“The wailing sound dies but slowly in my ears…”

One can imagine the scene- two Federal surgeons sit tiredly at a camp fire. It is Wednesday, September 24, 1862. The two exhausted men are in a regimental camp on Bolivar Heights overlooking Harper’s Ferry.  A mere week before, the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, had been fought just a few miles from where these two, surgeons of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, now rested around the camp fire. Both surgeons, Thomas McEbright and Samuel Sexton, sat and wrote, searching for the words to explain to the folks back home what they had just lived through. It was a horror.

Looking across the Potomac River into Maryland from Harper's Ferry- one of the most picturesque and historic spots in America. 

“After some five days of excessive toil and professional labor with a back nearly broken from continued stooping, I take this first respite from my duties since the battle of last Wednesday near Sharpsburg to report you my version of the mastery as it occurred on that part of the field of carnage and death in our immediate point,” Surgeon Thomas McEbright wrote to editor James Estill of the Holmes County Farmer located in Millersburg, Ohio. “It was a victory, though dearly purchased, and by it I think the Union saved, and there are those still in the land imposed with the spirit of the revolutionary heroes.”

The 8th Ohio Infantry formed a part of Brigadier General Nathan Kimball’s Gibraltar Brigade, the brigade earning that sobriquet at Antietam from Second Corps commander General Edwin Vose Sumner for (as reported by Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sawyer who commanded the regiment at Antietam) having “taken and held one of the most important positions on the field and had maintained an unwavering line during the carnage of the four hours’ battle.” The brigade had fought against the entrenched Confederates along the Sunken Road and suffered tremendously- the 8th Ohio went into action with 17 officers and 324 men and suffered 165 casualties, a casualty rate of 48.6%. (Colonel Sawyer reported two officers killed, seven wounded, 30 enlisted men killed, 122 wounded, and five missing).
8th O.V.I. Monument at Antietam
 “The generals all compliment the gallant conduct of the 8th, and I am certainly proud to be a member of it and share in their praise,” wrote Colonel Sawyer. “The carnage was awful, piles of dead, acres of wounded everywhere met the eye. During the engagement, 17 balls passed through our flag but it was kept waving proudly the whole time.” The following morning, Captain Benjamin F. Ogle of Company A walked the field where the 8th Ohio had fought and reported finding “three distinct lines of dead rebels lying in a little ten acre field. I counted on this field 250 dead Rebels, 30 horses, and 12 smashed cannon.”
Sunken Road aftermath by James Hope

This deluge of casualties quickly swamped the regimental hospital which had been set up by Surgeon McEbright in the Roulette family barn just behind the lines. McEbright wrote, “The houses and barns of the neighborhood filled with scenes of horror and suffering that would appall the most hardened in the shedding of blood. At the Roulette barn, where I had my operative depot, oh what a scene of misery! Here were mingled the lacerated and maimed from all parts of the world mingling their plaintive cries and dying groans. Braves from the lakes and mountains of Northern climes as from the magnolia scented cottages of the sunny South. 
Map showing location of Roulette Farm in conjunction with the Sunken Road at the bottom of the picture. Surgeon McEbright encountered William Roulette as the 8th Ohio went into action. "When our regiment passed his cellar door, this gentleman who had, up to this time, been cooped in the cellar emerged and with hat in hand did some of the tallest one man hallowing  and tip-toe shouting I have ever heard."

The Rebels especially were objects of my especial commiseration. The extreme wounded were those generally obtained by us, and their dirty haggard appearance, aside from their mangled limbs and contused bodies, is not the most pleasant to look upon. (For I do not exaggerate when I say that the Secesh army as a whole is the filthiest set of beings in appearance (raw Indians and Mexicans not excepted) the world ever saw. 
Confederate dead along the Sunken Road by Alexander Gardner. Surgeon McEbright remembered that the Confederates were "as a whole the filthiest set of beings the world ever saw."
The cry was doctor here and everywhere help implored. The wailing sound dies but slowly in my ears and my dreams are oft disturbed by the revisions of the sights which make even victory sad.” (Check out John Banks' Civil War blog for some nice modern shots and video of the Roulette Farm, including the barn where the 8th Ohio surgeons set up their field hospital. http://john-banks.blogspot.com/2011/10/antietam-visit-roulette-farm-videophoto.html)

Assistant Surgeon Samuel Sexton had also been horrified by what he saw at Antietam, but it wasn’t just the horrors of combat- it was the malpractice of the civilian volunteer surgeons that incurred his ire. So Sexton sent his letter to a newspaper which enjoyed wide circulation throughout the Midwest- the Cincinnati Daily Commercial. “Perhaps no more proper occasion will occur during the war for a reference to what is best for our friends at home to do in the event of another great battle,” he wrote. 
“After the engagement of the 17th, citizens began to arrive on the ground daily until the present writing. Many were curious to see a battlefield, others had friends or relatives wounded or killed. Many came as volunteer surgeons and nurses. Various Christian Commissions came with their useful supplies. And here let me say that if it had not been for the latter, untold suffering would have occurred.”
Citizens help move the wounded in a sketch by Alfred Waud

“Of the volunteer surgeons I have one word. They mostly came with a case of amputating instruments displayed in their hands, and paid no attention whatever to the suffering soldier. Their only inquiry was for “operations.” Any unfortunate soldier who happened to be carried to the army hospital away from his division or any luckless Confederate who possessed a shattered limb was sure to receive an anxious examination from the first class operating surgeon, and if there existed any excuse he was soon dismembered secundem artem. These cases, after amputation, were always left to some kind medical officer for after attention which is always the most important labor connected therewith. These professional gentlemen paid no attention, as I before remarked, to the wounded soldier’s actual wants, but when done cutting were not again to be found. It is but just to say that there were noble exceptions, but they were very few.”

“Medical aid after a great battle of greatly demanded, but those who come should expect ceaseless labor for weeks, hard fare, and much minor surgery. The supplies most needed are clothing, surgical appliances, and restoratives as it is impossible for the surgeon to find transportation for when in the field. Woolen shirts and drawers are invaluable, for when the wounded soldier is carried to the field depot, his clothes are often torn in pieces and saturated with blood. Wine, whiskey, and brandy are always needed, not only to relive faintness and exhaustion, but after wounds commence suppurating, they are largely required to keep up the powers of life.”
A Federal surgeon walks among the improvised shelters put up for the wounded men after Antietam. "Wine, whiskey, and brandy are always needed," Samuel Sexton commented. "Not only to relieve faintness and exhaustion, but after wounds commence suppurating, they are largely required to keep up the powers of life."

“But perhaps the most desirable article that I could mention would be wire splints. They can be applied immediately after the receipt of the injury, and thus save the wounded much suffering from the frequent moving they necessarily subjected to. These splints are the best because they can be readily cleaned, and they allow a free circulation of air and the escape of the water used in dressing. They have been found by experience in military surgery to be the best in use. Our friends in Ohio can rest assured that everything is being done for their wounded soldiers that is possible under the circumstances.”


Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign

Escape of Captain Henry H. Alban of the 21st Ohio Infantry

Knapsack Compression: Wilbur Hinman recalls the first step of becoming a veteran

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign