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"Dressing Wounds and Sending Back the Disabled"

Updated: Feb 12


The sheer size of the contending forces virtually ensured that the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House would result in tremendous casualties. Add into the mix a tremendous amount of political pressure from Washington D.C., the White southern population’s desire for offensive operations when possible, some of the best tactical field officers in both armies, and it all created a perfect recipe for serious numbers of dead, wounded, and missing.

In this history email we will take a look at these four battles from the perspective of what was involved in handling some of the over 100,000 casualties that these fights produced through the writings of those who endured wounds and others who tried to help the wounded.


Adapting to the War's Cost in Casualties

Just as the common soldiers and their officers went through a “seasoning” phase, doctors, their assistants, and nurses knew that knowledge and practice would only take them so far. When battles arrived, and the pressure mounted, soldiers’ lives were literally in their hands. They and the soldiers they treated encountered many variables that helped determine life or death.


The Battle of Fredericksburg

"Bringing the wounded in to Fredericksburg in the Afternoon--of Saturday" [Dec. 13, 1862]

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Battle of Fredericksburg would eventually include some significant firsts on American soil—for example, the first militarily opposed river crossing, and the first urban fighting—but more importantly, it pitted the two largest armies against one another during the four-year conflict. In a bit of role reversal to that point in the conflict, it witnessed the Army of the Potomac as the aggressor and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in a defensive stance. The numerous determined assaults against the Confederate positions at the Slaughter Pen Farm, Prospect Hill, and Marye’s Heights produced about 19,000 total casualties. The Federals having about two soldiers killed, wounded or missing for each Confederate casualty.

During the Irish Brigade’s attack on the famous Stone Wall at the base of Marye’s Heights, Pvt. William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, received painfully annoying but not serious spent bullet injuries to his left shoulder and ankle. However, things got hotter as they got closer. “Bullets had been singing their little songs around my head and ears . . . piercing my uniform from head to foot and cutting open my cartridge box by my side,” McCarter recalled as his regiment moved toward their target position. During the battle, as Pvt. McCarter raised his right arm to ram another cartridge down his musket, he received a wound to his arm at the shoulder. “A stream of warm blood now came rushing down the inside and outside sleeve of my uniform, then down the side of my pants into my right foot shoe until it overflowed,” McCarter remembered.

Feeling faint, McCarter fell to the ground. An unfortunate killed comrade’s body, just in front of McCarter, served as a bullet barrier. Unable to go to the rear for aid due to the amount of flying lead, McCarter remained on the field after his regiment withdrew and awaited darkness to try to find some help. After Confederate fire slacked, McCarter got up and made his way off the field. Exhausted, he found a safe place and fortunately a company comrade searching for him came by and eventually put him in an ambulance. Taken to a Fredericksburg house converted to a field hospital, McCarter finally received medical attention several hours after arriving. The surgeons, overwhelmed with the sheer volume of patients, could not get to everyone immediately. The doctor cut out the bullet, gave it to McCarter as a souvenir, and dressed the wound. Moved to the fourth floor of the house to make way for more patients, McCarter received no additional medical aid while there except what the soldiers could provide to each other.

Resting as best they could on the straw-strewn floor, McCarter and the other wounded soldiers spent most of December 14 and the following night wondering what would happen next. The evacuation of Fredericksburg began the night of December 15 and continued to the morning of December 16. The walking wounded, including McCarter, crossed the pontoon bridge on the morning of December 15. Hospital tents had been ordered but had not arrived yet when he reached Stafford Heights. Some wounded went by train from Falmouth to Aquia Landing, and then by boat to hospitals in Alexandria and Washington D.C. McCarter saw three wounded men killed by falling under the trains as they started off. Not finding room on the train, he received a place in one of the Stafford hospital tents once they arrived and were erected. No cots comforted the wounded, only some pine boughs on the ground and a blanket. Soon McCarter received hot coffee and some food courtesy of the United States Christian Commission, which improved his spirits somewhat.

At one point a surgeon inspecting McCarter’s wound advised amputation, but he refused the suggestion. McCarter claimed he “found that so numerous had been the amputations that the bloody limbs were piled up in heaps four or five feet high.” Trying again to get on the train, he failed. Another train happened by about an hour and a half later, which McCarter finally boarded. On the morning of December 17, McCarter reached Eckington Army Hospital in Washington D.C. Recovering there, he received a medical discharge in May 1863.


The Battle of Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville Field Hospital, May 2, 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thomas Fanning Wood served as the assistant surgeon for the 3rd North Carolina Infantry. As a regiment in Gen. Raleigh Colston’s Brigade, they participated in Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous flank attack on May 2, 1863, at Chancellorsville.

Wood remembered that, “My duties as Assistant Surgeon were to go along with the Regiment on the field, dress the wounds of the men as they fell out and came to the rear. Only those cases needing immediate attention ever applied, but in stopping to dress the wounds we got pretty well to the rear, and were not subjected to the hottest firing.” Wood’s “ambulance man carried a canteen of whiskey and one of water. We had sponges, bandages, ligatures [torniquets], and necessary medicines—usually morphine and opium.” Wood recalled that with surgical instruments being hard to come by, he did not have a case at hand at the time.

As the fighting between Jackson’s flanking force and the Army of the Potomac’s Eleventh Corps intensified, Wood and Dr. L. C. Coke of the 1st North Carolina worked together. However, due to the speed of the attack, the pair found it difficult to “keep anywhere within reach of the Brigade.” As darkness descended and the attack wore down, Wood and Coke “went on the field with a lantern to look after the wounded and to take note of the dead of our Regiments.” They “attended to all we came across, of friends and foes.” A lack of ambulances became apparent as “the wounded came to the rear in large numbers from the 3rd [N.C. Inf.] and only one ambulance could be found.” Apparently, it was later determined that another of their ambulances removed Gen. Jackson from the field after his wounding.

On May 3, the furious battle continued. Wood noted that “As the wounded were now pouring in and our medical force was entirely insufficient, I was very fatigued.” At about that time, Wood received an order from his superior, Dr. James F. McRee, to go to the Lacy House, “Elwood,” and assist him. The hospital there consisted of “a few small houses and a number of hospital tents.” Wood explained that once there, “My first case was an amputation just below the shoulder joint.” Assisting in the procedure was a hospital steward. “This was my first real introduction into surgery and a trying one it was, as I had to rely on ready wit more than to assistance from my superiors, who were far too busy to look after me,” Wood recalled.

Improvising with what they found around them worked for surgeons as well as common soldiers. Unhinged doors and barrels doubled as operating tables, farm buckets and tubs brought water to wash wounds, and bed sheets and table linens turned into bandages and tourniquets. The mental pressure to work quickly due to the volume of patients added to the physical exhaustion of standing and bending over the wounded. Needs came before niceties.

After everyone received treatment, Wood had an opportunity to view the battlefield. “The most appalling site was the wounded in the burnt woods. In a small space the woods caught fire from our shelling and a number of killed and wounded were lying there. Some of them had been carried off, but some of the badly wounded who could not get away were charred in the very agony of their contortions. It was a sickening site,” Wood remembered. The battlefield, however, also proved beneficial in the form of captured medicines. “We recovered chloroform, ether, etc., etc., in metal cases with screw tops from the laboratory of E. R. Squibb of Brooklyn,” Wood commented.

Apparently, Chancellorsville was Dr. McRee’s last battle. Wood hoped to receive the vacancy, but it went a Dr. Washington. Despite his disappointment, Wood continued his surgeon’s work with the 3rd North Carolina until the surrender at Appomattox.


The Battle of the Wilderness

"Wounded Soldier leaning on a pitchfork at the battle of the Wilderness, May 7, 1864."

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In his mid-40s by the Battle of the Wilderness, Dr. Daniel Holt was the oldest staff officer in the 121st New York Infantry. A practicing physician since 1853, the doctor brought a wealth of experience to the care of his regiment. His knowledge, skills, and abilities received tests time and time again during his service, but the challenges at the Battle of the Wilderness proved particularly difficult. Writing in his daily diary, and in letters to his wife, Holt made that clear.

The day before the army moved, May 3, 1863, Holt was treating the sick rather than the wounded. He put in a nine-hour day at the Division Hospital that included mention of a case of smallpox. The following day, the army got in motion on time, 4:00 a.m., and crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford. Familiarity with the area from the Mine Run Campaign the previous winter, and a return visit, did not seem to dampen the mood of the soldiers as Holt reported that “the best of spirit prevails.”

On the battle’s first day, May 5, Holt recorded that, “At 11 A.M. commenced firing and kept up a brisk engagement all day. It was a hard and obstinate fight.” Apparently, being the only surgeon with the regiment in the field at that time, Holt related that, “I had rather be here. It is harder and more dangerous work, but one of excitement and interest.” With the 121st New York Infantry not seeing much action on May 5, it was a rather light day of work for Holt. “Dressed only about twenty wounds to-day, almost all from other regiments than my own,” Dr. Holt noted. As many of the soldiers did who fought there, Holt tried to describe his Wilderness surroundings: “This is the raggedest hole I about ever saw. No wonder we cannot find or see a reb until we get right upon them. Swampy, hilly, bushes thick as dog’s hair, grape vines, rotten logs and fallen trees, make up this pretty picture. A fine place to fight in surely; a perfect quag mire.” It seems the conditions in which the soldiers were asked to fight had tarnished the army’s previous “best of spirit” demeanor.

May 6 brought intensive fighting to the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps and the 121st New York. Battling without Gen. G. W. Getty’s Division, who was detached to another part of the battlefield, the Sixth Corps experienced see-saw fighting until Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s force flanked them on the Federal right that evening. As Dr. Holt related. “For one I can say that it was hot work just about that time.” In the confusion Holt came near to “being gobbled up.” “This has been a hard day and night for me—out all night—not a moment of sleep—dressing wounds and sending back disabled of all sorts.” Holt worked in the field with a pack horse that carried his medical supplies. Those precious supplies would be readily needed to treat a number of the 17,000-some Federal soldiers, who were casualties. Exhausted, but finally finding time to write to his wife on May 13, 1864, he told her that, “I am more dead than alive.”

However, these wounded were only the tip of the iceberg. More bloodletting would occur throughout the Overland, Petersburg, and 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaigns before Dr. Holt resigned in ill health on October 16, 1864, and returned home to Newport, New York.


The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Field Hospital of the 5th Corps (Genl. Warren) at Spotsylvania Court House.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As the fighting continued from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the Union army set up hospitals in Fredericksburg, or as Dr. George Thomas Stevens, surgeon for the 77th New York termed it, “that great depot for wounded men.” Others wounded in the early phase of fighting at Spotsylvania found some succor at the field hospitals.

Fighting in the Second Corps, Lt. Thomas Galwey, 8th Ohio Infantry, participated in the desperate fighting at the “Bloody Angle.” Following closely on the heels of Barlow’s and Birney’s divisional attacks, Gibbon’s Division pitched in. “Here the fighting was hand-to-hand and bloodthirsty in the extreme,” remembered Galwey. In command of the company, Galwey noticed that, “At one time the shower of musket-balls, shrapnel, and every sort of projectile falling in the midst of us was trying to the nerves of our coolest [soldiers].”

The battle had already raged for about eight hours when Galwey received a shell wound in the calf. Carried about a quarter of a mile to the rear, he took in the view: “Here I saw acres of wounded men lying on the grass waiting for ambulances to evacuate them to the hospitals established about four miles behind the front.” There Galwey quickly noticed a comrade from his company, Pvt. John Quinn. Galwey related that, “Quinn’s bowels were hanging out, and the surgeon, having pushed them in with his hand, set a handful of lint against the big hole and tied a big bandage around his body.” Galwey helped Quinn into an ambulance to hopefully receive additional care further to the rear.

Galwey distinctly remembered, that while there, “one noise which seemed to be one continuous sound: the tearing of linen for bandages.” The field hospital was mainly composed of wall tents. These were “laid out in sections for the various corps, divisions, and brigades. Men were more or less attended by their own surgeons, and kept in the company of their comrades, thus being identifiable in case of death.”

This was not Galwey’s first wound, and although he mentioned that “the surgical business had become something of an old story,” still, seeing the sights, smelling the smells, and hearing the sounds must have been unsettling. Some of the tent walls “were raised three or four feet high for better circulation of air,” which allowed all to view of the surgeons’ actions inside the tents. “In them were performed the amputations and most of the probing for balls and shell fragments,” Galwey explained.

Apparently, Galwey’s wound was not too serious, because he explained that after having his injury dressed, resting for the night, and getting something to eat, he eventually located his regiment and rejoined them. Galwey continued serving through the Overland Campaign and the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign, when he mustered out in July 1864, and returned home.


Sources & Suggested Reading

Thomas Francis Galwey. The Valiant Hours. Stackpole, 1961.

James M. Greiner, Janet L. Coryell, and James R. Smither, eds. A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D. Kent State University Press, 1994.

Donald B. Koonce, ed. Doctor to the Front: The Recollections of Confederate Surgeon Thomas Fanning Wood, 1861-1865. University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

Kevin E. O’Brien, ed. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. Savas Publishing Company, 1996.

George Thomas Stevens. Three Years in the Sixth Corps. Time-Life Books (Reprint), 1984.


Parting Shot

“No sooner were the men removed from the ambulances than surgeons and nurses addressed themselves with all the strength that remained to them to relieve the immediate wants of the sufferers.” Assistant Surgeon George Thomas Stevens, 77th New York Infantry, on seeing wounded from the Battle of the Wilderness in Fredericksburg.

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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