Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

14
Confederate Medicine Deteriorating

LATE ON 3 JULY 1863 ROBERT E. LEE CONCLUDED that the Army of Northern Virginia would have to retreat from Gettysburg. The cavalry brigade commanded by John D. Imboden had not been engaged with the enemy during the vicious fighting of the past three days. Lee ordered Imboden to load all the Confederate wounded onto wagons and begin an immediate retreat. The Army of Northern Virginia would follow the next day.

Imboden's troops seized every wagon and cart from the surrounding countryside. They lined these vehicles up along the road to Cashtown until they stretched for over seventeen miles. Some of the more seriously wounded . Confederates stayed behind with a few Confederate doctors; one was Simon Baruch. Most of the injured were loaded into the wagons in great haste. Some of the soldiers who had been wounded during Pickett's charge had not even had their wounds dressed. As the retreat began, the column was rocked by crashing thunder and lightning. A downpour drenched the wounded; it seemed to Imboden as though the very windows of heaven had opened. The noise of thunder and moaning drowned out all attempts by officers to issue commands. The teamsters could not control the frightened horses and mules.

The unsprung wagons bounced along the muddy and rutted road, torturing the wounded passengers. The train of wagons limped along in a madhouse of confusion and misery. Over the sound of the rain, the thunder, the creaking of wagons, and the bleating of the terrified animals, the screams of the wounded cut into the heart. Some prayed aloud; others swore incessantly. These phrases were riveted upon the minds of the accompanying cavalry:

“;Stop one minute and take me out, and leave me to die on the roadside.”;

“;Oh God! Why can't I die?”;

“;My God! Have mercy and kill me.”;

“;My poor wife, my dear children! What will become of you?”;1

As the terrible retreat passed through the hamlet of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, local residents came out of their houses to watch the groaning caravan. Young boys pushed sticks through the wagon wheels, ripping out the spokes. Imboden ordered that the next boy who destroyed a wagon would be hung. Some wagons were discarded; their loads of wounded soldiers were left behind in the Fairfield church. Imboden ordered the retreat to continue without rest. He feared enemy pursuit and he had to clear the road for the rest of the army. “;Many of the wounded in the wagons had been without food for 36 hours,”; he said. “;Their torn and bloody clothing, matted and hardened, was rasping the tender, inflamed, and still oozing wounds.”; Imboden summarized this terrible retreat of the maimed: “;During this one night I realized more of the horrors of war than I had in all the two preceding years.”;2

The wagon loads of wounded soldiers were hauled overland to Williamsport, Maryland, where Imboden organized a desperate defense against an attack of Federal cavalry. The wounded were ferried across the Potomac on rafts and carried to Winchester, Virginia, where a support hospital had been set up, us-

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