As my diligent readers know, I have an on-going series called “Shot in the [Blank].” In this series, I examine casualties from the Army of the Potomac, soldiers who were shot in an interesting piece of their anatomy. So far, I’ve written such posts as “Shot in the Brain,” “Shot in the Shoulder,” and “Shot in the Lung.” Today, this series gets grim. This is “Shot in the Eyes,” the story of a Union soldier who lost his sight forever thanks to an unlucky Confederate musket ball. It’s a heart-rending story for several reasons. Not only did the young soldier in question have the glory of sight taken from him, but the wound and his resultant surgery proved especially painful. Finally, everyone who saw the wound gave the wounded man slim odds at survival. Onlookers believed his life could be counted in hours. In short, “Shot in the Eyes” is the story of one of the most depressing wounds of the war.
The ugly wound in question occurred on August 15, 1864, when the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd and 10th Corps landed at Deep Bottom, Virginia, a bend in the James River a few miles south of the New Market Crossroads. Marching through brutally hot weather, the beleaguered Union troops hoped to find a weak point in the Confederate earthworks that protected the east side of Richmond. It was not to be. The ill-coordinated Union attack faltered and the exhausted bluecoats failed to keep up the pressure. After five days of battle, the so-called Second Battle of Deep Bottom ended in a decisive Confederate victory. The two Union corps counted 2,900 losses, including 327 killed.
Among those 2,900 men, the Second Battle of Deep Bottom claimed 18-year-old Private William H. Sallada of Company B, 57th Pennsylvania. A few weeks earlier, Sallada had been detailed to act as orderly, responsible for delivering messages between brigades and for handing out the regimental mail. At 10:30 A.M., as the Union column made its way north from the landing zone, Sallada was riding his horse in an effort to overtake the column of the 10th Corps. When he reached the front of the 10th Corps’ column, he passed Maj. Gen. David Bell Birney (commander of the 10th Corps) and his staff marching north on the Kingsland Road. Sallada remembered, “These were the last Union soldiers I ever saw.” Riding ahead of Birney’s column, Sallada reached the New Market Road, expecting to find the rear of the 2nd Corps. Unfortunately, Sallada found no Union troops. A gap had opened up between the two Union corps as they headed north, the 2nd Corps marching too fast and the 10th Corps marching too slow. Instead of friendly troops, Sallada found only rows of “slashing,” felled trees left behind by the Confederates to hamper the Union advance. Eager to catch up to his regiment which accompanied the 2nd Corps, Sallada maneuvered his horse to find a gap in the Confederate obstructions, and after entering a cluster of trees, he came face-to-face with a Confederate squad.
The Confederates rose up from their hiding spot and volleyed into the teenage orderly. One bullet struck Sallada’s horse in the neck and another ripped off the horn of his saddle. Next, a “giant-like rebel” rose up and called for Sallada to surrender. Knowing that surrender might equal a death sentence at Andersonville, the young orderly chose to make a break for it. He wheeled his injured horse, hoping to gallop back to the 10th Corps lines before the Confederate squad could reload. In that same instant, the Confederate sentry who had called for his surrender raised his gun and fired. A blast of buck and ball shot burst from the barrel, hitting Sallada in the left temple. The ball entered Sallada’s head between his left ear and eye, passed through his skull, and then exploded out the bridge of his nose. The ball shattered both cheeks—the left in three places, the right in two. One of the buckshot hit Sallada’s left eyebrow, mashing it horribly. But worst of all, the ball gorged out Sallada’s right eye, causing instant blindness in that organ. “I was most horribly mangled, . . .” Sallada recalled simply. “My head was completely benumbed, and my clothes were being saturated with blood.”
The shot dismounted Sallada, who fell to the ground with an ungraceful “thump.” Driven by adrenalin, he hopped up on both feet and looked around with his left eye, which still functioned. He could see his horse galloping for the safety of Union lines, the last image he ever beheld. Starting after it, Sallada ran three or four steps, jumping over the embankment at the New Market Road. As he did so, the blood from his wound rushed into his left eye, blinding him totally and permanently. Even without sight, he kept running, trying to reach the Union lines off to the south. He traversed a few additional steps until he slammed against a tree, throwing his arms around it in a bizarre hug, just to keep from falling over.
Now immobilized, Sallada waited for fate to intervene. The Confederates who had shot him reached him first. One of them came over to him, and after a short interview, proceeded to rob Sallada of his personal items. Although it annoyed Sallada that his captors decided to relieve him of his possessions while he was so enfeebled, he rationalized their behavior this way: “With the blood pouring out both sides of my head, to all appearance I could live but a short time; I could not expect any attention from my captors, and in all probability would be left alone in this forest to die.” In a few minutes, the situation changed. A U.S.C.T. brigade from the 10th Corps entered the area and surrounded the squad of Confederates. Sallada was rescued, his captors taken prisoner, his horse recovered, and his possessions returned to him (although Sallada ultimately gave them to the U.S.C.T. soldier who had taken them from the Confederate thief.) Sallada’s head began to swell and he could no longer speak. His final words, before his mouth swelled shut were, “If I could only get into our lines.”
Although none of the 10th Corps troops expected Sallada to live, they put him on a stretcher and carried him to a field hospital near the Deep Bottom landing zone. The day was hot and thousands of troops marched along the Kingsland Road, raising an enormous dust cloud. As Sallada recalled, “It is difficult to imagine a more desolate and melancholy spectacle than my condition presented that day. My features were so disfigured by the rebel shot; they were beginning to swell, and the dust and blood mingling together in a horrible mass, gave me, I know, a revolting appearance.” At the field hospital, Union surgeons paid Sallada little to no attention. They were overloaded with wounded from the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, which had been mauled in an assault near Fussell’s Mill, and they decided that Sallada was not worth the time or the energy to save. The surgeons told him that he had only hours to live and he had best make his peace with God. They assigned a chaplain to him to give him last rites. Unable to speak, Sallada could only sit and listen to the morbid prognosis. In incredible pain and realizing that his right eye had been horribly gouged out, he moaned piteously, hoping that someone might use a pistol to put him out of his misery. When the Union surgeons ordered the wounded men from the battle be loaded onto medical transports, they determined that Sallada should be left to die. “The boy cannot go,” they said firmly. Amazingly, a helpful chaplain violated the orders of the chief surgeon and loaded Sallada onto the steamer State of Maine, and on August 17, he arrived at Carver Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Sallada’s case attracted widespread attention from many of the chief surgeons, for few had ever seen a head and eye wound quite like Sallada’s. Essentially, the Confederate bullet had bored a large tunnel right through Sallada’s face, taking out his cheeks, nose, and eyes. Sallada couldn’t speak, taste, smell, or see, but he could hear. Believing Sallada to be unconscious, many of the surgical staff expressed their opinion freely. “Poor fellow!” exclaimed one. “He is past all help. He is done with his campaigning forever!” Indeed, even the most educated practicioners doubted his chances.
Sallada was assigned to a capable surgeon—a man remembered only as “Dr. Wynants”—who performed the surgery to clean out Sallada’s wound, remove the fragments of bone, and close up the entry and exit wounds. Acutely aware of these proceedings, Sallada recalled the sensation they produced:
The ordeal was keenly painful, for, before the entire operation was concluded, a piece of silk was drawn three times through the wound, each time enlarged to meet the demands of the occasion. My sensations while passing through this treatment were those of unmixed agony. The needle was too short for the purpose for which it was required, making it necessary for the operator to introduce, to a slight extent, his finger into the wound, thus pushing the instrument along its course. Fragments of bones were in this manner disturbed, and the irritation caused in this way was a most torturing experience.
When it became clear that Sallada might, perhaps, recover from his wound, the surgeons began treating him with sedatives. The next few weeks passed by in a delirium. “I lay in a sort of apathy,” Sallada remembered, “or rather in a condition of animal enjoyment, the grave thoughts of death, the judgment scene, and eternity, seemed not to demand any fixed attention. This part of my life comes back to me with a kind of vagueness, like a dream, which, in spite of its general impressiveness, is but half-remembered.”
As Sallada’s wounds improved and he emerged from the fog of the various anesthetics used on him, he became aware of the horrible truth that his eyes were gone and his blindness was permanent. Naturally, the news disheartened him. Later in life, when he penned his account of the distress he felt, this is what he wrote:
Sight was gone forever! Never again was I permitted to look out, as I had been wont to do, on the familiar scenes of nature; never again would I look on the green earth, or the blue sky, glittering with its retinue of sun and stars; never again would I have the unspeakable privilege of looking into the faces of those home relatives who were dearest to me in life.
Sallada’s situation did not get any easier, as he learned that his mother had died at his parent’s home in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Thankfully, Sallada had a dutiful volunteer nurse, Harriet Douglas Whetten (who is frequently quoted by modern historians who study Civil War nurses), who counseled him through the sad news of her death. By January 1865, Sallada was well enough to travel, although he remained in the army until August 1865 when the surgeons considered him fit to be discharged. During his year-long period of recovery, Sallada adapted as most blind people do, learning to hone his other senses to make up for his loss of sight. In so doing, he ended up hearing one of the most famous moments in American history. On April 11, 1865, he stopped by the White House to hear Abraham Lincoln deliver his last public address, a privilege that Sallada treasured until his dying day.
After his discharge, Sallada returned to Pennsylvania and became a retail fruit dealer. He married a woman named F. D. McGinnis and raised three children with her. In the 1870s, he moved to Iowa and got into politics, winning election as Republican member of the city council of Monroe. He died in 1935 at age 89.
There is no doubt that eye wounds stood among the most ghastly of the Civil War. What I find most disturbing about Sallada’s experience was the lack of humanity he received from those around him. Confederate soldiers attempted to rob him, surgeons refused to allow him transportation to a general hospital, practitioners spoke openly about their belief that he had no chance of survival, and others poked and prodded inside his head with no sedative to dull the pain. In plucking out Sallada’s eyes, the Confederate ball that wounded him had plucked out a part of his humanity as well.
Cherish your eyes. We who have sight do not know how lucky we have it.
Cherish your eyes. We who have sight do not know how lucky we have it.
|Private William H. Sallada is seen here, later in life.|