INCIDENTS OF FIELD HOSPITAL LIFE WITH THE
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.
By Jacob Ebersole, M.D.,
Late Major and Surgeon Nineteenth Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
The military surgeon's place and his work are of necessity removed, as far as possible, from the immediate place of danger and the actual scene of conflict. It is not his to plan the campaign, to lead the charge, or to inspire fainting hearts by deeds of personal valor, but faithfully, skillfully, and untiringly to minister to the sick, to attend to the wounded and comfort the dying. He understands what the soldier's life finally brings to many; the death wound, the burning fever, the wasted body, and the broken constitution. He knows what battle means; the shattered limbs, the moan of pain, the lifelong cripple. Nor is his position devoid of exposure ofttimes to personal danger, to privation, to protracted and exhaustive labors, while he is brought in almost daily contact with scenes and incidents of the most pathetic and touching character. I can only attempt to recall to-night in a familiar way a few of these incidents with the hope that they may be not without interest to you.
I was connected during the civil war with the Iron Brigade, so called from its meritorious actions in various battle-fields. It was composed of the Twenty-fourth Michigan, Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin, and the Nineteenth Indiana regiments, of which latter regiment I was surgeon. It was in the First Army Corps, commanded by the lamented General Reynolds, who fell early in the first day at Gettysburg.
Approaching Gettysburg, our corps was moving in the advance, but passing Gettysburg to the left, it engaged the enemy to the north-west, two or three miles from the town. About 4 o'clock, I was ordered to go into Gettysburg, to take possession of the railroad depot, and establish our hospital therein. This depot was at the north edge of the town.
In the afternoon, the Eleventh Army Corps, under Howard, met the rebels to the north and were fiercely driven back through the city past my hospital. Here my hospital steward, a worthy and faithful man, came hastily to me in great alarm and perturbation, and said, "Shall I go to the front or stay with you." He being an enlisted man greatly feared being taken prisoner and landed in Libby or Andersonville prison. I replied to him, "Do as you think best, but whatever you do, act quickly." He snatched up his hat or coat and hastened below to the street (we were on the second floor). I called to him as he went "to take my horse," as the only way to make his escape. Going to the street window to see what would happen, as my eyes took in the scene, I saw my horse fastened to the fence across the street, with great saddlebags and blankets, all my army treasures strapped upon him. At that moment, just before my steward could reach him, there leaped into the saddle one of our own boys in blue, in full retreat, and both rider and horse disappeared in an instant.
This was just before sunset. Looking from the upper windows of the hospital, I could see our lines being repulsed, and falling back in utter confusion. Our front was entirely broken, the colors trailing in the dust, and our men falling on every side. The enemy were enveloping the town from that side, sweeping past the hospital, and completely filling the streets.
To finish the horse escapade: On the following 5th day of July, when I heard from our lines, I found, to my surprise, my horse, with all my trappings on his back, safely housed with those of our brigade--awaiting my coming. I remained here a fortnight, working day and night, till again ordered to join our army, which was in pursuit of Lee.
I was once before within the rebel lines after the battle Of Chancellorsville, when Hooker was so badly repulsed. About ten days after the battle, I was detailed with a body of nurses to go over the Rapidan to attend our wounded lying in the various rebel field hospitals. At the ford of the Rapidan I was received by the guard and escorted to the barns and farm-houses where our wounded men had been gathered. Here I found all our men who could not be sent to the rebel prison-pens on account of their terrible condition. The scene here presented was one of pity and pathos which no tongue could express.
But where death, and suffering, and despair were dominant, there were still beautiful touches of friendship and sympathy extended by our foes, without dissimulation or hypocrisy. The boys in gray would come to the door of our tent, and, viewing the pitiful scene, would say, in their touching vernacular: "We 'uns pity you 'uns in your defeat and suffering; we hope to meet you 'uns in better times some day."
One of my young nurses--a pleasant and kindly youth--met another boy of a rebel battery situated some two or three miles away on the first day of our arrival. It was a case of friendship at first sight between the lads. He would go with his southern friend, when his work was done, to spend part of the night at his battery. This was repeated several times, and at the time of his last visit the rebel battery being ordered to the front, he was kindly escorted back to his tent in the middle of the night by his rebel companion.
When our work here was finished we were again escorted back to the ford. The only incivility offered to us during our stay was from a rude private who was sternly reproved by the rebel officer in charge of the guard.
In December, 1864, our brigade was in camp and winter quarters near Belleplaine. A fine lot of
supplies was sent us by the United States Sanitary Commission. In sorting the goods there
appeared a nice pair of homemade woolen socks, in the toe of which was a letter. I took the
letter and socks into our adjoining tent, where there lay twenty-seven of our boys in blue who had
suffered amputation either in legs or arms. I selected two men, each of whom had lost a leg
below the knee, and gave each a sock to comfort his remaining foot. They each took a copy of
the letter in pencil as they lay upon their beds of straw. And I read this letter to all in the tent:
Andover, Conn, November 29, 1864.
My Dear Friend and Brother in our Country's Cause:
To your care and keeping I commit these socks, and trust they may never be disgraced by any conduct of their wearer. Loyal fingers fashioned them, and may a patriot's tread, whose every step shall tell aga inst our rebel foes, wear them threadbare (if need be) in crushing this wicked rebellion. In every stitch is knit a prayer for our nation's weal, and the hope that peace may smile upon our land, long ere these be unfit for use. You have gone forth nobly and placed your life an offering at the feet of your beloved country, and may the God of battles be your trust. May His protecting arm shield you from every danger and bring you back to home and friends, there to a good old age to enjoy the fruits of your labors...........
Perhaps these socks may find their way to some hospital, to some weary, weak and home-longing one. If so, know, my dear friend that thousands of hearts are suffering with you, and would gladly come to your relief. Take courage and you shall yet be able to go out and help us gain the victory which must be ours. There are many here who say that our gifts never reach our soldiers; for that reason it would be very gratifying to me to know who may receive my socks, and will it be asking too much that you let me know? Hoping that your heart may be brave and true, and your arm firm and strong,
I am, most truly, your friend,
Ellen M. Sprague,
Could the good lady in her Connecticut home have only seen the glow of happiness and joy that spread over the worn and pallid faces of those men, she would have felt that her prayers were in part answered.
Our companions who have on various occasions spoken to us about this festal board have perhaps deemed it their privilege to bring to our attention some relic, some trophy, by which more vividly to put before us the scenes in which they personally took part. I can not present to your view tonight any such relic, as say an old sword bearing the marks of many a hard fought field, nor unfurl in your presence the historic battle flag tattered and torn, and pierced by a hundred rebel bullets, but you will not deem it out of place or egotistical on my part if I do present a surgeon's trophy, as represented in this picture or tintype which I hold in my hand, and read to you the accompanying letter, showing how even in the field hospital and in the camp, professional. skill and a high degree of proficiency in the surgeon's art were not unknown or unappreciated.
In Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, there was brought to my hospital care Sergeant Alex. Ivey, of the
Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers, terribly wounded in the left leg just below the knee. I took his leg
off at the knee-joint, an operation much more rare then than it has since become with the great
advance in the surgical art during the past thirty years. Sergeant Ivey was removed, with other
wounded, after ten days, to the Chestnut Hill Hospital, Philadelphia, for final treatment. I
received from him afterward this letter:
Chestnut Hill Hospital, Philadelphia, September 20, 1863.
As your amputation of my limb at the knee-joint causes much curiosity among the surgeons here, I thought I would let you know about it. They say it is one of the best amputations they ever saw. And they wonder how it was ever done; and the inspector, who was around this morning, said he was going to write you to know how you did the work. He said it was the prettiest stump that he ever saw. You do not know how I was annoyed the first five days by the Surgeons here coming to see my stump...........
The surgeon in charge told the doctor of this ward to have a picture taken of my stump. So, if they take it, I will have one sent to you, if you wish for it........... I was at Palmer's office yesterday, and measured for a new leg. Palmer says I have such a nice stump for an artificial leg. I will close with thinks to you for your skill in taking off my limb.
From your humble servant,
Sergeant Alexander Ivey,
Company D, Seventh Wisconsin Volunteers.
The operation was not as well known or described thirty years ago as now, though it was known and imperfectly described in the sixteenth century. It is also mentioned by Hippocrates. The first examples of this operation in military surgery are mentioned by Michaelis, who visited the wounded French in Charleston left there by Count d'Estaing after his unsuccessful expedition to Savannah in September, 1779. The perfection and beauty of this stump I attribute to two or three points in the operation--I will not say that they were original with myself. These are, that I made it by lateral flaps--left the patella or knee-cap intact, and removed part of the synovial surfaces of the condyles of the femur.
This wound healed by the first intention, and made one of the most perfect, useful, and
prettystumps imaginable. A record of this and four other operations at the knee joint may be
found in Part Third, "Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion," page 401, No. 20, etc
December 5, 1894.
(Source: Sketches of War History, Ohio MOLLUS, Vol. 4, pages 327 to 333)