One spectacle of anguish and agony only succeed another. The mind was overwhelmed and benumbed by such scenes of accumulated misery…. Great must be the cause which demands such a sacrifice.
Here and there over the grounds were seen through that night a circle of lanterns waving around the tables of amputators. Every few moments there was a shriek of some 12poor fellow under the knife. And one after another the sufferers were brought forward and laid down before the surgeons on stretches, each waiting his turn. After the crude procedure, each victim possessed a face as white as marble and every line telling that he had passed through a suffering the utmost which human nature could endure. Each man was borne away and laid down for some kindhearted nurse to pour into his lips a few drops of brandy…and give him the assurance of life and sympathy.
Federal Chaplain J.J. Marks, describing battle aftermath, possibly following the Battle of Seven Pines.
(Dates not clear in the source it was accessed from; additionally, this account is possibly from a post-war writing. If you have additional information, please share in a comment – I’m always happy to learn.)
A Chaplain In The Field
Reverend James J. Marks volunteered as a chaplain for a Pennsylvania regiment. He decided to stay with the wounded soldiers at and near Savage Station, urging the ones who could walk to head toward the field hospital facilities, aiding the wounded to the station, and then assisting with medical care and relief.
Chaplains often found themselves doing tasks aside from their traditional call to preach. After a battle, chaplains frequently volunteered in the dressing stations and field hospitals. Though most lacked medical training, there was always work to be done by willing helpers. Training wasn’t needed to distribute water, speak a comforting word, or write a letter home for a suffering soldier. And when the sick and wounded were cared for, there might be time to preach a short sermon, hold a prayer meeting, or simply go from soldier to soldier offering spiritual encouragement.
The Medical Situation
During the Peninsula Campaign, medical care still border-lined disaster. The reformers of battlefield medicine weren’t on the scene quite yet or had just arrived. Medical care and casualty evacuation left much to be desired. Injured soldiers made their way to the rear on their own or aided by comrades; there wasn’t a designated ambulance corps or fully organized crew of stretcher bearers yet.
At the field hospital, medical teams and volunteer nurses, orderlies, and sometimes chaplains and other non-combatants dressed wounds, prepped patients for surgery, provided post-operative care, cooked and distributed food, and tried to figure out where to send the wounded men next. During the Peninsula Campaign, there were hospital transport ships to ferry sick and wounded men from Virginia back to Washington D.C. or another northern city. That was a positive aspect of the medical care evolving during this particular campaign.
“Crude procedure.” That’s how Chaplain Marks described the operations at the Savage Station field hospital sometime during the Peninsula Campaign. That’s a common way that we think of Civil War surgeries. But, how primitive was it…really?
Well, it depends. Was the surgeon really skilled? If a doctor knew what he was doing, then the medical operations could be fairly elaborate and life-saving. If not, then it may well have been a form of experimentation on the unlucky patient.
Were there pain killers? Yes. Were they available at this particular field hospital in the description? Hard to tell. The chaplain doesn’t specifically mention ether or chloroform, and a patient could’ve been given those drugs and still leave the operating table “white as marble” and given brandy as a restorative. But it’s also possible that this field hospital may have run out of anesthetics. There’s not enough detail in this excerpt.
What is clear from Chaplain Marks’s account is the suffering and struggling in a field hospital during the Peninsula Campaign. Whether his description followed the Battle of Seven Pines or came later during the Seven Days Battles, one thing is evident. Doctors and medical teams were working in challenging conditions and possibly with limited supplies to care for an over-whelming number of wounded men. While a system of getting men to the operating table in this field hospital seemed to be established, the medical system as a whole was still developing and wasn’t the organized process seen later in the war.
McClellan’s “On To Richmond” dreams had a cost. And while he was overly-protective of his army, his lack of victory had a cost. A high cost. To understand the aftermath of battle, one only had to visit a field hospital.