Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shot in the Brain

Occasionally, I have been known to watch the HBO series, Band of Brothers. In the final episode, there is a scene where one of the characters, Sergeant Charles E. Grant, gets shot in the head. The scene is based on real life events. In July 1945, during the U.S. occupation of Germany, Grant took a bullet to the brain (shot by a drunken GI from the same regiment). Amazingly, the men in his company found a brain surgeon in Saalfelden who performed an operation that saved Grant’s life. Grant lived on for thirty-nine more years, mostly recovered, excepting a minor speech problem and a paralyzed arm. It interests me that even though Grant took a bullet to the brain, his comrades held out hope that he might survive such a grievous wound.

Did Civil War soldiers hold onto similar hope when they dealt with brain injuries? I have an example that offers us an answer.

On June 4, 1864, while the Army of the Potomac sat deadlocked at Cold Harbor, a Union officer elected to deal with a troublesome Confederate sharpshooter. This was Lieutenant Aaron K. Blake, Company A, 13th New Hampshire, whose company occupied the forward rifle pits. Blake grabbed a rifle and darted forward, hoping to spy his adversary. Sure enough, after some careful observation, Blake caught sight of a Confederate rifleman and took a shot. He brought down his target, but lingered too long in observing his handiwork. A rifle crack followed, and a bullet whizzed in. Another Confederate sharpshooter—who had gone unseen by Blake—had taken a shot at him. The projectile struck Blake in the head, breaking open the top part of his skull. The bullet came to rest inside his brain, and he slumped over, unconscious.

Several soldiers from Company A rushed to Blake’s side and dragged him out of harm’s way. They tried to revive him, but it was no use. Blake just sat there, breathing, sometimes reacting to noise, but never coming out of his coma. Private William B. Luey, a soldier attached to the 13th New Hampshire, recounted the awful incident in his diary:

Aaron K. Blake, of [Company] A, is shot through the upper part of his head to-day, a rebel bullet entering and exposing the brain. He is laid near the Pine at first, close to the north side of it, and breathes almost all day. He is utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched—every effort being made to revive him—and can suffer no possible pain; yet he is strangely nervous, breathing more quickly when a shell strikes the tree, or near him, or the noise of the firing increases. Later in the day he is moved to the covert way, a few feet to the south of the Pine, where about 5 p.m. he quietly ceases to breathe; and dies without showing any sign of consciousness or of suffering from the time when he was struck.

When Lieutenant Blake suffered his death wound, the men of Company A summoned his cousin, Private George P. Blake of Company F. Private Blake had the unenviable task of writing to his aunt and uncle (Lieutenant Blake’s parents) and giving them the particulars of their son’s death:

June 19, 1864

Dear Uncle & Aunt

I wrote to father the sad news of Aarons death, the particulars of which I could not at the time enumerate. His company and regiment were in the advance holding a line of rifle pits in close proximity to the enemy. Watching carefully the doings of the enemy, he advanced bravely to the line and having seen that there was a sharpshooter whose unerring eye had picked off many of our boys, brought his rifle to bear on him and fired. After firing he remain[ed] to[o] long to watch the effect and another sharpshooter fire[d] his rifle, the fatal bullet of which caused the death of one of our countrys bravest sons, who through all the privations of a soldiers life was never heard to grumble and whose sense of duty was highly commendable.

He was much liked in his company both as an officer and as a companion, always endeavoring to cheer the hearts of those who were weary of a soldier’s life and had forgotten their duty to their country. His fate has been like that of many others in winning for the 13th N. H. Regt. laurels which it will ever be proud of, and a name as unperishable as has ever been gained since this cruel war commenced. He was noted for cleanliness, never being seen in a filthy condition, even when under great adversities. His place in the ranks has been but very seldom vacant. In fact he was a perfect soldier, being admired by both officers and men. It hardly seems possible to me that he is dead, for whenever I visited the regiment, he was sure to call me, and whenever I had any news from home he took great delight in telling me of it.

His effect[s] were taking care of a part of which I have in my own possession and will send to you at the first opportunity. Lt. [Charles B.] Gafney has his watch and one or two other trinkets which he will send you. He was buried near Coal Harbor by the side of many of his regiment and a slab was erected to denote his final resting place.

The loss of him is I am well aware a very severe blow to the heart of his parents and the fact of his being so watchful to promote your ever[y] interest seems to hold his memory more dear. He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first. George G. Ricker watched by him until he was dead and then marked his place of burial. George Ricker is reported killed. Your affliction is I am well aware more grievous than I can imagine and you have my heartfelt sympathies in enabling you to be up against this dire misfortune. But he is dead and his grave which is all that is left remains for future generations to look upon as altar upon which was slain one whose many bright hopes are blasted and who is I trust in that place of rest where wars and rumours of wars can never disturb his holy slumbers. My love to all and may the Almighty in his infinite goodness enable you to bear with Christian fortitude your affliction and assist you in this time of earthly woe.

Adiew and may God Bless You

Your Nephew,

Geo. P. Blake

Some Civil War soldiers survived their head wounds. A brain injury was not necessarily a death sentence, as battlefield neuroscience had taken great strides in recent years. However, a wound to the head more often led to death than not. Wounds to the head and neck comprised 42% of all battlefield fatalities. Of all non-fatal battlefield wounds, gunshots to the head and neck constituted only 10%. Thus, the story of Lieutenant Blake provides us with the general experience. Further, it tells us how Civil War soldiers felt when they saw one of their friends wounded in this manner. As both George Blake’s and William Luey’s accounts make clear, comrades felt utterly helpless when they saw Lieutenant Blake unconscious with a bullet to his brain. Luey wrote that he was “utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched.” His cousin wrote, “He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first.”

Once hit, no one held out hope that his head could be repaired. I can only imagine what that sense of helplessness must have felt like.

I could have chosen any number of images of ghastly Civil War head wounds to go here, but I decided to show an image that represented the area of the incident, not what the wound looked like. This sketch depicts the entrenched Union position after the fighting at Cold Harbor had subsided.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

“This is Not the Way We Bury Folks at Home”: Killed in the West Woods, Part 3.

This is the third and final part of my three-part series. It describes the death and burial of the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts, in particular, Private Henry W. Ainsworth, a twenty-five-year-old clerk from Millbury, Massachusetts. To one soldier, Ainsworth’s burial was unforgettable.

Of all the units that suffered with Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division in the West Woods, the 15th Massachusetts endured the heaviest losses. When the regiment emerged from the fighting, it counted up a loss of 318 officers and men (out of 582), the highest numeric loss of any unit that served in the division. Similar to the other regiments in the division, the 15th Massachusetts had to leave most of its dead on the field. Further, the regiment could not recover its wounded men, who, lacking proper medical attention, soon died. As the survivors huddled around their campfires just west of Antietam Creek, they wondered what had become of their friends. Were they among the nerveless dead, or were they still alive—and suffering—trapped in the no-man’s-land between the lines?

Such ominous thoughts troubled the mind of Private Roland Bowen, Company B, who went strolling through the camp to see if his friend, Private Henry W. Ainsworth, had survived the fighting. On the night of September 17, Bowen journeyed to the bivouac of Company H and began asking around, but, as he wrote, “all any one knew of him was that when we had the order to fall back he was not hurt but started back with the rest.” Figuring that Ainsworth had merely gotten lost during the retreat, Bowen held out hope that his friend would make his appearance by morning.

However, by the evening of September 18, Ainsworth had still not appeared. Bowen grew worried. “Now the question arose,” he wrote, “is he Killed, is he Wounded, or is he Lost?” The possibilities tumbled over and over in Bowen’s mind. Writing down his thoughts, Bowen explained: “Ah, it can’t be the latter for he would have come back before now. My only hope was that he might be wounded. I could not believe he was Dead. Yet in order to believe that, I must know it.”

Soon, Bowen did know it, but the bad news arrived much later than he wanted. It came at 10 o’clock, September 19. A portion of the 15th Massachusetts’ burial party returned to camp, informing Bowen that they had found Ainsworth lying among some rocks, dead. The burial party explained that Ainsworth had been dead only a few hours when they found him, and they deduced this because Ainsworth’s body had barely decomposed. The announcement hit Bowen like a thunderclap; he did not want to believe that Ainsworth had been alive the entire time, lying alone in the woods, passing away in agony two days after the battle. Indeed, when Bowen wrote to Ainsworth’s father, Elam, telling him about the discovery of his son’s corpse, he discredited the burial party’s theory. Henry Ainsworth could not have been dead for only a short while, Bowen explained, citing several far-fetched reasons for his belief. Bowen wanted to believe that Ainsworth had died within twenty-four hours of the engagement.

In any event, Bowen rushed to the Locher cabin, where the burial party of the 15th Massachusetts had completed its work. Bowen accosted the leader of the burial detail, Lieutenant Samuel J. Fletcher, asking to see Ainsworth’s corpse and to receive permission to bury it separately. Fletcher replied that it could not be done, as he had just covered the corpses with dirt. Bowen took a long look at the gravesite and the scene filled him with disgust. In writing to Elam Ainsworth, Bowen described what he saw:

Perhaps you don’t know how we bury the dead. Let me tell you about this particular trench and it will suffice for the whole. The trench in w[h]ich Henry is buried is situated near a log cabin just out side the garden fence. I believe its on the West side. The trench was 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 3 feet deep. The corp[s]es were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. are put together. Co. H was buried first in the u[p]per end of the trench next [to] the woods. They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep. Henry is the third corpes from the upper end on the top tier next to the woods. Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home. I am sorry, but I was too late to have it different. Then there is a board put up at each end of the trench with the simple inscription, ‘15th Mass. buried here.’ There is 39 men in the trench with Henry.

As he walked away, the sight of the burial trench seared itself into Bowen’s memory. Bowen wrote that he felt sure he could identify the spot “a Thousand years hence as well as [I can] to day.” It nearly killed Bowen to think of his friend, Henry Ainsworth, had been buried near a garden stacked together with other corpses, with no casket, no gravestone, and no funeral service. It was a far cry from home.

Pvt. Roland Bowen served in the 15th Massachusetts. Unable to bury his friend, Henry W. Ainsworth, he at least wrote Ainsworth's father, describing his son's resting place.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Promise to his Mother: Killed in the West Woods, Part 2.

This is the second in my three-part series, “Killed in the West Woods.” This post briefly describes the death of a color-bearer attached to the 34th New York, a man who upheld a solemn promise to his mother.

Few regiments in Maj. Gen. Sedgwick’s division suffered as badly as the 34th New York, the regiment that held the left of Sedgwick’s first line-of-battle. Because of its position, the 34th New York was the first unit in the division to be struck by the Confederate counterattack. When hit, the regiment came undone rapidly, the panicked soldiers flying hither and yon. During its short half-hour battle, the 34th New York lost 154 of 311 men, a 49% casualty rate.

Of course, not everyone in the 34th New York gave way. A knot of soldiers rallied around the regiment’s two color-bearers, Sergeant Charles Barton and Sergeant Chester S. Rhodes.

We will never truly know what went through the mind of Sergeant Rhodes, the color-bearer who died that morning, but his messmate, Private Philo H. Bell, claimed to know. Years later, Private Bell recalled a scene when the ladies of Crown Point, New York, presented the flag to its bearer back on May 1, 1861. In fact, Sergeant Chester Rhodes’s mother, Lois Rogers Rhodes, put the new flag into her son’s hands that day. With tears rolling down her cheeks (so Private Bell specified) she said, “Chester, the ladies of Crown Point have put great confidence in you; they have placed that banner in your hands. Go to the front, bear it aloft, and never turn from the enemy.” Accepting that condition, Sergeant Rhodes hugged his mother, bade her goodbye, and took the banner.

At Antietam, sixteen months later, Sergeant Rhodes saw his regiment collapsing around him and remembered the promise he had made. Turning to his comrades in Company H, he vowed, “I will run no farther.” Holding the line, he stood in the face of the Confederate onslaught. Seven bullets struck him. Five bullets struck the other color sergeant, Charles Barton. Other soldiers picked up the fallen flags and bore them aloft. Barton survived his wound. Rhodes did not.

After the battle, grave diggers buried Rhodes on the field. Currently, his remains lie in Antietam National Cemetery, Grave 778.

At the West Woods, it was easy for a Union soldier to consider the possibility of running away. Sedgwick’s division was so badly flanked there was little else any stout-hearted blue-coated soldier could do. Somehow, Sergeant Rhodes summoned determination that compelled him to run no more. He did everything he could to fulfill his promise to his mother.

This image depicts the color-bearers of the 34th New York Volunteers. Although identification is uncertain, Sergeant Chester S. Rhodes is most likely standing at right and Sergeant Charles Barton is standing at left.

This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the fight at the West Woods. The Confederates are in the foreground. Maj. Gen. Sedgwick's troops--with the 34th New York in the front line--are in the distance.

Monday, June 8, 2015

“With No Friend Near”: Killed in the West Woods, Part 1.

The next three posts are part of a series, one that profiles the Army of the Potomac at Antietam’s West Woods. The story of the West Woods is well-known to Civil War buffs. At 9:00 A.M., September 17, 1862, a combat-tested division entered the fray, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, which consisted of 5,200 officers and men. Moving ahead in three lines-of-battle, Sedgwick’s division crossed the Hagerstown Road and briefly penetrated Confederate defenses. Sadly, two Confederate divisions slammed into Sedgwick’s division’s left flank, turning the whole command on its heels. For the Union troops, the engagement in the West Woods turned into a veritable slaughter. In under one half-hour, the division counted up 2,100 casualties. Unhappily, after Sedgwick’s division retreated, many of those casualties remained caught inside a grim “no-man’s-land,” with no friend near.

One of those casualties was Major William Dwight Sedgwick, the division’s assistant adjutant general. Major Sedgwick (who was, in fact, a distant relative of the division commander) was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, on June 27, 1831. In 1851, he graduated from Harvard, then went to Germany to study law, but later returned to Boston to finish up his studies at Harvard Law School. Before the war, he had established a legal practice at St. Louis, but when the war broke out, he returned to Boston yet again to acquire a commission as first lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. Four months later, Lieutenant Sedgwick received a promotion to the staff of his kinsman, Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick. By August 1862, he held the rank of major.

Nearly all of Major Sedgwick’s contemporaries remembered him as a kind, jovial man. For instance, on the afternoon of September 16, the day before the battle, Sedgwick rode over to his old regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts, and engaged in a short conversation with the officers. Captain Robert Shaw remembered it fondly: “I talked with him for two hours; he was always an interesting talker, he went off finally merry and jolly.”

The next day, when the Confederate counterattack ripped apart the division’s lines, hell broke loose among the field and staff. General Sedgwick suffered two wounds and had to leave the field, forcing the staff to seek out the new divisional commander. Immediately, the staff put themselves under the direction of the senior brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. As Howard collected his inherited staff and attempted to formulate a plan—which amounted to a careful extraction of his engaged troops—Major Sedgwick spurred his horse to one of the disordered regiments then fighting on the front line, the 34th New York, and attempted to rally it. Scarcely had Sedgwick reached the position, when a bullet struck him in his back, dismounting him. Unconscious, he fell to the ground. The New York soldiers who saw him fall believed him to be dead. As they fled to safety, they left him behind.

Initially, false reports circulated that Major Sedgwick had been killed. Although these were later invalidated, everyone who saw him fall agreed that Sedgwick had attempted a brave thing. Brig. Gen. Howard reported, “Major Sedgwick, division assistant adjutant-general, was most seriously wounded while in the execution of his duties, and left suffering upon the field till afternoon. No one’s conduct was as cool and brave, and no soldier, it is said by his comrades, deserves higher commendation.”

The awful wound did not kill Sedgwick, not immediately. After a few minutes of unconsciousness, Major Sedgwick awoke, but discovered that one of his legs was paralyzed. Unable to walk or crawl to safety, he remained where he was, hoping that a Union counterattack might recover him. While lying on the field, Sedgwick had the wherewithal to pull out his pocket diary and start writing, a last entry, of sorts, in the agonizing anticipation that his wound would prove mortal. Here is what he wrote under the entry, “September 17”:

While trying to rally our men, a musket ball struck me in the small of my back, and I fell from my horse. As I write this I have been lying here more than an hour, powerless to move my right leg. I think that the wound must be mortal. I have been praying to God to forgive my sins, to bless and comfort my darling wife and children, my dearest mother and sisters. As I have been lying here in very great pain, shells have been bursting close to me, almost constantly. I wish my friends to know that I have fallen while doing my duty as well as is possible, which I can truly assert, and that I have not uttered groan as of yet, lying alone on the hard ground in the hot sun, with no friend near.

Sedgwick remained on the field—with no friend near, as he put it—for eight hours. Finally, toward evening, Union soldiers ventured onto the scene where the debacle had occurred and recovered him. Recognizing the wound’s seriousness, the litter-bearers put Sedgwick onto an ambulance that carried him to a nearby field hospital, the Samuel Christian Deaner farm in Keedysville. While lying there, Sedgwick wrote to his mother, Elizabeth Buckminister Dwight Sedgwick, informing her of his condition:

Battle Field

Keedysville, Sept 18 /62

My Dearest Mother,

I was wounded yesterday very painfully but the surgeons think not mortally. I lay on the battle field from half past 8 o’clock in the morning till half past 3 o’clock—the afternoon on hard ploughed ground in the hot sun the shells constantly falling and bursting around me and three times the rebels came behind the crest of the little slope within sixty feet of me and fired and on each occasion being driven back by the shells from our guns my wound is in the small of the back it appears to have escaped the spine. One of my ancles is also very badly sprained caused by the fall from my Horse. The Dr. intends to send me to Hagerstown or Frederick tomorrow morning with Gen. Sedgwick who is wounded in the neck and wrist. we shall get me home as fast as we prudently can.


 Love to All,


W. D. Sedgwick

Naturally, Sedgwick’s letter sent alarming news throughout his family. Elizabeth Sedgwick made arrangements to reach Keedysville as soon as possible, informing one of his older sisters, Grace, who was then serving as a volunteer nurse, telling her that she should join them on the Deaner farm. Unfortunately, Sedgwick’s wife, Louisa, could not be contacted. She had already embarked on a trip to Germany to visit relatives, and she could not be recalled in time. Knowing that his mother and sister were on their way, Major Sedgwick wrote what proved to be his final letter.

Keedysville, Md. Sept.

My Dearest Mother,

I have just got your letter from New York and one from Bess. I am suffering a great deal of Pain owing to the extreme difficulty of moving and the impossibility of getting a comfortable position. I do not think it necessary that you should come to me because my man Henry takes such excellent care of me and if necessary a Surgeon will be detailed to go with me when able to start—still if you or some one of the family desire to come perhaps it may be as well, especially as my recovery tho’ probable is not certain~

Best Love,

Your faithful


Sadly, Major Sedgwick did not live much longer. He died on September 29. Thankfully, his mother and sister arrived in time to be by his side. His wife, Louisa, did not learn of her husband’s fate until after she landed in Europe. Major Sedgwick left behind three daughters—Grace, Amelia, and Mary Elizabeth. He never had an opportunity to see his youngest. She had been born in July 1861, two months after Sedgwick left for the front.

Sedgwick endured the pain of the West Woods alone. He was lucky, perhaps, that he spent his last hours alongside his loving mother and sister.

Here, you can see Major William Dwight Sedgwick (shown here in 1861 as lieutenant). 

This image, taken in May 1861, depicts the officers of the 2nd Massachusetts at Brook Farm. Lt. Sedgwick is standing at the far right.

This is a close-up of Lt. Sedgwick, taken from the Brook Farm photograph.

James Hope's famous painting of Sedgwick's division attacking at the West Woods correctly depicts the division advancing in three lines of battle.