May 3, 1864
At last orders have come to move, and now commences the campaign of 1864 under Grant. How will it end? It has begun, at least in secrecy, for no one seems to know what is to be done beyond marching, and that marching under Grant means moving toward the enemy…
The Wilderness, May 7th, 1864
I am safe and well, but our losses have been fearful. Poor Abbott is dead; Macy has a slight wound in the leg, but not dangerous; Bond is shot in the jaw, but doing well, Wallcott in the shoulder, and three others badly wounded.
During the first day’s fight I was with the regiment, but now I am detailed to the hospital with Dr. Hayward, three miles in the rear. I have been operating all day, and really learned more in the way of experience than in all the time since joining the regiment.
May 8th, 1864
Exhaustion and confusion worse confounded. Althought perfectly well, I am tired and hot, having slept only a couple of hours out of the last forty. We are still in the Wilderness, fighting our way inch by inch. The Twentieth has been in no important action since I last wrote; our loss was then so terrible that they have spared us a little…
The Confederates fight determinedly, and their force facing us is almost equal to ours, but we drive them each day. We are both on a race for Richmond, and I wonder which will get the inside track. If we do, our journey will be forty miles shorter than theirs. Feeling as I do now, the thought of a forty-mile march is quite repulsive. Grant seems determined to keep on fighting, and either win or lose.
Although we have been steadily banging away at each other for a week, neither side has gained much advantage. The enemy has gradually fallen back, but each day shows a bold front.
The sun is just setting, thank God! but it is uncertain whether we shall march all night, go out on picket, or lie down and sleep, – the thought of sleep makes me absolutely silly. We never know what we may be doing the next five minutes…
Union Surgeon John G. Perry, May 1864, letter excerpts.
(Source: In Hospital and Camp: The Civil War Through The Eyes of its Doctors and Nurses by Harold Elk Straubing, 1993, pages 13-16)
Battle of the Wilderness
Fought on May 5 and 6, 1864, this battle marked the opening conflict in Union General Grant’s Overland Campaign. The densely wooded area with thick undergrowth that had been the fighting ground for Chancellorsville the year before once again became the scenes of fierce fighting. Confederates attacked the Union army as it moved through the region and fighting occurred along the roads and in the dark woods.
Cannon fire created blazing fires, and soldiers battled the flames and their enemies. Tragically, the inferno consumed many of the dead and wounded before comrades could pull the casualties to safety.
The battle ended inconclusively and in a tactical draw. Nearly 30,000 casualties were the result of the fighting. However, unlike previous Union generals in the east, Grant decided to push on and by May 7, he had turned south again, leading the army toward the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House.
Dr. John G. Perry
John Perry had a problem. He wanted to be a doctor, but it took years of attending lectures before he could set up his practice…and he really wanted to get married and be able to support a wife and family. At age eighteen, he had entered Harvard in 1858 and met Miss Martha Derby soon after. John left Harvard and entered Scientific School, planning to enter medical school next; by changing his plans, his studying years could be shortened.
Then the Civil War started. For John’s personal plans it seemed providential, especially in 1862 when the Union called for volunteer, contracted assistant surgeons for military hospitals. John thought the opportunity would be beneficial and allow more first hand experiences than he got in school. His application was accepted and his first assignment was at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, followed by other assignments in Virginia. The Boston Medical Society agreed to allow his patriotic service to qualify toward his final examinations rather than book study. In 1863, he married his sweetheart.
By the spring of 1864, John Perry got assigned to accompany the army on the Overland Campaign and he stayed in the army medical service until the autumn of that year when he returned home to Massachusetts to care for his seriously ill wife.
After the Civil War, John became a prominent doctor in New York. Decades later, his wife collected and published his war time letters, giving valuable insight to a medical student and war surgeon’s life and experiences.
Uncertainty is an underlying theme in Dr. Perry’s letters during this period. “How will it end?” was a question on many soldiers’ minds and in their writings during this period. The spring campaign turned dark as units suffered heavy losses during the Overland Campaign. For many, they questioned if they would live to see the outcome of the next battle, let alone the war.
As we look back on the Overland Campaign, the high casualty numbers are saddening and shocking, but we know the outcome. The Union will ultimately drive the Army of Northern Virginia against a wall (proverbially speaking). But try to remember that in 1864, the officers and soldiers did not know how it would end. Their courage and grit to keep fighting despite the hardships and staggering losses deserves consideration and remembrance.