Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

12
“Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”

THE TWO GREATEST ARMIES IN NORTH AMERICA, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, collided at a small Pennsylvania village named Gettysburg. The huge number of casualties staggered both sides. Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate a national cemetery for those who were killed in this bloody engagement. This is not the story of those who were buried in the new cemetery, those whom Lincoln called “these honored dead.” This is the story of those who were wounded. The soldiers wounded at Gettysburg experienced such agony and terror that, by comparison, dying was easy.1

Justus M. Silliman awoke in a daze. He was lying on his back in a grassy field. Slowly his memory returned. He was a private of the 17th Connecticut, assigned to the Union 1 lth Corps. His unit had rushed forward through the town of Gettysburg to reinforce the 1st Corps after its commander had been killed. He had been firing his gun when he felt a curious sensation in his head. Now, he came to himself to discover that he was on the ground, surrounded by soldiers in gray, the enemy.

He closed his eyes and drifted off again for a few minutes. When he again awoke, the rebels were gone. He stood up shakily and walked about aimlessly. Rebel soldiers running past pointed him toward their field hospital. He walked over a mile to find a Confederate surgeon, who examined his head. He had a received a glancing blow from a ball on the side of his head, he was told, but would soon recover. The Southern doctor dressed his wound and gave him water and crackers. Silliman marveled that “those who a short time previous had been hurling death at us, now assisted our wounded. “

Two days later, Silliman and the other captured Union wounded were moved. They were taken in ambulance wagons, which Silliman compared to the wagons used by butchers in Connecticut, to the German Dutch Reformed Church in the town, being used as a hospital for the captured soldiers of the Federal 11 th Corps. Captured Union doctors were present, but they seemed more interested in watching the battle through the church windows than in ministering to the wounded. The church shook as the tremendous bombardment of a hundred cannon roared.2

Along Seminary Ridge, the Confederates formed. A tremendous artillery duel shook the ground and transformed a sunny day into a fog of gunpowder. Everyone realized that the great climax of the battle was about to begin. Brigadier General Lewis Armistead rode along the front of his brigade, giving encouragement to his men. The brigade surgeon, Arthur Barry, asked for orders. “Set up your hospital well, doctor, you will soon have much to do.”3

It was about four P.M. on 3 July when the divisions of Pickett and Pettigrew, including Armistead's Brigade, left the line of trees and marched straight ahead into the meadow. The huge cannonade had so filled the air with concussion waves that now the day seemed eerily silent. As the Confederates marched forward, the smoke slowly lifted. Their hearts sank as they saw a long line of blue on Cemetery Ridge directly ahead of them.

-107-

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