A Rebel Surgeon at First Bull Run
In July 1861, Dr. Josiah Clark Nott of Mobile, Alabama was spending his summer with his family in Virginia. As events seemed to point to a clash of arms in northern Virginia, Dr. Nott traveled north to join the Southern army and share in its fortunes.
Besides being noted as one of the finest doctors in the state of Alabama (he was instrumental in opening the Medical College of Alabama in the late 1850s), Dr. Nott was also a staunch secessionist and defender of the institution of slavery, having written a book entitled Types of Mankind in 1854 in which Nott argued that the Bible's explanation of the creation of man was flawed and incomplete, and stated that the races originated from different regions, not a single common ancestor. This book, combined with Nott's medical reputation, made him something of a celebrity among Southerners.
Upon arriving at Manassas, Dr. Nott joined the camp of General Beauregard and offered his medical services to the army, which Beauregard gladly accepted. Dr. Nott ran a field hospital during the battle and provided a compelling eyewitness account of the battle to his brother-in-law Harleston Broun a few days after the battle. Dr. Nott's account was originally published in the July 30, 1861 edition of the Mobile Evening News but was republished in numerous Southern newspapers. I found this one in the August 2, 1861 edition of the Eastern Clarion of Paulding, Mississippi.
Dr. Nott officially joined the Confederate Army after Manassas, serving as medical director at several hospitals in Alabama. Two of his sons went to war with the 22nd Alabama Infantry but neither returned home, Henry dying of typhoid after the Battle of Shiloh while James was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. (The story of the capture of the 22nd Alabama flag by the 121st Ohio was previously discussed on this blog and the story can be viewed here.)
July 23, 1861
I have seen the great and glorious Battle of Manassas which brought a nation into existence, and the scene was grand and impressive beyond the power of language. We foresaw the action several days ahead- the enemy was known to be advancing in immense masses from Arlington towards Fairfax, and the master stroke was at once made to order Johnston down from Winchester by forced marches before Patterson could get down on the other side. Johnston’s troops marched all night, 26 miles, then crowded into the railroad and came down on successive trains without sleeping or eating. 15,000 of them arrived, many of them while the battle was raging.
I got to Manassas the morning of the day previous to the fight [July 20th] and knowing well both Generals Beauregard and Johnston and their staff officers, I went immediately to their headquarters. Zac Deas, among the rest, in full feather, and I, of course, felt home in his camp where I spent the night. General Beauregard determined to attack the enemy in several columns at once the next morning so as to cut them up before Patterson could arrive. But our scouts came early in the morning informing the Generals that the enemy had been in motion since two hours before daylight, which settled the question as to their intention to make the attack. Beauregard, who had studied the whole ground around knew every hill, ravine and pathway, and had made all the necessary arrangements and planned the battle. Not knowing at what point of a semi-circle ten miles around Manassas the enemy would attack, his forces had to be scattered in such a way as to guard all points, prevent a flank movement on either side, and guard his entrenchments and supplies in the center.
|General Pierre G.T. Beauregard|
We got up in the morning at daylight, took a cup of coffee, and remained quietly laughing and talking at headquarters while the scouts were passing in and out bringing news from the enemy. At a quarter past 6 in the still, bright morning, we heard the first deep-toned sound of a cannon on the center of our line about three miles off. We waited until 9 for further information and at 9 the Generals ordered to horse and dashed to the hill overlooking the point at which cannon, like minute guns, had continued slowly to fire. The enemy could not see any of our troops but were firing at the dust kicked up along the road which they saw above the low trees. We were for some time at the point they were firing at, and some 20 or 30 balls of their rifled cannons whizzed through the air above us and I felt very forcibly the remark of Cuddy to his mother Mouse that “a straggling bullet has nay discretion” and might take my head off as well as that of anybody else.
The firing at this point kept up slowly from 6:15 until 11 when we heard a gun fire on the extreme left of the semi-circle and we were then satisfied that the firing in front was a mere feint. In a few minutes, the cannon firing came in rapid succession as if one battery was answering another. The Generals then ordered “to horse” again and away we rode to the seat of battle about three miles off. When we arrived on the top of a hill in an old field, we could get glimpses of the fight through the woods. The cannons were roaring and the musketry sounded like a large bundle of fire crackers, and the constant roaring of the big guns, the sharp sound of the rifled cannons, Minie rifles, and muskets with the bursting of shells made one feel that death was doing his work with fearful rapidity.
The enemy had concentrated all his forces on this one point, while ours were scattered around a half circle of ten miles and the few regiments who received the first onset were terribly cut up. It was far greater odds than human nature could stand, the regiments were torn to pieces, driven back, and so overwhelmed in numbers that I feared the day was lost. At this stage of the game, the enemy was telegraphing to Washington that the battle had been won and secession was about to be crushed.
My heart failed me as I saw load after load of our poor wounded and dying soldiers brought and strewn on the ground along the ravine where I was at work. Dr. Fanthray who belonged to General Johnston’s staff and myself were just getting fully at work when an old surgeon who I do not know came to use and said the enemy were carrying everything before them and ordered us to fall back to another point with the wounded as they were turning our flank and the battle would soon be upon us. Accordingly, the wounded were taken up and we fell back, but after following the ambulances for a mile, we found that they were to be taken all the way to Manassas, about four miles, where there were hospitals and surgeons to receive them and we returned to our position near the battle.
|The decisive moment at First Bull Run which in Dr. Nott's opinion heralded the birth of the Confederate nation, describing the scene as "grand and impressive beyond the power of language."|
At this juncture, I saw our reinforcements pouring in with the rapidity and eagerness of a fox chase and was satisfied that they would drive everything before them. No one can imagine such a grand, glorious picture as these patriots presented rushing to the field through the masses of wounded bodies which strewed the roadside as they passed along. For a half mile behind me the roar passed down a gradual slope and through an old field; as I looked back, I could see a regiment of infantry coming in at a trot with their muskets glittering in the sun. Then would come a battery of artillery, each gun carriage crowded with men and drawn by four horses at a full gallop. Next came troops of cavalry, dashing with the speed of Muratt; after these followed with almost equal speed wagons loaded with ammunition, screaming all the while “push ahead boys, pitch into the damned Yankees, drive them into the Potomac!” This kept up from about midday until dark and I felt as if the Alps themselves could not withstand such a roar.
The cannon and small arms were roaring like a thunderstorm as they rushed to the field. One regiment, which had been driven back by overwhelming numbers, was now supported, and I soon perceived that the firing was getting further off as I had expected and knew that the “pet lambs” now could only be saved by their superior heels. About this time, too, the last of General Johnston’s command arrived on the cars opposite the battleground to the number of 3,000-4,000, and although they had been two nights without sleep, they jumped from the cars and cut across to the field. By this time, we had collected about 15,000 against their 35,000 and from all accounts no red fox ever made tracks so fast as did these cowardly wretches. They were all fresh and better accoutered in every respect than our men, one half or more of whom had to make forced marches to get at them. They had selected their position coolly and deliberately in the morning, while ours were scattered over ten miles and had to run through the midday sunshine. If our men had been equally fresh, they would have gone straight through into their entrenchments at Arlington. But I will not speculate on the future and weary you with details which will reach you through print long before this.
|Early war Mississippi troops pose brandishing their socket bayonets. Five Mississippi regiments took part in this First Battle of Bull Run: the 2nd, 11th, 13th, 17th, and 18th Infantry regiments.|
The victory was dearly bought but still blood is the price of freedom and we can at least, while we drop a tear over the graves of our fallen friends, feel the proud consolation that they have died like heroes and given liberty to unborn generations.
Our troops are pouring in every day from the South and if Beauregard and Johnston chose to lead them, they can plant the hated Palmetto tree besides the Bunker Hill Monument which was erected to commemorate the same principles for which we are now fighting, and to which a degenerate race has proved recreant. They have forced this fight upon us and after exhausting everything but honor for peace, it is their turn to sue for terms.
I never had any idea of military science before Beauregard and Johnston played it like a game of chess without seeing the board- when a messenger came and told the enemy’s move was immediately ordered to put him in check. The times are so exciting here that I cannot yet foresee my movements. I found that they had surgeons enough for the wounded at Manassas, and having no commission, I left and came up to Richmond to send down many things needed for the patients, thinking I could serve them better in this way than any other.
Letter from Dr. Josiah Clark Nott, Eastern Clarion (Mississippi), August 2, 1861, pg. 2
Encyclopedia of Alabama entry for Josiah C. Nott
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