Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Shot in the Shoulder

Having recently endured shoulder surgery, I decided to find a tale from the Army of the Potomac that related to my experience.

Consequently, I want to share this anecdote. It involves a poor, wounded shoulder, one that waited and waited for its chance to get fixed.

The shoulder in question belonged to Lieutenant Charles Augustus Fuller, who served in the 61st New York. On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as his regiment made its way across the Rose wheat-field (part of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Fuller’s left shoulder took a hit from a Confederate rifle ball.  In his 1906 memoir, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, Fuller remembered the sensation caused by the Confederate projectile. He wrote, “It did not hurt and the blow simply caused me to step back. I found that I could not work my arm, but supposed that hurt was a flesh wound that had temporarily paralyzed it, and that it was not serious enough to justify my leaving the fighting line.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds, so it seems. Sometimes, they are considered so inconsequential that soldiers ignore them until something worse comes along.

In Fuller’s case, something worse did come along. As he kept fighting, another bullet struck him, this time in his right leg. The ball shattered the leg bone and he fell to the ground helpless, just as his regiment began to fall back. As panicked Union infantrymen galloped their way to the rear, Fuller called for help. Two well-meaning men from his regiment grabbed him by the arms and began to drag him across the trampled wheat-field. However, neither soldier paid any attention to the wounded shoulder. As Fuller wrote, “They started back with me between them, not on any funeral gait, but almost on a run. My right arm was sound, but the left one was broken at the shoulder joint, and on that side it was pulling the cords and meat. I wobbled as much as a cut of wood drawn by two cords would have.” Undoubtedly, in their haste to drag Fuller, they worsened his shoulder wound.

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Sometimes others think that, when jostled, they will cause the wounded man no pain.

Fuller did feel pain. Shrieking loudly, he implored his two would-be rescuers to drop him. They complied, apparently eager to get themselves to safety.

After midnight, a Union soldier named Phillip Comfort found Fuller and carried him to the rear. At the Jacob Schwartz farm, surgeons examined Fuller’s two wounds, and they determined that he needed an operation immediately. Fuller’s shattered leg required amputation, but a question arose concerning his left shoulder. Did it, too, need to be sawed open? On July 3, as the stewards administered chloroform, one of the surgeons determined that it was necessary to resect the shoulder wound—that is, to cut out the damaged bone and suture it up. As Fuller’s mind wandered under the effects of the anesthesia, he recalled, “At this stage I remember a doctor had his fingers in the wound in the shoulder and said to the others, ‘Here is a fine chance for a resection.’ I did not know what that meant but found out afterwards.”

Fuller fell into unconsciousness, and when he awoke, he discovered that surgeons had amputated his leg about eight inches below the hip. However, nothing had been done to his shoulder. He wrote, “My shoulder was bound up, but otherwise not operated on. Failure to resect may have been due to the great amount of work pressing on the surgeons.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Often, they are not given priority.

Fuller’s left shoulder remained untouched for over a week. Soon, the army transferred him to a new hospital, a civilian facility in Unadilla Forks, New York, near where he grew up. With his shoulder gradually growing worse, Fuller’s mother contacted her brother, a civilian physician, who performed the much-needed surgery. Fuller’s uncle, Dr. King, removed three inches of humerus bone. Fuller dubbed the operation “an excellent one,” and after his shoulder healed, he experienced no more trouble from that section.

I marvel that Fuller and his intrepid shoulder had to wait so long to get surgery. Such is the fate of the shoulder.

This is Lieutenant Charles A. Fuller, photographed in April 1863 while standing with the officer corps of the 61st New York at Falmouth, Virginia. Three months later, at Gettysburg, Fuller's left shoulder took a Confederate bullet. For awhile, it seemed like nobody cared.

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