekindled friendship. While his body strove to again become whole, as many of his comrades slept eternally under Virginia's sod, this man dreamed of peace. Never did the label of "The Brothers War" fit so well.



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Also, today especially, please take a moment to remember those who lost their lives and loved ones during the September 11, 2001 attacks. Pray for their families and all who remain to carry on.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Voice of God

Often romanticized, those who fought in the American Civil War understood intimately the carnage and human wreckage wrought by great battles. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who wrote prolifically about the American Civil War, offered a glimpse of the personal internal conflict still raging after the guns ceased.

"With the declining day I slowly rode over the stricken field. Around the breastworks lay a hundred and fifty of the enemy's dead and desperately wounded. We had taken also in the counter-charges and eddies of the strife nearly two hundred prisoners - happier than they knew. These we sent away for safe keeping. But we had with us, to keep and to care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men, - men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order - do we call it? - fraught with such ruin. Was it God's command we heard, or His forgiveness we must forever implore?" - Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "The Passing of the Armies" Describing a battlefield outside of Petersburg towards war's end.

As we consider this period in our history, we would do well to answer these questions so long ago posed and to honor the memory of men who, knowing these risks, fought to forge the foundations of our country.



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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Remembering the Union 3rd Corps

On Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles was not happy. His friend, Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker had been relieved of command just 5 days earlier. During the Federals' movement into Pennsylvania, the new commanding general, George Gordon Meade, had rebuked Sickles for his slowness in marching his men to where General Meade wished them to be. Now, on July 2nd 1863, Meade ordered Sickles to position his Corps on the ground to the left of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps, extending the Union line down to Little Round Top.

Gazing over the fields, the dissatisfied Sickles wanted his men elsewhere. His orders would place his Corps along the section of Cemetery Ridge lowest in elevation of any in their line, forty or so feet lower than a ridge he could see out to his front. The position he preferred would follow the Emmitsburg Road south, bend back through a peach orchard, and end at a cluster of boulders known as the Devil's Den, just southwest of Little Round Top. Without the authorization to do so, he would move his men forward.

During what Confederate General James Longstreet would later call "the best three hours' fighting ever done by any troops on any battle-field", Sickles' Corps would be savaged by the Southern assault to come later that day. As the Confederates surged forward, Major General Sickles would have his right leg blown apart by a Confederate artillery round as he strove to save his crumbling line. Game to the end, Sickles' men carried him from the field smoking a cigar in part to maintain the morale of his retreating men.

For his actions that day, Sickles has received much criticism. Perhaps this is justified. His men however, often seem relegated to the status of also-rans during each re-telling of this epic battle. With talk of the Wheatfield, the Irish Brigade often takes center stage. Colonel Strong Vincent, Lieutenant Hazlett, Brigadier General Weed, Colonel Patrick O'Rourke, and Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, occupy much time when discussing the Union left. Consideration of the ground further up Cemetery Ridge elicits glorious discussions of Colonel Willard's charge against Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale or of the 1st Minnesota's grand display of valor, courage, and supreme sacrifice. All rightfully so.

But what of the men of the 3rd Corps? What of their contribution to the Union cause on this most destructive of these three days of battle? The 3rd Corps' 141st Pennsylvania would suffer horrendous losses during the struggle to hold their ground. In his official report, the regiment's commander, Colonel Henry Madill, would claim the loss of 72% of his men. His comment that, "Among the severely wounded, and who have since died, were the color-bearers and all of the color guard" underscored the savagery. In all, they would suffer 149 casualties of their original 209 men.

Although the 141st PA would endure perhaps the highest percentage of casualties, other regiments would tally greater numbers. Suffering the greatest loss, the 26th Pennsylvania, fighting near the Codori Farm would go into battle with 365 men. When the mantle of night decended, they would count 30 men killed, 176 wounded and 7 missing, or a total of 213 casualties (58% of their men).

Other regiments sacrificed likewise. The 20th Indiana counted 156 casualties. The 68th Pennsylvania suffered 152. The 40th New York lost 150 and the 11th New Jersey, 153. This grim ledger would go on as no 3rd Corps regiment was spared. The 115th Pennsylvania claimed the lowest total loss at 24 men.

The 3rd Corps Artillery similarly bore the weight of battle. Battery B, 1st New Jersey Light notes on their monument near the Peach Orchard that they "Fought here from 2 until 7 o'clock, on July 2, 1863, firing 1,300 rounds of ammunition." This was no quick rout. The men of the 3rd Corps fought and fought hard.

According to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, during the three days that became the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union 3rd Corps would suffer 593 men killed, 3,029 injured, and 589 missing or captured. As Colonel Madill correctly noted, some initially counted as injured would later die from their wounds. Some of the missing also certainly rested with the dead. The 3rd Corps did not fight on Day 1 and few of their men were in harms way on July 3rd. Therefore, most of the loss represented in these figures, some 4,000+ casualties, resulted from hard, determined fighting on that one day, July 2, 1863. The men of the 3rd Corps did their duty, striving to hold their ground. Over 600 would die; thousands would never again be whole. The men of the 3rd Corps earned their place at the Table of Honor.



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Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Suffering of Pickett's Charge

Months ago, I received an e-mail asking about the experiences of the men who were stationed along Seminary Ridge on July 3, 1863 waiting to embark upon their immortal assault. The writer expressed specific interest in what the Southern men endured to make the charge. With some changes, here is how I responded.

On July 3, 1863, the suffering on these fields would be horrendous. Confederate Soldiers from Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia would first endure a 1 to 2 hour cannonade. With no real cover, chance alone would determine if the Federal shells found them or passed harmlessly by in search of another. When the artillery's roar ended, the men in butternut and gray would then of course advance in what would be called Pickett's Charge. About 12,500 Southern men would do their duty, venturing out from the woods and marching about a mile across open, undulating fields towards some 7,000 waiting veteran Union muskets and numerous cannon. Southern casualty estimates usually settle around or slightly above 50%, which include those men who were killed, wounded, and captured.

The suffering here was indescribable. Owing to the Southern Army's inability to recover all of their fallen brothers, nearly 7,000 wounded would be left on the field. Many in severe pain and in desperate need of water, some would lay in the sun and rain for days until Union surgeons could tend to their wounds. Those men that the Army of Northern Virginia could recover traveled in an ambulance train that would stretch on for some 17 miles as they moved towards the relative safety of Virginia soil. The ride was agonizing as the maimed bounced over rough roads in comfortless wagons.

Not all of the suffering here was physical however. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was not wounded at Gettysburg, wept as he reluctantly obeyed General Lee's orders and initiated the charge he believed would prove catastrophic. Major General George Pickett later remarked that General Longstreet said to him, "Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make." General Pickett also described how General Longstreet gave the orders he did not wish to give. "I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, - given in anguish and with reluctance."

General Pickett, who was also not physically harmed during the assault, was devastated as he watched thousands of his men being cut down. He wrote to his fiancée of how his men trusted him to lead them and how in horror he watched them die. He held General Lee accountable for what occurred and apparently never completely forgave him. Years later, as the pain remained, he would lament bitterly, "That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg."



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