On June 27, 1862, Confederate forces assaulted the Union line at Gaines’s Mill, Virginia. The Army of the Potomac suffered 6,800 losses in this engagement, among them, twenty-two-year-old First Sergeant Jacob Heffelfinger of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. During the battle, a musket ball penetrated Heffelfinger’s right thigh. Unable to retreat, he fell into Confederate hands. His captors carried Heffelfinger to the Sarah Watt house, and there, along with hundreds of other casualties, he suffered in intense heat, receiving little to eat or drink, and enduring the constant torments of rats and maggots. On June 29, Heffelfinger recorded the scene in his journal:
The floors of all the rooms in the house are occupied by the wounded. The porch, the cellar, the ground under the porch and all the out-houses are also occupied, while some are lying under the trees in the yard. The stench arising from the dead bodies in the adjacent fields is sickening. . . . A man was brought in this evening who had lain on the field since the day of the fight; he is in a most pitiable condition. One poor fellow, who lay close by my side last night, in his delirium was calling his mother and his wife Lizzie, to whom he was lately married. He died this morning. The horrors of war more than counterbalance the glory.
The next day, Heffelfinger wrote, “The house is very filthy—the blood on the floor causes a sickening stench. A man in the room next to me is shot through the lower jaw, the wound in itself is not serious, but it is so situated that he cannot take any food or drink whatever. The poor fellow will die of starvation.”
This is a reconstruction of the Watt House, the principal landmark of the Union left flank at Gaines's Mill.
By July 6, Heffelfinger began to grow delirious, but did not yet lose grip with reality. He wrote, “While lying here in this filthy hospital, I have visited my home, in imagination, sat in social intercourse with my nearest and dearest friends, who I know, are deeply anxious about my welfare. I have followed them to the house of God, where they now have the privilege of mingling their voices in prayer and praise. . . . It requires great effort to let one’s thoughts run in this vein, and yet possess a contented spirit. The man shot through the mouth, died last night of starvation. He lived more than eight days without a drop of nourishment.”
Heffelfinger’s journal continued with such awful stories for several weeks. Eventually, his captors sent him down the James River, returning him to Union lines, but he did not recover until the autumn. For him, the greatest depth of Hell was the unlikeliest place, the Sarah Watt farmyard. With no medical attention and other wounded men dying around him daily, Heffelfinger relied on keeping his mind away from the pain and misery. He possessed the “contented spirit,” the only hope for life when the body fails.
Jacob Heffelfinger of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, served as First Sergeant of Company H, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. This image depicts him a little later in the war, wearing the rank of second lieutenant.