I have an on-going series entitled, “Shot in the [blank].” It profiles soldiers from the Army of the Potomac who received gunshot wounds to sundry pieces of their anatomy. In these tales, some of the soldiers died from their gunshot wounds, while others lived. In this particular tale, the soldier in question survived his wound—a direct hit to the right lung—but it never healed properly. In fact, his wound caused him to suffer painfully for another forty-six years.
The soldier who endured this life of perpetual misery was named Samuel Brackett Wing. He was born in the village of Phillips, Maine, on March 8, 1832. Devoutly Christian and always sober, he lived a modest existence as a farmer in Franklin County, northwest of the state capital of Augusta. On August 2, 1857, Wing married Mary Ann Lufkin, and they moved to a farm along the Aroostook River. Their first three children—Vesta, Silas, and Mary—were born in 1858, 1859, and 1862. In the summer of 1863, the Civil War called Wing’s name, literally. In August, the first federal draft went into effect, and Wing was one of the unlucky men whose name was pulled from the draft wheel. Too poor to purchase a substitute or to pay commutation, Wing had only two options: flee to Canada or serve in the Union army. Unwilling to be labelled a coward, he went to nearby Maysville and reported for duty. By August 15, he was duly mustered into service. After taking a steamer from Boston to Alexandria, he and the other drafted men from Maysville joined a veteran regiment, the 3rd Maine Volunteers, at Manassas Junction. Wing was assigned to Company H.
After wintering at Brandy Station, Private Wing and the rest of the 3rd Maine accompanied the Army of the Potomac in its Overland Campaign across Spotsylvania County. Wing survived the grim fighting that befell the 3rd Maine at the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, but he was hit during the May 12 attack against the Mule Shoe Salient. His regiment had been involved in the initial pre-dawn assault, and like many Union soldiers, Wing found himself stuck behind the muddy Confederate entrenchments when that attack stalemated in the afternoon. Wing received his wound at 2 o’clock. It happened when several Union officers shouted for the men to cease firing so that a group of Confederate soldiers could surrender and pass through the lines as prisoners. For a few minutes, the 3rd Maine’s sector of the battlefield fell silent, and Wing got up, trying to move to a different place on the line. Before he could find a better spot to hunker down, the battle erupted again. Bullets whistled past his head, and one caught him in the right arm near the shoulder, just above his armpit. Although he did not know it, the bullet angled downward, zipped into his body cavity between his eighth and ninth ribs, and came to a stop four inches from his spine, two inches beneath his skin.
Initially, Wing felt no pain, as the bullet’s impact caused numbness in his right arm. He did not ask for assistance, but tried to crawl off the field on his hands and knees. However, after creeping for five or ten rods, he began to feel discomfort. Once out of range of enemy small arms, he stood up and began walking. Eventually, two men in the rear decided to assist him to a Union field hospital, quite possibly the Harris, Peyton, or Alsop farms, a half mile distant.
There, at the farm, whichever one it was, the operating surgeons examined Wing’s wound, picking out a few stray pieces of cloth that had been driven into it by the bullet. Worried that the bullet had penetrated him deeply, Wing asked where the projectile had stopped, and they replied, “In the shoulder.” Wing asked them if they intended to extract the ball. One surgeon replied, “No; you have suffered enough for one day.”
This answer satisfied Wing, but only slightly. He had a nagging feeling that the surgeon had misdiagnosed him. Wing worried the bullet had entered his torso, not his arm. As he later explained:
I told him my shoulder felt all right, but that I felt very badly in my chest and lungs. He thought that that must be a sympathetic pain, caused by the nerves running from the shoulder to the side, and that it would be all right in a few days. I have always doubted whether he said what he really thought or said these things in order to keep me from being alarmed.
Whatever the surgeon really thought, he assigned Wing to a tent occupied by a few other wounded men, and there he got some sleep on the straw. The next morning, May 13, 1864, Wing jotted a few notes in his journal: “At the hospital about two miles from the fight. Had a hard night of it. (Rainy.) Had a hard day to-day. Hard for me to breathe.” His shortness of breath alerted him to the impending danger of his wound. Perhaps it was worse than what the surgeon had claimed.
The next day, May 14, Union medical staff packed the wounded onto ambulances for the twelve-mile trek to the general hospital in Fredericksburg. When Wing was asked if he would walk or ride, Wing chose to walk. Later, he believed he had made a wise choice.
Just think of the poor men who had been severely wounded; . . . these poor wounded soldiers were loaded into ambulances and carried from five to fifty miles over just such rough and racking roads, as I have described. It was awful. I was on a piece of corduroy road when an ambulance passed me. It was enough to make one's blood run cold to hear those poor fellows shriek and moan, as they were jolted up and down over those logs. And when the wagon left the corduroy, it would often drop into a mud slough that would almost overturn it. Those were sounds that I will never forget. I could truly say that I thanked the Lord that he had spared me from such a fate and had given me strength enough to creep or crawl, instead of having to ride.
Wing did not remain long at Fredericksburg. He soon boarded a steamship with dozens of other sufferers to be shipped to Mount Pleasant Hospital in Washington, DC, arriving there on May 17. The trip up the Potomac River was anything but pleasant. Wing slept fitfully, and when he awoke one night, “I could hardly tell whether I was dead or alive. My lungs being so inflamed, the heat from the boiler had seemed to strike all through me and stuff me up.” Wing struggled to breathe and he needed a place to stretch out fully. The only place he could find was a section of floor near where the physicians kept their implements. Wing prostrated himself there, and although he heard a number of physicians ask, “What is this man here for?” Wing refused to move.
Bedside manner did not improve at Mount Pleasant, apparently. As Wing’s wound worsened, he began moaning deep into the night. He recalled, “The first night or two the hospital steward awakened me several times telling me that I must not make so much noise as I was disturbing the others. I told him that I would try not to make any noise, but as soon as I fell asleep again I would break my promise.” Finally, during the third week of May, Wing began coughing up bloody mucous. At last, the physicians determined what Wing had already suspected: the bullet had penetrated his lung.
At the end of June, shortly after Wing lost the resolve to keep writing in his diary, the army discharged him and sent him home to recuperate. On July 4, he returned to his hometown of Phillips; however, once there, his misery only deepened. Pieces of clothing and bone worked their way into his lungs and he began coughing them up through his windpipe. In September, he coughed up a sharp piece of bone. One month later, he coughed up a piece of blouse, which had apparently been driven into the lung by the bullet. In March 1865, he coughed up a piece of shirt. In January 1866, he coughed up two more pieces of clothing and a piece of bone nearly one inch long, the largest of the various objects to come out of him. More awfully, Wing suffered from continuous coughing spells, painful spasms that caused his lungs to bleed. Between the summer of 1864 and the winter of 1866 he endured four severe hemorrhages. The last of these left him bed-ridden for a year. Accordingly, he bled about two or three times a day, coughing out blood clots, spitting the gory vomit into a nearby spittoon. He wrote, “In about three weeks I had bled more than it seemed possible for one person to bleed and live.”
The rest of Wing’s working career droned by miserably. He could work only a few months out of any given year. His family sold his farm and they moved to a place near the North Turner Bridge Toll House, where he worked as the postmaster. Eventually, in 1875, Wing had another severe coughing fit which left him bed-ridden for the next six years. Every spell happened the same way. He gained in strength for two or three weeks, but then suffered another coughing attack that set him back to square one. His lack of progress gave him a uniquely cynical perspective on life. He opined, “Some said they did not see why I did not get better, but for my part I could not see why I did not die.”
Amazingly, Wing outlived his wife, Mary, who died of whooping cough in 1892. After another set of hemorrhages kept him bed-ridden for the next two years, Wing sought professional help. He contacted Professor W. C. Strong of Bates College, and on April 16, 1897, Strong performed an X-ray scan on his chest. At the time, X-ray radiology was a fairly new invention—physicians had been using it for only two years—but Wing’s X-ray shocked even the most unflappable practitioners. When Strong and the other observers looked at the image, they saw the shadow of a full-sized Enfield Rifle Ball! Knowing that he might be the only physician to use an X-ray on a Civil War wound, Strong wrote, “That a bullet of such size and weight could be carried for thirty-four years in the delicate tissues of the lungs has been thought by some impossible. Of the fact, however, there can be no longer any doubt. Similar cases must be extremely rare.”
For Wing, this news was more redemptive than joyous. It confirmed what he had long known. He would literally carry a piece of the Civil War with him for the rest of his life. He wrote, “For over thirty-two years of my life I did not know what a sick day was; and now for more than thirty-four years I have not known a fully well day.”
It’s amazing to think that, after being wounded, Wing had to live another thirty-four years just so the proper medical technology could be developed to have his wound properly diagnosed. Even then, nothing could be done to retrieve the bullet. Wing’s wound presented him with just one choice: live miserably or die. He chose the former. Wing lived another thirteen years. He died on November 2, 1910. He was seventy-eight-years-old. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in his hometown of Phillips.
This image of Private Samuel B. Wing, Co. H, 3rd Maine Volunteers, was taken sometime in the winter of 1863-1864.
|Between 1864 and 1866, Wing coughed up these pieces of cloth and bone.|
On April 16, 1897, a Bates College professor took this X-ray of Samuel Wing's chest. The Confederate bullet can be seen clearly.