Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

THE SMALL ROUND BALL ENTERED THE BACK OF the neck and tore through the brain, blowing pieces of skull into the right orbit. Assistant Surgeon Charles Leale examined the victim. A bloody knife was lying on the floor, so Dr. Leale ripped the collar and shirt from the wounded man, expecting to discover a stab wound. He found none. When he saw blood on the shoul der and an enlarged pupil, he then suspected a brain wound. He ran his fingers around to the back of the neck and palpated the ball's entry wound. Dr. Leale concluded that the wound was mortal and he announced this fact.

Charles S. Taft, another army surgeon, performed a second examination. He noted that the left pupil was small and the right very large; neither reacted to the light of a candle. The right eye was discolored and protruded. Taft agreed with Leale that the patient had no hope for life. The victim was placed upon a bed and a sinapism was applied for its general stimulating effect. A small amount of brandy was placed in the victim's mouth and was swallowed.

Surgeon General Barnes arrived. He decided to search for the ball in the hope of removing it. A long metal probe was introduced into the wound and gently pushed forward. It came in contact with a firm object and Barnes withdrew it. The porcelain tip of the probe was not stained by lead, so Barnes decided that he had encountered a piece of bone, not a bullet. He decided to make no further search for the ball. Blood clots were removed from the wound and the victim breathed a bit more easily.

Just before midnight, the left side of the face twitched vigorously for twenty minutes. The wound continued to discharge blood and brain tissue onto the pillow. As the hours went by, the victim's respirations became loudly labored. His chest rose in amplitude and respirations were deep, then breathing became progressively more shallow and finally stopped. People in the room looked at their watches to note the time of death. But then respiration began again, slowly building in volume until the victim was again gasping. This cycle of rapid respiration alternating with periods of apnea occurred several times. Finally at twenty minutes past seven o'clock on the morning of 15 April 1865, respiration ceased. Surgeon General Barnes pronounced President Abraham Lincoln dead.

The body of the president was taken to the White House. Surgeon General Barnes supervised the post mortem examination, which was carried out by army physicians J. J. Woodward and Edward Curtis. Woodward determined the path of the fatal bullet. It had entered the back of the head, breaking the occipital bone just to the left of the midline. Dr. Woodward described the passage of the ball through the left cerebrum, lodging near the left corpus striatum. The ball was recovered.1

Despite the death of the president, a great parade, the Victory March, was held in Washington. Thousands of Union soldiers marched past the new chief executive, Andrew Johnson. Grant, Sherman, and their victorious troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. Some soldiers became exhausted and dropped out. Ministering to them at a tent erected at the corner of Pennsylvania and I Streets was Mrs.

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