The Surgeon at the Field Hospital

OFTEN as I have seen allusions to the field hospital, and even short, vivid descriptions of its horrors and mysteries, in the course of accounts of battles penned by men who had borne their part in the fighting, or by newspaper correspondents whose attention was mainly fixed on the engagement, as was natural, I do not remember to have read a single account, from a surgeon, of the place where his work lay during and after the battle. He, like the quartermaster and commissary, has no share in the fierce and stimulating work of attack and defense ; the strung-up suspense of expectation, the intensity of effort while the struggle hangs in doubtful balance, the exaltation of victory, the depression of defeat, come to him at second hand. His place is in an eddy of the mighty current of battle where the wrecks sweep in, and his business is to mend them as he may. It may well be supposed that the despondent rather than the jubilant view nets reported there, whither shattered manhood is borne sorely against its will, when its hope was to rush on, sweeping the enemy before it. Bitter disappointment and bodily anguish are too much for the hopefulness of common men, whose strength of soul is usually taxed to the utmost for endurance. So, though there are many glorious exceptions, the usual tone of those who come into the field hospital is depressed and despondent, and they are apt to report failure, if not defeat; whence it comes to pass that the surgical staff, who long for victory as much as any of their comrades in the line of battle, have need of no little experience before they can make such allowances for the exaggeration of distress in the reports that are groaned out to them as will save their own hearts from growing heavy with the thought that all this woe and wail, in the midst of which they are working, has gone for naught.

Never shall I forget how strong was this influence at the first assault on Port Hudson.

Public attention was not so drawn to this rebel stronghold as to Vicksburg, the final and successful siege of which began about the same date ; and many readers may have quite forgotten that in Louisiana there was another fort in rebel hands, one hundred and twenty miles below Vicksburg and ninety miles above New Orleans,1 which completely commanded the Mississippi and held out nearly a week longer than Vicksburg. Banks’s army had by an unexpected movement invested it on May 21, 1863, carried the outworks at once, and driven the enemy within his main line of defenses, while Farragut shut him in quite as closely on the river side. In the flush of our first success we recked little of there being seven miles of formidable earth-works before us. We were eager to storm them, and get to the river before Grant’s men. Between the woods in which our camps were hidden and the rebel works, there was a plain of irregular shape, varying from half a mile to a mile in width. The trees had been felled here the year before to give free sweep for artillery, and being left where they fell had added greatly to the defenses of the place. It was as though the parts of an abatis had been somewhat widely separated, and strong bushes and briars had grown up among them, rendering it impossible to preserve any regimental formation in traversing it, even unmolested by an enemy. But from the woods’ edge where our line was formed these obstacles could not be seen, and it looked simply like a half mile of space to be rushed over under fire, and the only question was how to pass the ditch and surmount the earthworks on the farther side. It was well understood that there was to be an assault. In every regiment fascines were made, which were to be carried by hand to the ditch and flung in at one point, till they should fill and so bridge it for our triumphant charge over the works. Volunteers were called for from each regiment to form a storming party, a part of which was to bear the fascines, while the rest were to rush over the bridged ditch, heading the assault, and holding the vulnerable point of the rebel defenses till the main body came up. Volunteers were not wanting for what was the post of glory as well as of danger. Little did we think that not one fascine would reach the ditch, and that even those who carried only a musket would be glad to take shelter behind stumps and logs midway of that green, bushy plain.

The field hospital of our division was in the woods, out of probable, though not out of possible, cannon range, and, as it proved, beyond actual range all through the seven weeks’ siege. In the woods I said it was, meaning a cleared place in the woods, not a building or tent of any kind. A suitable place by the road-side had been cleared of underbrush for the space of perhaps an acre, which lay almost wholly in shade under tall trees and interlacing vines, with spaces enough of sunshine to prevent anything like an air of gloom. Questions of room and of ventilation, at least, gave us no trouble there. On the 27th of May, having got all things in readiness, we lay about on the ground waiting, waiting with unutterable restlessness and dread. It was noon of the hot, bright day, when the artillery along our division front, which had been pretty steadily at work all the forenoon pounding away at the rebel breast-works, burst into a steady roar, the light batteries firing with wonderful rapidity, and we understood that our division was moving to the assault. For an hour the roar was continuous. Whether musketry mingled with it we could not tell, for the wind was strong and blew from us to Port Hudson. Earlier in the day we had heard heavy firing on our right and left, but that concerned other divisions, and we had got not one word of news in regard to it. About one o’clock there was a lull in the firing for half an hour, but not a wounded man came in, and we could not understand it. Had they carried Port Hudson, and were the hurt as well as the sound men going in thither ? Could the assault have succeeded so soon ? We could make nothing of it; but here was our station, and here we must stay. Four or live hours earlier I had been up with my regiment, had seen them in line of battle on the edge of a wood, had sent one of my assistants to a neighboring regiment which had no medical officer fit for duty, and had given my last directions to the other assistant, who was to stay with our regiment as long as he could be of any use, and then report at the hospital where I was stationed. Since that time I had been merely waiting.

About half past one o’clock, P. M., the firing began again, and now we could hear the rattling, spiteful musketry, more dangerous than the louder cannon. We walked to and fro in our shady retreat, or, pausing, we changed restlessly from one position to another. It was about three P. M., when several assistant surgeons came in (both mine among them), saying that nobody could get off the field; so heavy was the enemy’s fire and so rough the field, it was out of the question to bring off the wounded. They could not tell how it was going, but stoutly maintained that we should ultimately carry the works. Shortly before four o’clock the wounded began to come in, the more slightly wounded at first; then, as the afternoon wore on and the sun got low, faster and faster and thicker the sad procession poured in on us, not in ambulances, not on stretchers, but in their comrades’ arms, or borne in rubber blankets. In different parts of that ground we wrought, with our hospital men about us, extracting bullets; staunching bleeding; amputating hopelessly shattered fingers and hands on the spot; sending to the operating table the more serious cases ; pointing out the place where each man should be laid when we had done what we could, or sadly shaking the head over cases for which nothing could be done. Now it was a strange, now a familiar, face that looked pleadingly into mine to know the surgeon’s verdict. Working as fast as possible, with every power of mind and body on the stretch, I heard from each sufferer, or from the friends who bore him, the wildest accounts of the day’s losses and defeat, agreeing only as to our having been terribly repulsed, fearfully “ cut up,” and as to the impracticable nature of the ground over which the assault was attempted. “ How is it with the forty-ninth ? ” was my question to every man of my own regiment who sought me. “ Oh, doctor, the regiment ’s all cut to pieces! The’ ain’t twenty men left ’thout a wound.” This was the burden of the replies I got. “ They ’re bringin’ in the colonel now. He’s hit in the head, and his arm ’s shattered awful.” “ And where’s Colonel S. ? ” (the lieutenant-colonel). “ Why, I heard he’s shot through the body.” Just then came the captain of Company E, unwounded indeed, but bruised, haggard, staggering with fatigue, bringing in a lieutenant with the help of a private. “ Captain,” I cried, “is it as bad as they say ? ” “ Could n’t be worse, doctor. The fortyninth can’t furnish half a company for duty. Here comes the colonel with a smashed arm and a wounded head, they say. S. has got a ball in his lungs, I suppose.” “ And the major ? ” I groaned. “ Dead on the field ! ” replied his hollow

voice. “ My God ! ” I groaned again, and bent over the lieutenant, whose comparatively slight hurt was soon dressed. As I straightened my aching back, and signed them where to lay him by his friends (five lieutenants in a row with two or three captains), my attention was drawn by several familiar voices crying, “ Here’s the doctor ! Bring the colonel this way ! ” and a group somewhat larger than usual laid the tall figure of our colonel on the ground before me. How proud we had been of our colonel, — of his valor, his steadiness, his courtesy, his reputation ! His very name was a tower of strength to us. Officer and private, all leaned on him alike. Our attachment to him was almost a proverb in the brigade. He had gone into that assault the only mounted man, because it was impossible for him to walk with his Palmer leg among the felled trees and tangled bushes of that half mile or more of plain over which his men were to charge (?), and none but himself should lead his regiment. I shuddered to think of having to take away another limb from the already maimed body that had borne so bravely his unmaimed, mighty, and alert spirit. Why, he was but twenty-two years old ! A vision of the fond father and mother, who had charged me as I left home to look after their boy, rose before me and wrung my heart, already sore over the wounds of a score of other friends whose blood had stained my hands within an hour. His clear blue eye met mine steadily, his strong right hand grasped mine firmly, and the voice that could ring along the line like a trumpet had no waver in it as it said, “How are you, doctor? We’ve had a rough time of it. Now you must do your best for me. I can’t lose another limb, you know.” I saw that the hurt in the head could be nothing serious ; a buckshot had scored the scalp to the bone, and another had done the same for the heel of his one foot. I undid the bandage that bound his left wrist, and examined it. A ball had entered on one side, and lay near the surface on the other. His eyes questioned me, and I replied, “ I can soon take that ball out, when you are under ether. That’s a very tender place.” “ But you won’t take off the hand? ” “I will do nothing without letting you know and having your consent, colonel.” So he drank of oblivion and ceased to suffer, but his dream was not of home. " Doctor,” he muttered (talking in the ether sleep), “that’s my bridle hand, you know. Never can ride at the head of my regiment again if you take that off.” In a moment I held the bullet in my hand, and saw with joy that it was round and rather small, giving reason to hope that it had not shattered the bones badly in coming through, which could hardly have been the case had it been conical. No loose bone was to be felt, and I had the great pleasure of telling him, as he returned to consciousness, that there was good reason to hope that his “ bridle hand ” would by and by hold the rein again. A smile of satisfaction and relief lit up the face which had till then been set in the resolve to bear the worst, and with the simple, hearty thanks which we surgeons had from hundreds of men that night he was borne off to his blanket side by side with his officers. The short twilight had now so deepened into night that artificial lights were indispensable. Just imagine yourself doing work so delicate, so important, by the light of two sperm candles in the open air ! Happy was it for us that the breeze had died away, for there were but three or four lanterns on the ground, and we should have been left in the midst of that everincreasing crowd of sufferers almost helpless to relieve them. Picture to yourself, as you can, the dim scene in that woodland hospital: the leafy roof, cutting off much of what little light came from the half-clouded sky ; a few glow-wormlike spots about the middle of the space, on approaching any one of which you saw the little group of four or five lighted faces, quiet, intense in expression; few sounds save low, abrupt directions, short and pointed but not unkind questions, and repressed groans. There were seldom cries or shrieks. That space more lighted than the others, where you can see, although vaguely, entire figures stooping or moving, — that is the amputating table. But to realize the surgeon’s experience you must not only see with his eyes and hear with Ids ears, you must feel with him ; for he and his patients are all feeling; they feel the suffering; he feels with the sense of touch, — the skilled touch. Perhaps none but a blind man can know how all sensation seems to centre in the surgeon’s finger at such times, as it takes up the momentous investigation where the eye fails. Try — for it is worth an effort — to realize how he longs for strong and steady daylight, all the while compelling himself to be firm and patient, that he may do for each sufferer his very best.

Just after darkness had settled down the lieutenant-colonel arrived, walking bowed and painfully into my circle of light; how unlike his alert self ! But it was a relief to see him, for a glance told me that it could scarcely be that the ball had penetrated the chest, as was supposed. It must be somewhere in the muscles of the shoulder, having plowed its way thither along flesh that moves with every breath we draw, but usually does this so without effort or pain that we take no note of the motion. I failed to find the ball then, but an hour later one of my assistants found and removed it. So the reassured lieutenant-colonel crept away to his place by the colonel on the ground in the darkness. It might, have been two hours after this when one of our men came up and said, “ The major is asking for you, sir.” I started from the wounded man before me. “ Asking ! Then he is n’t dead ! ” And coming into shape out of the darkness, not borne helplessly, but towering over all around, with his undiminished six feet six of mighty bulk unscathed, was my major. I viewed him as one risen from the dead, and welcomed him accordingly. Now the major was not one of your demonstrative men, but there were tears in his eyes, and his voice trembled and his mouth twitched as he said, “For God’s sake, doctor, can’t you get me some whisky for my men ? They ’re all used up. Forty men’s all I can get together of the old forty-ninth.” He almost crushed my hand in his great grasp. I saw that the men had a swallow of whisky, and sent a man to pilot the major to the colonel and the rest. I knew that the sight of him unhurt would be better than whisky to them. The major was not twenty-one yet, and here he was in command of the fragments of his regiment, and the rest of it that lay strewn over “ Slaughter’s Field ” (a singular coincidence that the plain should bear such a name) or about the field hospital had been his neighbors in peace at home, as well as his faithful soldiers there in Louisiana. I don’t know that he did not envy the gallant O’Brien, lieutenant-colonel of the forty-eighth (to whom was given the lead of the forlorn hope, for which the major had offered himself), his quiet rest on the battle-field, disturbed by no heart-ache about defeat and butchery. It was only those who had been found and brought from the field before dark that came into our depot after this; for one might as well have borne burdens through a “ fireslasll ” or a “ windfall ” in the dark as over that battle-field by night. So about midnight the great bulk of the work was done, and most of the surgeons were on the ground in their blankets, exhausted as men are whose every faculty of mind and body has been on the stretch for many hours. Only three of us were still at work, for our brigade had suffered most, and poor fellows who had said nothing about their hurts, while there were so many of greater severity to be attended to, sought us out. So it wore on to two o’clock, when one of my com panions had “the shakes” come on, and had to get into his blanket. Still there was work till gray morning twilight, though I snatched a few minutes to read a letter from home that had been put into my hand just before dark, and to pencil a few lines in reply on the amputating table, by the flare of a candle that had burned down almost to the wood, — it had no “socket.” In the early dawn I crept under the blankets that sheltered the major and adjutant, and in a moment was as sound asleep as they. In an hour and a half I was called to work again, and we were at it till dark, many new cases coming in from the field, those of the previous night needing fresh dressing; and the ambulances were to be loaded under our direction, and started for the river landing nine miles away, where the wounded were transferred to steamboats, which bore them to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In the course of this day we were able to form a pretty clear idea of our losses. The regiment lost seventyfive killed and wounded out of two hundred and thirty-three who went into action. Three of our largest companies were away on detached duty, and we had left a great many behind, sick, in Baton Rouge. It was not nearly as bad as we supposed; but what a skeleton of the regiment that left home ! And there was so much of the flower of it gone with that seventy-five that we knew the best days of the forty-ninth were over.

There was much the same work of dressing wounds and loading ambulances, together with some operating, on the next day; but by noon of the day which followed that, all the sick and wounded who could not soon be fit for duty had been taken from the field hospital, and the work of the surgeons was only to attend to ordinary sick call and the casualties of the siege, till there came another assault; as was the case more than once, before that last barrier gave way and allowed “ the great river to go unvexed to the sea.”

A month later, I received the following letter from our colonel, the late General W. F. Bartlett, written at Baton Rouge about June 20, 1863, to F. W., before Port Hudson: —

MY DEAR DOCTOR, —I am not in very good spirits. The doctors here differ so about my arm, and the question whether or not to take it off, that I don’t know which to believe. The majority are thus inclined: Don’t take it off yet. It looks healthy; the pus is very healthy. Small pieces of bone have come out, three, I think, not any bigger than half a bean. That was a week ago, since which no more pieces have come out, but the suppuration has continued very freely. A day or two since (the 16th) inflammation, which had entirely subsided, appeared on the outside face of the ulna, spreading up toward the elbow three or four inches. Warm fomentations were changed for cold water again. The inflammation still continues on the outside of the joint, but does not extend up the arm so far as it did. The hand is puffed very full with edema (that’s what they call it. I don’t pretend to spell it). The arm is puffed a little, too, at the elbow, and for a short distance above. In a few days, after the inflammation is reduced, they propose to cut open and explore it, and take out the loose spicula of bone. They ask me often “ how thoroughly it was explored at the time on the field, and how much bone you took out,” questions I cannot answer. The examination will decide whether the arm ought to come off or not; if not, by taking out the bones hurry the healing. If I had known it was so bad and was likely to be so long and tedious a wound, I should have had the hand taken off that afternoon, without a thought to the contrary. I should have been about by this time, and ready to start for home. Those messages to Mrs. W. I will deliver with pleasure, my dear doctor, if I get there before you do, which is an open question to my mind.

My appetite (I had none the first week) is vigorous now. Tincture of iron helped do it. The time of my starting for Northern air (which will do me more good than anything else) seems a long way off. In keeping the hand on I run the risk of having to lose it farther up. I still hope to save the hand, though, notwithstanding all the disagreements of the medical faculty. Dr. Van N., medical director here now, Dr. R., once Dr. P., and Dr. T. see my arm. I don’t know the ability of either of them. Dr. B—tt, whom I have confidence in, saw it a week ago, and said, “Try to save it.” Perhaps you and he can give me your opinions on the subject after this untechuical diagnosis. I am very comfortably situated; have everything that I want, good attendants, etc.

I had a letter from home of June 4th, after they had got the news of our first battle. They had received my letters and the scrap in yours, and all the kind things you said. . . .

I wish you were here to take care of me. Remember me to all the officers who ask for me, and believe me sincerely yours, W. F. B., Col.

Any time that you have leisure to send me a few lines, only, will give me much pleasure. W. F. B.

On the back of the folded sheet is written, “ Don’t laugh at this folding. I did it with one hand, you know.”

  1. By the river these distances are four or five times greater.