1864: “Grant Seems Determined To Keep On Fighting”

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 Perry (no known restrictions)

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.

An illustration by Edwin Forbes of a wounded soldier from Battle of the Wilderness. (LOC)

Historical Musings

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.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Tea With Sarah: Favorite Historical Era, Civil War Doctors, & Country Music

Good afternoon, it’s time for tea!

Gather ’round because I’ve been baking today, and it would be quite a tea if you could all come over and really visit. We’d be having Raspberry Zinger “Tea” and Cream Cheese Coffee Cake. Could somebody please explain why it’s called coffee cake when there’s no coffee in it? But I digress from the really conversations of the day…

Early in the week on social media, I promised to reveal my second favorite historical era. Then we’ll discuss Civil War doctors and what’s been on my music playlist this week. Looking forward to reading your comments and continuing the conversation! Continue reading

1862: “A Thread Of Red That Looked Like Blood”

Water was what I wanted and I believe, had the whole army been firing at me I would have gotten my canteen filled. Our regiment was going on a run when they crossed this little stream. It was only about a foot from bank to bank, dirty and black by the many feet that had accidentally trod into it. I stopped and scooped out a hole in the mud and put my canteen in to fill it. While doing this, another regiment passed over me and I was cut off from our. I didn’t seem to care. Continue reading

Hidden Heroes of the Civil War

Butchers. “Sawbones.” Those were some of the nicknames for Civil War doctors. Did they deserve them? How have these names clouded our understanding of these individuals?

Surgeon and Assistant Surgeons of the 164th New York

Surgeon and Assistant Surgeons of the 164th New York

There are plenty of myths regarding Civil War medicine and the last one I briefly mentioned last week was “doctors were mean.” Today we’re going to explore the education, enlistment, experiences, and effects of Civil War doctors.

Now, if you’re wondering why this is being discussed on “Back to Gettysburg Tuesday”, I’ll give you a hint. A doctor and his medical staff play a major role in the story Blue, Gray & Crimson so what you’ve been reading about Civil War medicine in the last couple weeks is just a little portion of the research which was the foundation for their characters and actions.

But I Went To Medical School

The education of physicians prior to the Civil War was absolutely scary by modern standards. Many – especially in rural settings – did not attend formal medical school; they learned by apprenticeship.

The doctors who did attend medical school and graduated had book knowledge, but often not much more than that. You see, medical school consisted of attending lectures, studying diagrams, and maybe passing a written test. Most schools did not offer “hands-on” training. (Cadavers were hard to come by because nobody wanted their relative’s body cut up in the pursuit of science; that was not part of the Victorian era “good death” plan.)

Physicians were good at prescribing medicine, diagnosing disease (but remember they don’t accept the idea of germs), bleeding, blistering, purging, setting broken bones, bandaging a severe cut, and possibly assisting during childbirth. Many had never seen a gunshot wound.

The Hippocratic Oath would be come more important during battlefield experience than medical school for many doctors.

They Would Need Medical Care – So I Enlisted

Fueled by a desire to help the ill and injured soldiers and a quest to further their education in the medical field, doctors on both sides enlisted. Some left their local area as the regiment’s doctor, others were assigned to the position once the officers realized they had medical training.

One of the great hardships doctors faced – especially early in the war – was the fact that their sick, wounded, and dying patients were people they knew from home. Being the doctor of the regiment from your area, meant they knew Private Smith and his family; when Private Smith was brought in from the battlefield and nothing could be done for him…the doctor’s burden and emotion strain increased.

This is an amputation scene at a Gettysburg hospital. However, it is a staged photograph and everyone is looking very calm and controlled...so in many ways this is not a good representation of reality!

This is an amputation scene at a Gettysburg hospital. However, it is a staged photograph and everyone is looking very calm and controlled…so in many ways this is not a good representation of reality!

Operating For Hours and Hours

The experiences of Civil War surgeon varied. Not every doctor was allowed to be an operating surgeon. Only the very best and most skilled physicians were allowed to perform surgical operations.

If a doctor wasn’t in charge of operations, he might have overseen the “first aid station” on the battlefield. He might have worked in a base hospital. (See From Battlefield to Home for a description of the Union medical system.) He might have managed sick call for the unit. Also, it should be mentioned that surgeon’s assistants and orderlies also played a major role in Civil War medical staff.

However, since we’re address the “popular image” of the Civil War surgeon, we’ll focus on the actual “sawbones role.” As previously mentioned, the operating surgeons were chosen for their knowledge, skill, and speed. After battles, these men worked non-stop trying to save lives and their success rate is surprising. A soldier whose limb was amputated had a 75% chance of recovery (that’s pretty good, given the unsanitary conditions). Other wounds had varying chances, but the surgeons did the best they could with the knowledge they had.

Surgeons worked quickly. They had to, when there were literally thousands of men waiting for operations. An amputation might take five minutes or less. In a post battle situation, a surgeon had no time between operations. One patient was removed from the table and the next was placed in front of him. The actual procedures were a combination of careful precision and sheer physical strength. (I will spare you the gruesome details.) A surgeon would be operating until a colleague took over his job, all the wounded were cared for, or he collapsed from exhaustion.

Always Wish I Could Have Done More

The post battle effects of endless operating took its toll on Civil War surgeons. Some ruined their own health because of their selfless actions. (At least two surgeons at

Hospital Stewards

Hospital Stewards

Gettysburg died from exhaustion and health complications). And it wasn’t just physical fatigue  – mental and emotional stain broke many surgeons. One doctor – after hours of operating – said he could not hold a knife and wept openly when he saw a wounded man.

Moving about twenty years beyond the Civil War, these same doctors who had been battlefield surgeons now saw the advancements of the medical field. Germs had been discovered. Sterilization was being emphasized. And the resounding comments from these surgeon’s memoirs and writings is “if only we had known back then…how many more lives we could have saved.”

Most of the Civil War surgeons were selfless men. They were determined to provide the best medical care they could to the sick or wounded soldiers. They tried to ease the suffering, cure disease, and comfort the dying. Whether on the battlefield or years later, their attitude was: I wish I could do more.

Our Perception

Let me ask you something: does a “hard-hearted” man works 20 hours to save lives? Will a cruel man sacrifice his own life trying to ease pain? Will a “brute” rush into a battle without a weapon to stop death by applying a tourniquet?

The answer to those questions should have been “no” – an emphatic no. We “glorify” and “hero-worship” the deeds of soldiers who were shooting, bayoneting, and cannonading their brothers. Why do we berate the surgeons who were covered in blood because they were trying save their brothers’ life?

I would like to present you with a new thought: The Civil War surgeon is the forgotten hero of the battlefields. With minimal training, these men enlisted to heal and they accomplished that mission in some of the most horrific settings and conditions in history. They didn’t leave their posts –  and some gave their lives so others might live. That  is heroism.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Who are your favorite Gettysburg heroes now? Civilians, Surgeons, or Soldiers? There’s no right or wrong answer, but I’d like to know your opinion!