Wednesday, April 2, 2014

“I Shall Never Forget My Ambulance Ride.”

The Battle of Cold Harbor subtracted 177 men from the ranks of the 12th New Hampshire. Of those, sixty-three were killed or mortally wounded. The remaining 114 were wounded. Infamously, some of those wounded men were caught between the hostile lines for four days. Not until June 7 did Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant seek a truce so that his men could reclaim the dead and wounded.

Even before the truce became official, Union soldiers traipsed into the hostile no-man’s-land; they knew that time was of the essence. The wounded could not remain untreated for long. The weary New Hampshire bluecoats attempted their forays in the dead of night. Although the fighting had ended, the crunching of leaves always invited fire from Confederate sharpshooters. Asa Bartlett, the regimental historian, remembered:

Here then is such a picture of war as does not often present itself even to the veteran of a hundred battles. Two armies so closely confronting each other that their main lines in some places are scarcely a rifle shot apart, and the exposure of a hand or head, upon either side, is pretty sure to result in a furlough for thirty days or eternity; while upon the narrow space between, in plain sight of both friend and foe, are lying thousands of the dead, wounded, and dying, all stricken down from the ranks of one of the opposing armies, and all unprotected and uncared for. That the wounded were thus allowed to remain in suffering helplessness upon the field day after day, unless sooner rescued by their pitying comrades, was because of such a shameful and criminal negligence as no common words can fully and justly characterize. . . . Thus in silent darkness, for none but whispered words could be spoken, they crept around among the still more silent dead listening, for they could make no call, for some deep sigh or low moan that would tell them where amid the surrounding gloom of night and death they might find one in whose veins the vital fluid still continued to circulate. And when by some such sound or mere accident a comrade at last was found, with whispered caution to make if possible no cry of distress or groan of agony, he was carefully lifted up, a blanket or stretcher put under him, and borne away with noiseless steps to where they would receive all the comfort and care that kind hearts and willing hands could render. And thus the noble work of rescuing suffering humanity went on, not only for that night, but the next and even the third, until all of the living and most of the dead were removed, leaving but comparatively few to be buried, on the field where they fell, under a flag of truce, which was not until just before dark on the 7th, or five days after the battle.

During these nighttime excursions, the survivors of the 12th New Hampshire found two men barely clinging to life, Captain Nathaniel Shackford of Company E and Captain Arthur St. Clair Smith of Company G. Shackford, age thirty-seven, had been wounded three times: a grape shot had clipped three inches of bone out from his elbow, a piece of shell had passed completely through his back, and a bullet had bruised his right hip. Smith, age twenty-three, had been hit five times: three bullets had bruised him and two bullets had penetrated his flesh. And, by the way, these wounds were not the first wounds that either officer had suffered. Shackford had received four wounds in 1863—one at Chancellorsville and three at Gettysburg. Likewise, Smith had received a wound to the arm at Chancellorsville.

(Capt. Nathaniel Shackford, Co. E, 12th N.H. Vols., who was thrice wounded at Cold Harbor.)
(Capt. Arthur St. Clair Smith, Co. G, 12th N.H. Vols., who was wounded five times at Cold Harbor.)
In the middle of the night, the unwounded survivors bore Shackford and Smith off the field by carrying them on stretchers. Near Beulah Church, they loaded the two grievously wounded officers onto an ambulance bound for White House Landing, the location of the nearest field hospital, about ten miles distant. Smith remembered, “I shall never forget my ambulance ride with Captain Shackford.”

(Litter bearers and an ambulance bore Shackford and Smith from the field.)
This remembrance by Smith sounds like a simple line, but I think the words, “never forget” challenge us to consider what this ambulance ride was like. Their horse-drawn wagon bounced over bumpy, dirt-filled roads in the black of night. It could not have been a pleasant experience for a either soldier; both of them nursed multiple wounds. As Smith remembered it, he expected Shackford to die during the journey. Perhaps, then, no words exist to describe the suffering.

(This image by Mathew Brady depicts White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. This image shows what the landing looked like in June 1864.)
The horse-drawn ambulance was not their only conveyance. Shackford’s wounds required his immediate transfer to a general hospital near Washington. On June 10, medical personnel loaded him onto the steamer Connecticut, along with 674 other wounded men. It took twenty-eight hours for the steamer to sail down the Pamunkey, then down the York River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay before finally ascending the Potomac. As a newspaper reporter wrote, “The wounded brought up in the Connecticut were all very severe cases, and it was found necessary to move the boat along at moderate speed, as  the working of the engine went at full speed affected them unfavorably.” Even so, fifteen men died as the ship sailed to its destination: Washington, D.C.

(Here is USS Connecticut, the steamship that transported Capt. Shackford to Washington.)
As for Smith, he remained a few days longer at White House Landing, with 2,000 other wounded men.  He experienced the same awful trip, but later. 

Amazingly, the two men survived their wounds. In fact, both returned to duty that autumn and mustered out with their regiment in 1865. Shackford served as a state prison appraiser, and later, he supervised a hosiery mill.  He died on October 20, 1920. Arthur Smith became a lawyer and served as justice of the peace at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Later, he became a judge, city council member, alderman, and state legislator. He died on December 19, 1895.

Even though they lived long lives, it is safe to say that they never forgot their ride in an “ambulance,” whether it was by stretcher, horse-cart, or steamship.
(Here, you can see Capt. A. St. Clair Smith in December 1864. You can see that he has recovered from his wound and rejoined his regiment.)
(Here is newly-promoted Major Shackford, from the same photograph as the one above.)

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