Difference between revisions of "How Did God Influence the Wounded in the American Civil War?"

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Wounded at Savage Station; the 4th of the Seven Days Battles, 1862.This photograph illustrates the unsanitary and uncomfortable conditions under which wounded soldiers suffered.

“Surely the Almighty’s hand was in this.”[1]This was the immediate thought of Private William McCarter after discovering that the blanket he had used to shield his head contained 47 musket balls. On December 13, 1862, McCarter survived the Battle of Fredericksburg lying prone and bleeding on the battlefield, armed with a blanket and a prayer. After being shot in the upper arm, the private deemed his situation to be hopeless. He proceeded to pray, which at the time was his only means of solace. After praying he “felt more composed in [his] mind and perfectly reconciled to [his] fate”[2] How can a few words to an unproven entity ease a man’s mind and perhaps heal his body? Was the reason for McCarter’s survival supernatural or was it strictly science? Perhaps it was both. A conditioned belief in the power of supernatural intervention is responsible for the scientific explanation of supposed medical miracles. McCarter was far from alone as a miraculous survivor of the bloodiest of all American wars. Although Fredericksburg was a horrific battle, the one seven months hence caused even greater suffering; it occurred on a farm in an obscure Pennsylvania town.

Private William Estee

Order of battle in the Wheatfield. Estee was part of the artillery unit commanded by Captain Charles A. Phillips. Phillips men are located directly ahead of the 3rd Michigan on Wheatfield Road.

The first three days of July, 1863 witnessed the greatest amount of American blood spilled in a single battle. Of the more than 165,000 men who engaged in battle during those three days, over 51,000 became casualties of war. Two men in particular deserve attention for the purposes of this discussion; Union Private William Estee and Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead. At twenty-one years of age, Estee was little more than a boy when he was mustered into the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery on December 3, 1861. Less than two years later he found himself hotly engaged in battle at Gettysburg.[3]

On July 2, 1863 Estee and the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery was caught in the dreadful “battle of the wheat field.” As Estee raised his arms to load a cannon, a Confederate rifle ball “struck him in the abdomen.”[4] He was able to hold pressure on his wound and make his way to the division hospital. The severity of his wound was not immediately apparent. It was not until he was prepared for evacuation to a general hospital in Baltimore that the gravity of his situation was understood. The attendants at the field hospital found Estee lying in the fetal position. When they attempted to lower his legs in order to move him onto the ambulance——which at the time consisted of either a two or four horse buggy——he maintained his rigid hold on his knees and moaned in pain. He had been “unable to eat and perspired profusely and continually.”[5] The orderlies managed to load Estee onto the ambulance and subsequent rail car. He endured the trip from Gettysburg to Baltimore with his grossly distended abdomen bouncing on the wooden floor of a boxcar.

A Zouave unit performing an ambulance evacuation demonstration, March 1864.
When he finally arrived at Jarvis General Hospital he was “feverish and almost delirious”[6]The private had developed peritonitis as a result of his abdominal wound. As defined by the National Institute of Health, peritonitis is the inflammation of the peritoneum, the thin covering encompassing the abdominal cavity. Estee had what is known as secondary peritonitis resulting from a perforation of the bowel due to the gunshot wound. Without the advantage of modern technology, the attending physician diagnosed Estee by virtue of his classic peritonitis symptoms; abdominal pain and distention, loss of appetite, and fever. De Witt C. Peters, the surgeon in charge at Jarvis General, noted in his report that upon examination the “abdomen was tender and tympanic, the knees drawn up, the breathing difficult.” Peters also noted that fecal matter escaped from both the entrance and exit wounds. Upon the introduction of a catheter, he observed the output of “urine and fecal matter.”[7] The doctor was convinced of severe peritonitis and informed Estee that “his wound was mortal and he would soon die.”[8] Estee was wounded on July 2 and received only battlefield first aid before arriving at Jarvis general on July 13, 1863.
  1. William McCarter, My Life in the Irish Brigade:The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry,Kevin E. O'Brien, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1996),200.
  2. McCarter, 180.
  3. Fifth Massachusetts Battery (E), "Original Roster," http://www.fifthmass.org/originalroster.html
  4. Frank R. Freemon, Gangrene and Glory:Medical Care During the American Civil War(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001),109.
  5. Freemon, 112.
  6. Freemon, 114.
  7. United States Army, Surgeon General's Office, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865),Surgical Volume, pt.2, Case 790 (Washington, D.C., 1885), 266-267.
  8. Freemon, 114.
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