Friday, February 1, 2019

Shot in the Mouth

Hey, Tales from the Army of the Potomac fans! “Shot in the [blank]!” is back! This is my recurring series about Army of the Potomac soldiers who received wounds to unusual parts of their anatomy. I present these chilling tales as a way to understand the lingering effects of combat wounds, as reminders that Civil War veterans suffered from the effects of their gunshot lacerations long after they initially received them. This latest installment—called, “Shot in the Mouth!”—is a case in point. This particular wound finished off its victim in horrifying fashion some twenty-eight years later.

Let’s get down to it.

At 8:30 A.M., June 25, 1862, Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s Brigade surged across a swampy thicket south of the Williamsburg Road, commencing what became known as the Battle of Oak Grove, the first engagement of the Seven Days’ Battles. (By the end of the day, more than 1,060 men had been killed, wounded, or captured.)

As General Grover’s bluecoats neared a line of Confederate-held earthworks, the 1st Massachusetts Infantry deployed its skirmishers. A soldier in the 2nd New Hampshire watched those skirmishers enter a thicket (which is now vanished due to the construction of the Richmond International Airport). Confident of success, the New Hampshire soldier thought the Massachusetts troops would do well “to wake up the enemy.” Hardly a minute had elapsed when a crash of musketry followed, and wounded soldiers came streaming out of the thicket. The Massachusetts skirmishers had stumbled into the Confederate line and caught hell from Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright’s Georgia brigade. The New Hampshire soldier remembered what he saw next: “Among these [retreating troops] was an officer, who had caught a bullet in the mouth. He attempted to tell General Hooker something, but his face was so badly lacerated that his words were utterly unintelligible; but his manner and gestures told plainer than words that the First [Massachusetts] was in a tight place.”

At the time, the observer from the 2nd New Hampshire, Private Martin Haynes, didn’t ponder the fate of the gravely-injured Massachusetts officer. With the 1st Massachusetts calling for help, the 2nd New Hampshire had to plunge into the thicket and go to its rescue, which it did, losing forty-two men in the process. But the sight of the wounded Massachusetts officer undoubtedly seared itself into Haynes’s memory. Thirty-four years later, as Haynes completed the 2nd New Hampshire’s regimental history, he recollected the disturbing scene: a man wounded in the mouth, uselessly spouting a bloody sentence to General Hooker. What a horrifying image!

So who was he? Which unfortunate officer suffered a mouth wound at Oak Grove? Did he survive his awful injury?

You know me; I don’t give up on these stories. I had to find the identity of this critical casualty.

It didn’t take long. Undoubtedly, the injured officer was Captain Abial G. Chamberlain of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Captain Chamberlain commanded Company K, 1st Massachusetts. His wound, graphically recorded by the attendant surgeon, was the only one from Oak Grove that matched Martin Haynes’s description. Specifically, the ball clipped Captain Chamberlain’s lower right lip, split the end of his tongue, and then crashed into his jaw, breaking it, but not shattering it. A few members of Chamberlain’s regiment briefly recorded the sight of the wounded officer. Private Charles C. Perkins, Company K’s bugler, jotted in his diary, “Saw Capt. C. brought in. Shot in the mouth. Jaw fractured.”

The wound wasn’t severe enough to terminate Captain Chamberlain’s army career. After several months of recuperation, he returned to his regiment, but he did not stay for long. In 1863, he was transferred to lighter duty, acting as provost marshal of Riker’s Island, New York. But, while there, he decided to return to combat. He passed examination by the Casey Board—the special tribunal that tested officers who wished to command African-American regiments—and on November 30, 1863, Chamberlain received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was put in command of the 37th USCT (also known as the 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteers). By February 1864, he was in Norfolk, Virginia, raising the regiment. Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment joined the unit known as “Wild’s African Brigade,” named for its abolitionist commander, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild. Chamberlain and his men joined the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and fought at the Battle of Fort Pocahontas, at the Siege of Petersburg, and in the Appomattox Campaign. Amazingly, Chamberlain served for the rest of the conflict, mustering out on June 16, 1865. After the war, he commanded Wilmington, North Carolina, as provost marshal attached to the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Upon hearing this, you might think that Colonel Chamberlain recovered from his mouth wound and went on to live a long, happy life, but if you thought that, you would be incorrect. Chamberlain’s ordeal grew worse. As he aged, he experienced degenerative paralysis. Apparently, the ball that wounded him at Oak Grove had passed through his trigeminal (or trifacial) nerve, the nerve that controls biting and chewing. Although the jaw itself healed in the aftermath of the 1862 battle, the trigeminal nerve slowly deteriorated as the years passed. As that crucial nerve decayed, it caused problems in other parts of his body. Chamberlain’s eyesight and hearing dimmed, his limbs became paralyzed, he experienced bowel and bladder leakage, and he even lost cognitive function. In essence, he became a complete invalid, unable to move, carry on conversation, or carry out simple bodily functions.

Initially, Chamberlain received $20 per month disability pension, but in 1888, that was increased to $45 per month. At the time, such a sizable increase required Congressional approval. So, strange as it may seem, several letters testifying to Colonel Chamberlain’s humiliating infirmities had to be read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is from these letters that we know how badly Chamberlain suffered during the last years of his life.

Dr. A. Elliot Paine, a former surgeon attached to the 104th USCT, testified that:

I find him [Col. Chamberlain] confined to his bed, very much emaciated, the left leg being flexed on thigh and very rigid, being nearly impossible to straighten it; the next arm being somewhat the same. He still has involuntary condition of the bowels and bladder. He requires an attendant all of the time, he being helpless.

Another examiner described Chamberlain’s condition even more graphically:

I find a scar on the right side of lower lip, extending to jaw, also on the end of tongue. The scar on the lip is about an inch long, not adherent. Another cicatrix [scar] about an inch below the lower jaw, which is adherent to the bone, with an indentation in the bone about one-quarter inch in depth and one-half  inch in width not tender to pressure. His walk is feeble and staggering. His intellect is dull; appears bewildered when questioned. The power of motion of the left arm and leg is greatly impaired, so as to require help in dressing. He has only partial control of his bladder; his urine runs away keeping his clothing wet. I think the paralysis is due to cerebral lesion, caused probably by injury of branches of the trifacial nerve, lying in the track of the ball.

Perhaps the most compelling account came from Chamberlain’s wife. She wrote:

I declare to you, and to all the world, that my husband, Col. A. G. Chamberlain, late captain First Massachusetts Volunteers, is wholly incapacitated from even feeding himself. He has lost his mind, and his mouth is stiff from paralysis caused from the effects of the wound in mouth. I fear lockjaw; he is paralyzed almost wholly. I have to lift him whenever he is moved in bed; he can not turn himself even. Please send his pension, or see that it is sent. It is one of the clearest cases on record of total disability. If you can not prove it send someone to see the dying man, and please send relief before it is too late. Yours, in trouble, Mrs. E. R. B. Chamberlain.

Moved by these accounts, Congress approved the request to increase Chamberlain’s pension, on account that the nerve damage was “extraordinary in character.”

Chamberlain did not live much longer. He died on May 9, 1890, at Brockton, Massachusetts. He was fifty-nine-years-old.

Before checking up on this story, I didn’t think that mouth wounds could be so horrifying, that is, so capable of causing prolonged suffering through progressive nerve decay, brain damage, and paralysis. Colonel Chamberlain suffered acutely in his final years, and to add insult to injury, physicians had to submit testimony about his urine-soaked bedclothes to Congress!

Such thorough misery! Sometimes it makes me wonder about the Georgia soldier who shot Captain Chamberlain. No matter how much hatred that unnamed Confederate soldier may have harbored against Yankees, could he really have wanted the person he shot to suffer so long and so acutely? Whoever he was, I highly I doubt that knowledge of Chamberlain’s suffering would have given him satisfaction. Luckily for that nameless Georgia sharpshooter, he never learned what his musket ball had done.

In any event, please take care of your mouths, folks. They are lifelines to our sanity.

Here is Col. Abial G. Chamberlain (1831-1890), shown in 1861 as captain, Co. K, 1st Massachusetts Infantry. This was before he suffered the horrifying mouth wound at Oak Grove.

This map by David Woodbury depicts the Union and Confederate positions at Oak Grove, June 25, 1862. Captain Chamberlain belonged to Grover's Brigade, the unit that attacked from east to west across the middle of the map.

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