1861: “A More Awful Sight I Never Witnessed”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their Words

July 24, 1861

…The moon was full the night of the battle,…and a more awful sight I never witnessed than that as I went among the dead and wounded of both sides.

Dr. Hunter McGuire to Dr. Hugh McGuire (father) on July 24, 1861


Surgeons at Gettysburg (two years after First Manassas)

Casualties At First Manassas

Approximately 2,708 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, and missing. Confederate losses were approximately 1,982. Most of the dead and wounded were left on the field or in temporary field hospitals.

Unlike the organized evacuation systems which would be developed and employed later in the war, the medical situation at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) was woefully inadequate. Wounded comrades staggered or were helped to make-shift facilities staff by “surgeons” – many of whom had never performed any serious surgical operations in their career.

The Confederates managed to get many of their wounded basic care and put them on trains for a journey to Richmond. Union injured limped, staggered, or crawled toward Washington; some got rides in wagons and carriages.

This first battle awakened the country to the realities of war. It also exposed the woeful situation in most field hospitals. Both sides would work to improve their medical systems. The challenges and tragedies at First Manassas launched a movement from the medical world that would positively revolutionize battlefield hospitals and medicine.

Dr. Hunter McGuire (c. 1863?)

Dr. Hunter McGuire (c. 1863?)

Dr. Hunter McGuire

Meet Dr. Hunter McGuire – a twenty-five year old doctor, serving as medical director for the First Virginia Brigade. (Yes, the same brigade that got the nickname “Stonewall.”) Unlike some of his medical comrades whose experience and skill was doubtful, McGuire was a capable doctor and had some surgery experience. Educated at Winchester Medical College, University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson Medical College, and University of Virginia, he volunteered as infantry soldier when the war began.

Someone in Richmond reviewing the muster lists realized that Hunter McGuire had skills that could be used for the Confederate cause – and carrying a musket wasn’t one of them. Appointed medical director of the First Virginia Brigade, McGuire began working on General Thomas J. Jackson‘s staff to establish forms of regulations, procedure, and supplies for the healthy of the soldiers. During the battle, he established a field hospital and treated many wounded soldiers, included General Jackson.

In the coming years, McGuire would play a major role in improving the Confederate Medical Service in the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, he would establish a medical school and hospital in Richmond.

Historical Musings

Hunter McGuire wrote this letter to his father, Hugh McGuire. Hugh was also a doctor and had overseen much of his son’s medical training. The complete letter details some of the battle tactics and strategy. Then Hunter tells about taking care of his wounded friends. Yes. Friends. Young men he had grown up with in Winchester were now his patients. He took one comrade off a horse and that man died in his arms.

Unlike modern medical situations where doctors and nurses usually don’t know their patients, the Civil War built regiments and brigades of family and friends. Typically the unit medical staff knew their patients and their families. This placed an additional burden and grief on the surgeons.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Does historical battlefield medicine interest you? Have you ever searched for a field hospital location on a Civil War battlefield?

Civil War Quote


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