Company I, Second Vermont Regiment
Photograph By George Harper Houghton
A Story Of Cloudy Days In A Soldier's Life,
Telling What One of Grant's Boys Saw and Did on
His Way from the Battlefield to the Hospital.
It was on May 5, 1864 that Gen. Grant fought the first battle in the Wilderness. At that time I was a boy soldier in the old Vermont brigade. It is not my purpose at this time to give any details of this great battle or to comment upon the results, but to tell my simple story of what I saw and experienced during my weary journey from the great field of battle to the general hospital at Alexandria, Va.; and in doing so I have no desire to make it appear that I was a hero, or convey the idea that my part of the suffering was any more than that of hundreds of others; but to show to the young that there is a dark day now and then in a soldier's life. We often think of such days but seldom speak of them. I trust you will pardon me if I tell you about a few of the cloudy days in my soldier life. You often wonder why there is such a strong tie of comradeship among old soldiers. It is these very days I am about to speak of which cemented our friendship.
During the afternoon of May 5 I marched into the fight with my company. There were 63 of us, and we were fairly in the storm of battle, within about 150 yards of our foe, before we were aware of it. They were ready for business and received us with a volley of musketry that thinned our ranks in a fearful manner. We had been taught the art of fighting, but how to run at such times was not so easily learned by Vermonters. We held our ground until 35 of our number had fallen, killed or wounded. During this time I had received three wounds---a slight one in the neck, a flesh wound in the right leg and a compound fracture of the left thigh bone. I was compelled to cease firing and attend to the wound from which the blood was running freely. Had it not been for my faithful friend, Sergeant Fred A. Fish, who placed a strap around my leg which stopped the flow of blood, I must have died on the field. Out men soon began to fall back. About this time, as I began to look about me, I saw many a fellow soldier on the ground as helpless as myself. The sergeant stopped long enough to fix me the best he could under the circumstances, speaking words of cheer as he bade me goodby, at the same time saying, "keep a stiff upper lip." My lip quivered like an autumn leaf in the wind, and as I tried to say goodby there was a strange bunch in my throat and I could not speak. The rebels were now within a stone's throw of us, so there was no time for him to stay. Those who have parted with a friend at such a time can imagine my feelings. I now lay between both lines of battle, the firing on both sides being fearful. I was in more danger from the shots of our own men than those of therebels. Oh! the horrors. "Great God," I cried, "save me, a wounded soldier, from being slain by my own friends." The rebels, with a small line of battle, had passed over me. What! a prisoner! Yes, and on the field of battle among the dead and wounded friends who, but an hour before stood with me in the line of battle in the full vigor of manhood, now lay bleeding. The groans, the crys for help and the prayers, may they never pierce the ears of any of the young men of this fair land again. Words cannot tell the agonizing thoughts which pass through one's mind at such a time. It was about an hour before the rebels were compelled to retreat, passing over me the second time. They did not disturb me at all. Just before dark a new line of battle was sent in and formed on nearly the same place that we were driven from. During this time I had seen both sides advance as victors, and also retreat as a beaten foe. The grandest thought to me at this time was that victory was on our side, and that I was once more inside the Union lines.
I was now where my friends could find me, and it was not long before I heard the voice of Corp. F. W. Prior , who came in with others looking after the wounded. If ever a boy was glad to see his friends I was one. They were friends in time of need. As soon as they could go back and procure a detail they returned, and took those of us who were unable to get back without help. Corp. Prior, with his men, took me on a half tent to carry me back to where the block road crosses the plank road. This was the commencement of my journey to the hospital. I was eager to bid adieu to the scenes of the battlefield. Think of four men carrying a man with a broken leg for half or three-quarters of a mile through thick brush, in the dark. The corporal had a short piece of candle which he lit to help on the way, but as soon as the rebels saw the light they began to fire on it. The balls whistled so near us that it made us feel rather uncomfortable, and he was obliged to conceal the light under his coat. They soon had me out on the plank road, where the ambulances were taking the wounded back. There they laid me down and bade me goodby. Yes, it was the last goodby to me from three of those noble, brave, loving friends, for on the 12th of May, at Spottsylvania, in that great whirlpool of death, Elmer G. Holmes, Geo. A. French and Ira D. Clark were all killed in battle.
That woman's tears fell hot.
These are the men who bared their heads
To storm of shell and shot.
For this good land, in the dark days,
That some have not forgot."
During the night I was taken in an ambulance and carried back to the old mining mill. The sun was just rising when I was being laid on the damp ground, without a blanket over or even under me. Hundreds of others about me were no better cared for than myself. In the next ambulance that was being laid down was a young soldier. His sighs and groans were dreadful. His thigh was badly shattered, and his hair and face were all covered with dry blood, for he had a bad wound in his head. I did not know him until I heard his voice. I looked at him and exclaimed, "My God! is that you, Dan Scofield!" one of my own company boys. I tried to cheer him by telling him we were all right, and would soon be taken to a hospital. "Oh! my leg is nothing," he said, "but my head." The next day, all battle-stained and battle-torn, on southern field, that patriot died, and his friends know not his resting place.
During the forenoon I was taken into the surgeon's tent and laid on the amputating table. I had expected to lose one of my legs. If I had ever been brave or shown any nerve, the sight of the large pile of amputated limbs, which lay just outside and in sight, and the thought that I had to give one of my legs to that ghastly heap took the courage all out of me, and I begged them to spare my leg. "We will not take a hair more than we are obiged to, " said the doctor. I took chloroform and they removed the musket ball and some pieces of bone. I was then taken to a large tent, where I remained during the day. That night the tent was taken down. The next day, the 7th, was quite hot, and as I had nothing to shade me from the sun it was very unpleasant. During the day a soldier from one of the other regiments brought me a canteen of water, and then sat down beside me and told me his troubles. "There were three of us, brothers, in one company, he said, "and we all went into the battle together and were all wounded the first day. I received the slightest wound. One of my brothers died last night. I went out and dug his grave and buried him alone. Since then I have been out and buried the foot of my other brother in the same grave."
They were hurrying the wounded back toward Fredericksburg. During the afternoon it became known that all of the wounded could not be moved, so that those who could stand the journey best would be moved first. I was very anxious to undertake the journey, for there was a report that those left behind would be taken prisoners. It was just before dark that an officer rode up to the surgeon in charge and said, "Here are 13 ambulances; do the best you can with them; there is not another empty wagon in the whole army to be had." It was not until the 12th one drove in that my long watched-for chance came. I rode all that night over a very rough road and did not get any sleep or rest. The 8th was Sunday. I find this entry in my diary: "This morning in the ambulance near Piny Creek church: we drive out toward Chancellorsville, then on toward Fredericksburg." The 9th brought us into Fredericksburg about 4 p. m. I had seen the city several times, but never did it look so good to me as at this time. Like most boys, I was now ready for another change, for I had been nearly two days and nights in an ambulance over a road almost impassable, through fields and over ditches. Several times when the train stopped they took men out who had not the strength to endure this dreadful journey. They had answered to the call of death, their torture was at an end. There were hundreds who followed on foot. Many a brave soldier walked the whole distance with an amputated hand, or forearm in a sling. Those having two good legs did not stay behind. The suffering which men endured in those two days will never be told. I was put into a large unfinished brick house in the city. On the morning of the 10th a surgeon with two helpers came into the room to dress the wounds. The worst treatment I received in all of my army service was from the brute that called himself an army surgeon. He appeared to be void of all feeling for humanity, and seemed to delight in torturing wounded men as much as a savage. After the splints had been taken from my leg, and I had been rolled about for his gratification, I was carried across the room on a blanket. When I begged to have the splints put on my leg so as to keep it in place he ordered them thrown out the back side of the house. During the afternoon one of the nurses brought them back to me, and also some bricks, which we placed around my foot and leg. After we got it into shape I realized for the first time that there was virtue in the soft side of a brick.
The night of the 11th was one of great pain. The long hours were passed without sleep, and this day was one of a struggle for life. That evening as Dr. William J. Sawing of the 2d Vermont came through the room from caring for Lieut. John J. Bane of the same regiment, a member of Gen. L. A. Grant's staff, I called him to me and told him my story. It was his kind hands that fixed me up, gave me a quieting powder, and spoke cheerful words to me, and I passed through the night very nicely. God bless him, he has now gone to his reward. He said to me: "This is not my place in this room. I am very tired. I have amputated 100 limbs today." Many were the kind favors and nice things to eat and drink that he sent me by my friend, Peter Mulligan, while I was in the city of Fredericksburg. On the 12th it was decided that five in this room were to have their legs amputated. There was nothing pleasant to those of us who discussed the results that would follow. We did not wish to take a part in any of this business.
On the 13th one of our number was taken up stairs in the morning to have his leg amputated. He was soon brought back without the operation being performed. Tears were in his eyes and he was nearly broken down with grief so that he could not tell what was the trouble, but we soon learned that the doctors thought mortification had set in, and it was useless to do anything more for him. The poor fellow's greatest desire was to write a letter home to his wife and children in Massachusetts, but he was destitute of anything to write with. He was soon provided with writing materials, and he sat up and wrote his farewell message to those who were so dear to him. Those words penned while his eyes were dim with tears, would also bring the tears to other eyes as they were read at home. Tears of sorrow are seen, but the throbs of the aching heart are unknown. We tried to speak words of cheer to him, but our fate was unknown to me, so there was not much cheer in us. It was a solemn time to all who witnessed it, and one that I shall not forget. Very soon two surgeons came in to look after the rest of us. The result of the counsel over me was that there would not be more than one chance in 100 for me if amputation was performed, and as I was young and in good health I might pull through with good care. I took the chance that youth afforded me, and now, 28 years after, I tell my own story. There were others who were crippled for life, and who suffered all but death, still, whatever fate betide us, comrades of the flag are we.
May 14th I had my leg put in a box which was the most comfortable way it had been fixed. The 15th was Sunday and I was feeling quite comfortable. This was God's holy day, but death did not respect the day; nor spare one of our number who had passed through the shock of battle, endured the long and painful journey from the Wilderness, suffered the loss of a foot, patiently waited through the long days and nights of ceaseless pain, when his eyes would catch the sight of home and friends. He had passed beyond the bounds of time.
Not as we have gathered here.
Bound and broken, but the rather --
In eternal youth appear."
The 16th was a day of rejoicing for us all, as the supply train came in, and we received more and better rations. Up to this time our bill of fare had not been very elaborate. The 17th I received a very delightful treat. I was taken from the floor and put on a rough board bunk, and one of the sanitary commission gave me a white shirt in exchange for mine that I had worn ever since I left camp. I think it was the most lively garment that I ever parted with. Our genial friend seemed to take great delight in making the lively exchange. The 18th the weather was quite warm and the flies became more and more troublesome every day, owing to the odor that arose from the wounds, and one was obliged to exercise great care to keep them from his wounds. Many a poor soldier suffered from this cause, not having strength to keep the vermin off.
About this time Gov. Smith arrived with a force of doctors, from the state, to look after and care for the wounded men. One of these noble men from the town of Brighton was assigned to our room. He was a welcome guest, for he had not been over-worked as our army surgeon had been for two weeks, and we now had good care, for our wounds were dressed every day. The 20th our new friend from the state was with us early in the morning with his nurses, ready to dress our wounds. Five of us, with fractured thighs, were there. Our friend who wrote his farewell letter home to his wife and children was with us as chipper as any of us. It was proved by cutting the ball out of his leg that it was the blood settled under the skin and not mortification, as at first supposed.
It was known by measurement that we all had a leg from four to four and one-half inches short, a lap fracture. We were made to understand that it was simply necessary to pull these legs back into shape. How was it to be done? That the doctors had the muscle to do it, some of us doubted. Who would be the first to have a leg pulled? None of us was anxious to show our bravery. I was the youngest, therefore they were all willing to give the boy the first and best chance, to show how much grit he had left. This was the way it was done. My bunk was just the right height, and as I lay under an open window I threw my arms over my head and clasped my fingers under the window will outside. The doctor took hold of my ankle, put his foot firmly against the end of my bunk, and with one strong pull brought the bones together into place. A shock passed through me that caused me to loosen my grip, but the job was done. The pain that shook my whole frame was severe. Could I have given vent to my feelings in sighs and tears it would have been a great relief to me, but my boyish pride would not permit me to do so. I must be a soldier, and it was not manly for a soldier to do either. The other four did not have as good a chance as I did, so they had to be held by two men. The doctor was obliged to pull several times on each of them, before he could get the bones back into place. The operation must have been terribly painful. Our wounds had become very tender, even to the touch, but we nerved ourselves for the occasion, try-to excel each other in courage.
The 21st was a quiet day with us, with a talk that we were to be moved back to Washington to the hospital. The 22d, Sunday, we had a short sermon by one of the chaplains. All the wounded that walk or help themselves in any way had been taken back to the boat. We were anxious get to some general hospital. The 23d was the day we were to be taken to Washington, so we were carried out into the large front yard. I laid there all day and that night, waiting to be taken into an ambulance. They were long hours to wait, but I had been learning patience. I had a new experience that night. My pain was quite severe, and by deceiving the nurse I got my second quieting powder, which came near being my last. I fell into a stupor, perfectly free from pain, with a very silly feeling, without power to smile or even open my eyes. I knew all that was being said and done all night. I was taken out and put into an ambulance. The 24th I laid in the yard all day till dark, and was then taken back into the same house. Most of the wounded had been taken away by this time. Dr. Sawing sent me a feast of good things by my good, faithful friend, Peter Mulligan, and I passed a very comfortable night.
The 25th all day I laid waiting to be moved, and just at night I was taken out and put into an ambulance and taken across th river to Falmouth and placed on a flat car, where I remained till morning. I had been here several times before. Once on a cold night in December 1862, as a wounded soldier, having been wounded on the 13th by a musket ball in the left breast, and a gunshot wound through the left hand, but I was able then to care for myself. Now it took two men to move me. Give a wounded soldier his legs and he will most always take care of himself.
On the morning of the 26th the cars were run up to Aqua Creek, during a very hard shower, so we were soaked through, for we had nothing but a woolen blanket to protect us. At the landing we were put on a steamboat and taken up the Potomac river to the city of Alexandria. During this time in the handling of me my leg had been broken over and was out of place, and as the bones rubbed one against the other, as I was being moved about, it began to tell on what little nerve I had left. Two men took me out of the steamboat on a stretcher and carried me to the Mansion House hospital, and here I received my first bath and a change of clothes, and was placed on a real bed, with feelings that I was at my journey's end. What I experienced during those 21 long days was a lesson to me that man must stand firm in the fight for life with his trust in God in the hour of danger. It takes courage to fight alone, as every good soldier well knows. I have now arrived at my journey's end, and make a halt for rest.
Wearied with marching, watching, pain.
All battle stained and battle torn
Bravely have all our tasks been borne,
We have not fought in vain."
Peter Sewell Chase was born in Jamaica, Vermont on March 25, 1845, enlisted in Weston, and was wounded with a compound fracture to the left thigh at the battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Chase had been wounded before at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Peter Chase served in Co. I, Second Vermont Volunteers.
Private Peter Mulligan enlisted from Burlington on May 7, 1861 with Co. G in the Second Vermont Volunteers. He mustered out on June 29, 1864.
About the middle of July a large abcess formed near the wound. The surgeon thought a piece of loose bone was the trouble, but found a piece of bullet. This he has preserved, so he has three of the bullets that hit him, one in two pieces.
Late in September he was removed to the hospital on what are now the fair grounds in Brattleboro. He had not been on crutches long and the long journey caused the wounded limb to swell to exceptional size. He remained in the hospital here until May 16, 1865, when he received his discharge. His leg was two and one-half inches short and for 14 years there was an open wound in the leg. It finally became so bad that Dr. George F. Gale and Dr. C. A. Gray performed another operation and removed a loose piece of bone. In February, 1902, Dr. C. A. Gray and George E. Greene operated again and removed a fibrous tumor caused by the wound. He says that after all of his pain and trouble he has a leg that serves him well, and he has never seen the day when he wished it had been amputated.
Extract from a considerably longer original article.