The Green Mountain Boys
in the Wilderness
Their Bloodiest Day
by Tom Ledoux
(Originally written to fulfill a requirement for Dr. Barry Shollenberger's class on "Civil War Medicine," Graduate Program, American Military University, August 2000.)
Answering Father Abraham's call, more than 34,000 Green Mountain Boys left their farms and villages in Vermont and went off to war. They served in infantry, cavalry and artillery units from their native State, in the U. S. Army and Navy, and in units from other states. Vermonters also served in a variety of civilian capacities. Most of them served in volunteer infantry units, and those units bore the brunt of the fighting throughout the war. Many of them did not come home; many of those that did were physically scarred for life.
In 1892, Vermont Adjutant General James Peck indicated that 5,237 Green Mountain Boys died during the Civil War; 1,832 were killed or mortally wounded in action and 3,405 died of disease. Anyone with any interest in the Civil War can tell you that the battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in the history of American warfare, but the bloodiest day for Vermont was the first day of the battle of the Wilderness, 5 May 1864.1
The Battle and the Casualties
Henry H. Houghton, Company K, 3rd Vermont Infantry, survived the first day of the Wilderness, but some of his comrades were not so lucky; "[o]ne man on my left fell dead, and a bullet went so near the face of the man in my rear that it took an eye out." There were hundreds more similar incidents the first day. Vermont units suffered a total of 1041 casualties on that day; 297 were killed or mortally wounded in action, 721 were wounded and 23 were taken prisoners. Table 1 breaks down these figures by regiment. The 297 killed or mortally wounded that day account for more then 16 percent of the combat deaths suffered by Vermonters during the entire war!2
In anticipation of a large casualty list, Surgeon Thomas A. McParlin, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, placed division hospitals on a slope of open ground by a small creek which crosses the Fredericksburg pike one mile east of Old Wilderness tavern. Water for the hospitals was obtained from excellent springs in the vicinity. Tents were pitched and kitchens prepared, surgeons and attendants were at their posts, and everything was in readiness for the reception of the wounded an hour before the cases began to arrive . . . About one thousand wounded were brought in during the day.3
Case studies of 45 identifiable Vermont soldiers wounded on that first day of the Battle of the Wilderness were included in the Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War. A study of these cases provides interesting insights into several medical topics, including the type, variety and severity of wounds, locations where treatment occurred, the final disposition of patients, the number and types of surgeons involved in their treatment. This study will quantify some of these items, hopefully providing greater insight into the medical care received by Vermonters at this period in the war.4
Although only 45 cases were published in the Medical and Surgical History, they actually turn out to be fairly representative. If taken by rank, there was one each, Colonel, Captain, Lieutenant and Sergeant; five Corporals and 36 Privates. Viewed from the perspective of the units engaged, and how significantly engaged, all of the case studies are from the 2nd through 6th Vermont Infantry, which had the most men engaged on that day. Vermonters from the 1st U.S. Sharp Shooters only represented one company and the 10th Vermont was not significantly engaged. Table 2 shows a comparison of the sampling with actual casualties. Only in age do the cases differ, but even then only slightly. Of the 6,523 soldiers who served in these regiments, the youngest was 115, the oldest 52, and the median age was 24.27. Among the case studies, the youngest was 17, the oldest 50, and the median 27.6
Of the 45 cases listed, 44 (over 98%) were injuries sustained by gunshot wounds. This is slightly above the average of 96% of wounds throughout the war. The lone exception was the victim of grapeshot.7 The types of injuries incurred by these 45 soldiers included: abdomen (1 case), elbow (3), face (1), femur (9), forearm (2), genital area (3), humerus (12), peritoneal region (1), knee (1), leg (7), lung (1), scalp (2), shoulder (1) and thigh (2). Table 3 summarizes these cases.8
A somewhat detailed account of the aftermath of the battle, from a medical perspective, can be found in the letters of Assistant Surgeon Melvin John Hyde, of the 2nd Vermont. Dr. Hyde, of Alburgh, Vermont, received commission No. 1383 from Vermont Governor Fairbanks, assigning him as Assistant Surgeon in the 2nd Vermont Volunteers on 12 September 1862. He was promoted to full Surgeon 1 August 1864 following the resignation of Surgeon, William J. Sawin.9
Hyde succinctly summed up the tragedy of the battle in a letter to his 19-year-old step-daughter Alice Lamira Holcomb, on 18 May 1864 from Fredericksburg:
We left camp on the morning I told you we should in my last letter - it was on the 4th inst. And on the 5th we had a terrible battle - Our Col. Stone of my Reg was shot dead and our Lieut. Col. Tyler was shot through the thigh - and nearly all the Captains and Lieutenants of our Reg't were killed, mortally wounded or very severely wounded.10
Newton Stone, age 26, had just been appointed Colonel of the regiment the previous month. John S. Tyler, who was promoted to Colonel of the regiment on 6 May to replace Stone, died of his wounds on 23 May. Hyde's estimate of the casualties among the field-grade officers was close: 1 Captain was killed in action, 17 Captains and Lieutenants were wounded.11
In the same letter, Dr. Hyde's description of the division hospital gives some indication of the problems facing the medical service during the battle. He started the battle with his regiment,
[T]hen I was ordered back to the field Division hospital where I had to operate all that day and nearly all night - We put up 30 large hospital tents, which were crowded with wounded while 1500 men lay on the ground around uttering the most heart-rending cries of agony - We numbered but 5 or 6 surgeons and it took us about 3 days to attend to them and then many had to be moved in army waggons (sic) and ambulances without having their wounds dressed at all!12
Dr. Hyde also provides an excellent picture of the situation several days after the battle:
The third night we left this place and moved on about 9 miles and established our hospital on the 'Old Chancelorville' (sic) battle ground called Cherry Grove, 3 miles from Chancelorville - we staid here one day and a night with over 200 wounded on our hands and Dr. Allen the Divis. Director detailed me to furnish food and shelter for the wounded of the whole Division besides having to perform many operations - In the night all our wounded but 300 were sent on to Fredericksburg and all the surgeons went on with them but I refused to go declaring that I would never leave 300 wounded men behind without food or medical aid, to perish, for there were many Vermonters among them - I accordingly remained and rode all night around the field to keep straggling horsemen from trampling on the wounded who lay all over the field without shelter or even a blanket.13
The situation was so desperate at one point that Dr. Hyde had to beg for food, noting "Gen. Grant14 of our Brigade passed in the rear of the 6th Corps and I beged (sic) a beef of him which I butchered and kept the men alive 4 days on beef tea."15
Given the frantic situation Dr. Hyde found himself in on a number of occasions, it is a wonder anyone survived. But some of them managed to survive; five returned to duty and only nine died while still in service. Of the thirty-one remaining, who were all discharged, one died within a month.
Causes of Death
Details of the nine who died show a variety of causes, including chronic diarrhea, erysipelas, exhaustion, fever, peritonitis and pyaemia, most as a result of, or complications from an amputation.
Private Henry A. Amidon, Co. K, 4th Vermont, age 24, received a gunshot wound in the lung. The wound was hermetically sealed, but he died at the field hospital on 20 May.
Private Erasmus Doyle, Co. F, 3rd Vermont, age 28, died 17 May of exhaustion after an intermediate amputation in the lower third of the femur of his right leg.16
Corporal Jasper A. Fales, Co. K, 3rd Vermont, age 24, died 6 July of exhaustion after a primary amputation in the upper third of the shaft of the humerus of his right leg.17
Private George E. Fulton, Co. C, 4th Vermont, age 26, died 6 February 1865 of chronic diarrhea after an intermediate amputation in the upper third of the shaft of the humerus in his left leg.18
Private Martin E. Grover, Co. I, 2nd VT, age 28, died 19 June from his wound and fever, after a primary amputation in the middle third of the shaft of the humerus in his left leg.19
Captain Alonzo R. Hurlbut, Co. A, 5th Vermont, age 27, died 9 June of pyaemia after an intermediate amputation of the upper third of his left leg.20
Private Robert Maine/Mayne, Co. K, 6th Vermont, age 22, died 2 June of erysipelas after an intermediate amputation of the middle third of his right leg.21
Private Maxim Morain, Co. F, 3rd Vermont, age 28, died 24 June of pyaemia, after an intermediate amputation of the lower third of the shaft of his right humerus. Surgeons had also amputated a finger on 6 May, and he suffered from erysipelas.22
Private Willard Whipple, Co. I, 3rd Vermont, age 44, died of peritonitis 16 May 1864 after suffering a "penetration of the peritoneal cavity without injury to the viscera."23
A variety of doctors were involved in the 45 case studies, including regimental surgeons and assistant surgeons, U.S. Volunteer Surgeons, U.S. Army Surgeons and contract (civilian) surgeons. In reality, the number of attending surgeons was probably significantly higher, but the case studies do show significant dispersion among the variety of medical men available.
It would stand to reason that Vermont Volunteer Surgeons would be involved. First Vermont Brigade surgeons noted in these case studies included Melvin J. Hyde and William J. Sawin of the 2nd Vermont, David M. Goodwin, of the 3rd Vermont, Alwyn H. Chesmore of the 5th Vermont and Edward M. Curtis of the 6th Vermont. Henry Janes, a U.S. Volunteer Surgeon was also noted. Dr. Janes, a Vermonter, had originally been Surgeon of the 3rd Vermont Infantry; after promotion to U. S. Volunteers, he had been in charge of all hospitals in the Gettysburg area after that battle, and was, relative to Case #17, Surgeon in charge of the long-term Sloan Hospital in Montpelier, Vermont.24
Surgeons from other states' units listed as treating or operating on the 45 Vermont soldiers included W. A. Barry of the 98th Pennsylvania, Nathan Hayward of the 20th Massachusetts, H. F. Lyster of the 5th Michigan, D. W. Maull of the 1st Delaware, and George T. Stevens of the 77th New York. A. Ingram and C. Page, U.S. Army Surgeons were also noted. Other U.S. Volunteer surgeons included Z. E. Bliss and A. Delaney.
In addition, a number of contract surgeons, listed as Acting Assistant Surgeons, were also involved in the treatment of these patients, including: H. A. Armstrong, F. G. Bradford, A. N. Brockway, S. N. Goss, O. A. Judson, J. M. McCalla and R. E. Price.
Many of these surgeons were probably experienced in military medicine by now. At least Surgeons Hayward and Stevens had worked under Dr. Janes at Gettysburg after that battle.25
In late October 1862, the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, Surgeon Jonathan Letterman, set up a system of division hospitals, which proved to be quite effective.26 After the initial serious fighting in early May 1864, the then Medical Director McParlin, had established a "depot" hospital in Fredericksburg to handle the significant increase in casualties, however, "the number of ambulances had been reduced; the supply train had been cut … even the number of doctors proved insufficient" for the task at hand.27 Prior to the establishment of the depot hospital, Surgeon Melvin Hyde commented that "Fredericksburgh is one vast Hospital - every Public building, five churches and every private house is filled with wounded," but warned his step-daughter not to "let any of the boys that are going to enlist know of the horrors in this letter for it will discourage them."28
Six of the case studies provided enough detail to track the hospitals where the soldiers were treated, from the field, to division hospitals near the battlefield, to the hospitals in Frederick, back to the General Hospitals in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, and on occasion to long-term care hospitals in Brattleboro, Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont.
Private George A. Arnold, Co. G, 2d Vermont, age 21, suffered a scalp wound in the right parietal region. He was admitted to the Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., moved to Mower Hospital, in Philadelphia on 15 May and subsequently returned to duty 26 July 1864.29
First Lieutenant Edward W. Carter, Co. G, 4th Vermont, age 33, suffered a gunshot wound in the abdominal wall. After being moved 11(!) times from where he was wounded, according to Dr. George F. Stevens, Surgeon of the 77th New York, he was finally admitted to Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C., on 25 May. He was furloughed on 13 June, readmitted on 6 August, transferred to the Volunteer Officers' Hospital on 10 August and was returned to duty two days later, but resigned due to poor health on 14 September.30
Private Alfred F. Douglas, Co. I, 6th Vermont, age 19, received a wound of the right side of the scalp. He was transfered to Finley Hospital in Washington, D.C., on 11 May, Smith Hospital at Brattleboro on 11 August, and ultimately Baxter Hospital at Burlington on 11 September, returning to duty 21 November 1864.31
Private William D. Gilbert, Co. C, 6th Vermont, age 50, was wounded in the right thigh. He was transferred from the battlefield by ambulance to Mansion House Hospital in Fredericksburg on 6 May. Two weeks later he was transferred by rail and boat to Sickles Hospital in Alexandria. On 17 March 1865, he was transferred to Sloan Hospital, Montpelier, and discharged from that location on 12 December 1865.32
Private John L. Hosford, Co. H, 4th Vermont, age 21, was wounded by "a musket ball which entered his right leg, striking the tibia above the malleolus and lodging." He was treated at the Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore, where he arrived on 21 May 1864 and eventually discharged on 20 March 1865.33
Corporal Alden S. Slack, Co. I, 3rd Vermont, age 26, suffered a fracture of his frontal bone, with loss of right eye, and fracture of his right leg. From the field, he was transferred to an undetermined Baltimore hospital, and later Brattleboro and Montpelier hospitals, and subsequently discharged on 12 June 1865.34
In what was probably his last act relative to the casualties of 5 May 1864, Dr. Hyde responded to an inquiry, possibly originating from a soldier's family. Although not one of the case studies we have reviewed here, this incident brings some finality to that bloody day, but also leaves some questions unanswered. On 27 September 1864, John Bowne, Superintendent of the Hospital Directory, U.S. Sanitary Commission, Washington, sent a form letter to the Surgeon of the 2nd Vermont, inquiring about the status of Solomon Mattison, Company A, who had not been heard from since May. Dr. Hyde replied that Solomon Mattison had died at Fredericksburg on 11 May "from the effects of gun shot wounds received on the 5th of May in the 'Wilderness.'" Mr. Bowne was referred to J. W. Sherry, Hospital Steward of the 2nd Vermont, and Dr. William J. Sawin, the regiment's former Surgeon, both of whom had mustered out and gone home. Of the original 866 who enlisted, only 315 remained, and barely more than half decided to re-enlist. Sawin and Sherry were not among the 163 Second Vermont soldiers who re-enlisted on 29 June 1864. They had seen enough in the previous two months to last them a lifetime.35
Table 1: Vermont Casualties on 5 May 1864
1st S.S., Co. F
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Table 2: Comparison of Sampling Versus Actual Vermont Casualties from 5 May 1864
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Table 3: Summary of Cases included in this Study.
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1. Theodore Peck, Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers and Lists of Vermonters Who Served in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1866, (Montpelier, Vt.: Press of the Watchman Publishing Co., 1892) vi.
2. Henry H. Houghton, Recollections of the War: A Personal Account of the Civil War,typescript of manuscript, original held by Walter E. Houghton, Shelburne, Vermont. Published, with permission, on Vermont in the Civil War.
3. Robert E. Denney, Civil War Medicine: Care & Comfort of the Wounded, (New York, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1994) 274.
4. James R. Robertson, editor, Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, (Wilmington N.C.: Broadfoot Publishing Company. 1991), hereinafter referred to as Med/Surg.
5. The 11-year-old was a drummer; actually only 14 of the 6,523 First Brigade soldiers were officially under 17, which was the youngest significant age represented in the brigade. See 1892 Revised Roster, passim.
6. Med/Surg. Passim, 1892 Revised Roster.
7. See Case #22, Table 3.
8. Total of 46 injuries; Case #34 sustained injuries to his arm and thigh.
9. Geraldine F. Chittick, In The Field: Doctor Melvin John Hyde, Surgeon, 2nd Vermont Volunteers, (Newport, Vt.: Vermont Civil War Enterprises, 1999) 249, 1892 Revised Roster.
10. Chittick 83.
11. 1892 Revised Roster.
12. Chittick 83.
14. Reference to "the other Grant," Vermonts' Lewis Addison Grant.
15. Chittick 83.
16. Med/Surg. xi 298, 1892 Revised Roster.
17. Med/Surg. x 719/xi 259, 1892 Revised Roster.
18. Med/Surg. x 760, 863, 1892 Revised Roster.
19. Med/Surg. x 737, 1892 Revised Roster.
20. Med/Surg. xii 518, 1892 Revised Roster.
21. Med/Surg. xii 527, 1892 Revised Roster.
22. Med/Surg. x 773, 1892 Revised Roster.
23. Med/Surg. ix 35, 1892 Revised Roster.
24. Beller 13-14, 1892 Revised Roster
25. Gregory A. Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1-November 20, 1863, (Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 1988) 180, 184.
26. George Washington Adams, Doctors In Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University, 1952) 88.
27. Ibid. 99.
29. Med/Surg. vii 81, 1892 Revised Roster.
30. Med/Surg. xi 94, 183, 1892 Revised Roster.
31. Med/Surg. vii 113, 1892 Revised Roster.
32. Med/Surg. xi 187-8, 1892 Revised Roster.
33. Med/Surg. xii 431, 1892 Revised Roster.
34. Med/Surg. viii 341, 1892 Revised Roster.
35. Chittick 270, 1892 Revised Roster.