The Chances of War: Captured Federal Surgeons After Chickamauga


Following their release from Libby Prison in November 1863, three Federal surgeons captured at the Battle of Chickamauga drew up a letter describing the conditions under which they worked while prisoners of the Confederacy. To put their letter into broader context, in late 1863, Northern newspapers started to run articles and letters from imprisoned soldiers that described the worsening conditions within Confederate prison camps, Libby Prison in particular. The thrust of the articles was that the Rebels’ treatment of Union soldiers was brutal, and this letter serves to help make that point by showing that the brutality started upon their capture on the battlefield, and continued throughout their tenure in Rebel hands. Outside of the political purpose of this letter, it provides some interesting insights into how armies dealt with the problem of wounded prisoners and their status behind the lines.


Soup bones carved by "Chickamauga" and "Atlanta" by Surgeon Henry Herrick of the 17th Ohio while he was at Libby Prison in the fall of 1863. Photo courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society.

          The three Federal surgeons who signed their name to this letter included Henry J. Herrick of the 17th Ohio, Alexander Ewing of the 13th Michigan, and Joseph Fithian of the 18th Kentucky. Surgeon Herrick, a native of northern Ohio, arranged to have their letter published in the December 4, 1863 issue of the Cleveland Morning Leader. Interestingly, four days after its publication, Surgeon Herrick got married. 


          There were established before and after our forces fell back two principal depots of the reception of the wounded; one on the extreme right of the field at Crawfish Springs, the other on the extreme left at Cloud’s Farm. At these hospitals and on the field were left about 2,500 of the most severely wounded, for the care of whom 48 surgeons and assistant surgeons became voluntary prisoners. The commissary and hospital supplies were very limited in consequence of the non-arrival of an expected train. No nurses remained, or at least a very insufficient number.


          The enemy entered the camp of the Cloud Farm hospital at 12 o’clock on Sunday, the second day of the battle; some plundering was done, but subsequently on the approach of reinforcements under General Gordon Granger, they fell back and did not enter again until Monday morning when the commands under Forrest and Cheatham first entered. The commanders assured us that every protection and assistance would be afforded us in the discharge of our duties. Permission was asked to go out to the field to collect and attend to those of our wounded who had received as yet no care. General Cheatham said that permission could not be granted immediately, but that in two or three days there would be no objections and moreover that our wounded would be cared for as their own. Their frank and candid statements gave the impression that what reason and humanity should dictate would be done, but it was very soon learned that here as in other instances where the promise was secured, all that could be hoped for had been obtained.


Surgeon Alexander Ewing, 13th Michigan
Library of Congress

          A guard was left for our protection from General Forrest’s command, but it proved in the end to be an unfortunate detail for us for they depended principally on us for rations which was a matter of some consideration in view of our reduced supplies. Old haversacks had been carefully gathered up for their now valuable contents and every scrap that could lengthen out our supply for the thousand wounded heroes who depended upon on us for support. In spite of the guard, constant thieving was carried on and often by officers. Moreover, when the guard was withdrawn, the officer in command stated that his orders were to take all gum and oil cloth blankets, hence followed a general plunder of the camp. Blankets and clothing were taken from the wounded and dying; also money and other valuables in spite of all remonstrance by the surgeon in charge and appeals and prayers of the wounded.  Then most of our nurses who had been allowed to assist, having been selected from the captured on the field, were taken away. So that the duties of a nurse, sexton, and surgeon  mostly devolved on the surgeons. The decision of the Rebels at that time was a great calamity for the nights were so cold that ice was observed one morning one-eighth of an inch thick in basins of standing water.


          The wounded on the field were scattered over an area of about ten square miles; some of these were two to three miles from water and provided with food only in small quantities from collected haversacks or as our surgeons in their daily rounds could furnish from their meager supply. They were collected into squads of from 10 to 100 each and made as comfortable as possible with well men or those more slightly wounded to give them care. It was desired to collect them at one of the hospitals where they could at least have a sufficiency of water, but the difficulty was how they could be taken there. They were from two to five miles off and all we had was the litter. Officials almost hourly rode up to the hospitals to inform the surgeon that a squad of men at such and such a point were suffering greatly for want of attention, without offering a suggestion or in the slightest manner a helping hand.


          A petition was made for ambulances or wagons. An order was given by General [William] Preston to take ambulances from any train that might be found, but there was either an understanding that such orders were not binding or else entire disregard was shown to them. Ambulances on the march going directly past the hospitals could not be induced when empty to take in wounded on the road and leave them as they passed, which could have detained them only a few moments. Moreover, there seemed to be teams enough at leisure. Thus, in spite of all exertions and entreaties, the surgeons were obliged to provide as best they could for about 800 wounded left on the field until the 26th, six days after the close of the battle.


Unknown Federal soldier wearing the uniform of a hospital steward; note the Masonic pin on his jacket.

          A written statement was early made to General Braxton Bragg concerning our condition. By his special order (and his own team the captain said who brought them), about 700 rations of cornmeal, salt, and hard bread with about 100 pounds of salt pork was issued which proved to be the principal rations received from the enemy while the wounded were in their hands. Three yearling steers were driven to the hospitals at the farm from a drove passing. One was killed that evening, one died during the night, and the other was unable to get up in the morning and was killed and eaten to save the meat. On the field, the Rebels selected out their own dead and buried them leaving outs stripped of their clothing to rot upon the field, the food for buzzards. Often we were met with questions: “Why don’t you bury your dead? What makes your men who are killed on the field look so black?”


          The Rebel cavalry, commanded by General Joseph Wheeler, took possession of the hospital of General Reynolds’ division and others at Crawfish Springs on the morning of the 20th. General Wheeler and staff announced themselves to the surgeons in charge of the hospitals as victorious on the battlefield and that they were prisoners of war subject to Rebel authority. By order of the General, the surgeons’ horses and equipment were taken. He then ordered that the whiskey should be produced which he and his staff drank, regardless of the limited supply or the necessities of the wounded. A guard was asked for to protect the hospital from the depredations of stragglers. The reply was that he had “other use for his men and that we must take the chances of war.”


Unidentified Confederate with a carbine

          The camp was next visited by a major, lieutenant, and several privates of the 11th Texas Cavalry who dashed up and ordered the surgeons into line and with presented pistols ordered them to “shell their overcoats, hats, gloves, sashes, and all side arms at their disposal.” They left on the receipt of the articles demanded. The camp was then subjected to repeated plundering from straggling soldiers until the supply of blankets of all descriptions was so reduced that not more than one half of our wounded were protected from the cold. After filling hospital tents, many, from necessity, were left without shelter. At this hospital and also by General Wheeler’s order, all nurses and hospital stewards were taken from the camp as prisoners of war with one exception, where one was left to take care of a Confederate officer. So that here also the duties remaining for the surgeons were those of nurse, sexton, and surgeon. No assistance whatever was received from either Rebel citizens or soldiers. No supplies were furnished at this hospital until the wounded were reduced to boiled wheat as their only article of nourishment, then only musty meal and putrid bacon.


          The same treatment was received here as at Cloud’s Farm as to removing the wounded from the field and the burying of the dead; so that the wounded lay enduring thirst, hunger, cold, and pain from fatal wounds. The accumulated horror of the stench from decaying horses and their comrades in arms filled the nostrils and yet the heart of the Rebel was not moved to give a breath of sympathy. Their feelings of revenge and individual wants seemed to prompt them in all their actions towards surgeons and wounded so that instances of brutality occurred unequaled in the history of civilized warfare. While speaking of what should be done who was suffering from a severe wound while en route to Atlanta, an officer said “take the damned Yankee out and shoot him.”


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