Here’s another installment of my on-going series, “Shot in the [blank],” a series about soldiers from the Army of the Potomac who received gunshot wounds to uncommon pieces of their anatomy. Today, we’re going to explore a neck wound.
Neck wounds are horrifying things. They emit lots of blood, they disable their victims through asphyxiation, and they take away any means of communicating the nature of their injury. In essence, sufferers of neck wounds lose their breath and their voice in one cruel blow.
For our story today, a bizarre quirk of fate happened whereby a soldier’s neck wound saved his life. Had this federal soldier been able to speak normally, he would likely have been killed by his Confederate captor.
The unfortunate soldier in question—the one who received an awful neck wound—was Sergeant Franklin H. Evans, Company E, 121st Pennsylvania. He received his injury on July 1, 1863, just as his regiment commenced combat with Confederate infantry at the south end of McPherson’s Ridge, an acclivity west of Gettysburg. At 2 P.M., Brig. General Abner Perrin’s South Carolina brigade surged against the left end of the Union 1st Corps. This was where the 121st Pennsylvania held the line.
Evans was among the first soldiers o fall. The commanding officer of the 121st Pennsylvania, Major Alexander Biddle, had just given orders to his men, telling them to rise up from the tall grass and volley into the attacking Confederates. Obediently, Evans rose to one knee and cocked his rifle. Before he could pull the trigger, a minié ball struck him in the neck. The ball whizzed through him. It entered one side of his neck and came out the other. Evans recalled the sensation. He wrote, “When the bullet struck me, it jarred my body as a blow on the neck with a fist. I felt it enter my neck but I did not feel it go out, so I thought it was still [in] there.”
Knowing his wound might be dangerous—perhaps even mortal—Evans rose to his feet and started hobbling to the rear, a desperate bid to get out of the danger zone. After traveling only 100 yards, he collapsed, unable to move. He tried calling for help, but to his horror, discovered he could not speak. The shock of the blow and the blood filling his trachea made it impossible to talk. Closing his mouth, he focused on breathing through his nose. In a few minutes, a wounded private from his company—his tent-mate, in fact—came along, holding his mangled arm. Seeing Evans prostrate and bleeding, the soldier—Private Harry Gouldy—urged Evans to endure the pain and “come out of this.” Evans shook his head. Choking and weary, Evans felt his life slipping away. It was an odd sensation. He remembered:
I had difficulty breathing. The affairs of this world seemed to lose their importance. I had a dim thought that mother would be sorry. I ceased to care which way the victory went. My thoughts were concentrated on the hereafter; I wanted to see how it went to die.
Evans fainted. He awoke several hours later, long after the battle had passed over him. It was two hours to sunset, so he must have been unconscious for nearly three hours. Evans first laid eyes on a nearby fence, and concluded rather matter-of-factly that he must be alive. He wrote, “I had never heard that fences were used in Paradise, and as I knew they were used on earth, I concluded that, at any rate, I was not dead yet.” Within a few minutes, a plump fifteen-year-old Confederate straggler came by and asked Evans if he could offer any assistance. Evans begged for water, trading his penknife for a generous swig from the teenager’s canteen. The water stimulated Evans, and it returned his voice, though it remained weak. More importantly, Evans vowed to live on. He wrote, “I had changed my mind about dying.”
After the helpful Confederate straggler passed by, another gray-clad soldier arrived. This one had a mean look on his face. Evans called him “a devil of the Wilkes Booth type, only infinitely worse,” a man who looked “like Mephistopheles in Faust.” According to Evans, the Confederate soldier readied his weapon, eager to execute him at the first sign of provocation.
Hoping to get Evans to say something derogatory against the Confederacy, the “Wilkes Booth”-looking Confederate asked, “Ain’t you ashamed of yourself, coming down here to drive us from our homes?” Under normal circumstances, Evans might have retorted with disdain or sarcasm, pointing out the Confederate soldier’s idiocy. They were in Pennsylvania! But as Evans later explained, had he attempted to answer flippantly, it would have provoked the Confederate to evil mischief. He reflected, it would have “called forth his missing courage to deliver the fatal cut and leave one more [Yankee] to be reported as ‘killed in action;’ when the truth would have been ‘murdered’—murdered by a cowardly, cold-hearted, blood-thirsty villain.”
Evans’s neck wound prevented him from blurting out a hasty rejoinder. He could not answer because he could barely speak. He mumbled, “I don’t know.” Furious that Evans would not take the bait, the Confederate launched into a tirade, demanding an answer to his question. Why had the Yankees invaded his country? Again, Evans replied, “I don’t know; I don’t care to talk politics with a bullet through my throat.” The Confederate snarled, asking Evans if the bullet really was lodged in his neck. Evans nodded. The Confederate soldier kicked him in his cartridge box, boasting how his army had enough bullets to kill all the Yankees, and soon they’d whip the Army of the Potomac permanently. Unable to get Evans to debate with him, the vicious-looking straggler fetched two members from the Confederate ambulance corps, who, in turn, moved Evans to an aide station where the Confederates had collected other wounded prisoners. Evans was relieved to be rid of his captor. Through silence, he remembered, “I had escaped the tiger’s jaws.”
No Confederate medical personnel operated on Evans, even though he insisted the bullet was still inside him. (Only hours later did Evans discover his error. He found an exit wound, proof the bullet had passed clean through.) The next day, July 2, Evans reached a field hospital, although he had to beg a gray-clad staff officer to take him there. (I’m not sure to which farm he journeyed, but I would guess he stayed at the Harman or Bream farms; however, I would not stake money on it.) He slept along a fence, and on July 3, he reported to the surgeon-in-charge. The farmhouse contained six to eight wounded Union soldiers, but the Confederates did not operate on any of them. A sergeant with a shattered ankle even begged to have his leg cut off, but the Confederates ignored him. They were “working like bees,” Evans remembered, “cutting off the limbs of their own wounded.” On July 4, a Confederate provost asked if any of the Union prisoners were able to walk. None of them admitted to it. Frustrated that he could not carry off any more prisoners, the provost vacated the hospital. The next day, the Confederates abandoned the area, leaving the Union wounded behind. As Evans recalled, he felt a “happy sensation” watching the last few Confederates gallop down the Fairfield Road, trailing after their beaten army. In a few hours, he and the other wounded prisoners were safely back in Union lines.
Sergeant Evans survived his neck wound and returned to duty. After recovering in Philadelphia, he acquired a commission as first lieutenant in the 8th U.S.C.T. By war’s end, he had risen to the rank of captain, mustering out with his regiment in November 1865. He died on December 30, 1913, at age seventy. He is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.