A Soldierly Submission: Amputating a Leg After Hatchie Bridge

     It was October 6, 1862, in the town of Bolivar, Tennessee that Surgeon William Morrow Beach of the 78th Ohio attended to yet another amputation case. Casualties from the Battle of Davis or Hatchie Bridge continued to be brought into town for treatment and the young man brought into the hospital had an awful wound. “His right leg had been badly shattered and torn by a musket shot so as to render amputation unavoidable,” Beach later wrote. “He was informed of such necessity, but not a murmur or word of complaint escaped his lips. There was but a soldierly submission, a heroic submission without a question or a sigh.”

          Sergeant William C. Newton of Co. G of the 3rd Iowa Infantry was Beach’s new patient. A native of Ohio and resident of Winterset, Iowa, this marked the second time Newton had been wounded during the war. He sustained his first wound six months earlier on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. “He indulged freely in conversation respecting the operation until the chloroform was applied. From the waking and rational state, he glided into the anesthetic without the convulsive motion of a single muscle, without the utterance of a single incoherent sentence, but glided into it as the innocent and weary child glides into the sweet embrace of a healthful and restorative sleep.”

          Surgeon Beach’s account of the rest of the operation originally appeared in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial but was copied into Newton’s local newspaper, the Cedar Falls Gazette which ran Beach’s article in their December 12, 1862, edition. Sergeant Newton would survive the amputation of his right leg and be discharged for his wound April 6, 1863.

 

Surgeons used implements like this Gemrig bow saw to saw through legs to amputate limbs. When available, surgeons gave their patients chloroform to knock them out long enough to complete the operation. Civil War literature is replete with eyewitness accounts of surgeons amputating limbs without chloroform, a horrifying experience for all involved. 

          It was immediately after the Battle of the Hatchie. The dead in that terrible conflict had been laid beneath the mold, while the wounded had been brought into the church buildings or placed in the spacious apartments of the wealthy disloyalists of Bolivar. Among the number of unfortunates was William C. Newton, a sergeant in Co. G of the 3rd Iowa Infantry. His right leg had been badly shattered and torn by a musket shot so as to render amputation unavoidable. He was informed of such a necessity; but not a murmur or word of complaint escaped his lips; nor did the intelligence seem to cast over his face the least perceptible shade of seriousness.

          The table was prepared- the instruments were placed conveniently, and everything put in readiness for the operation. He was brought out upon the veranda and placed upon the table- his poor, shattered, torn, and half fleshless leg dangling around as if only an extra and senseless appendage. There was no sighing, no flinching, no drawing back or holding in. There was not a simple feeling of dumb resignation, nor of brute indifference, but a soldierly submission, a heroic submission without a question or a sigh. He indulged freely in conversation respecting the operation until the chloroform was applied. From the waking and rational state, he glided into the anesthetic without the convulsive motion of a single muscle, without the utterance of a single incoherent sentence, but glided into it as the innocent and weary child glides into the sweet embrace of a healthful and restorative sleep.

          The operation was performed. The arteries all ligated; the stump cleansed, and the last suture just in that instance applied. During the operation, he had scarcely moved a muscle. Just at this time the large body of prisoners taken in the engagement were marched up the street and were nearing the house where the maimed and bleeding soldier lay. The streets were all thronged with soldiers and hundreds of them rushed to get a nearer sight of the vanquished while they rent the heavens with their loud huzzahs. A full regiment preceded the column of prisoners and when just opposite, the band struck up full force the inspiration air of ‘Hail Columbia.’

A typical surgeon's field kit included a variety of saws, a tourniquet (lower left), forceps, scalpels, tenaculum, and amputating knives. Silk thread used to sew up arteries and close wounds. 


In a moment upon the very instant, the color mounted in Newton’s face. He opened his eyes half-wonderingly and raised his head from the pillow. The scenes of conflict came back to him, and he thought that his noble regiment was again breasting towards the enemy through a shower of shot and shells. His brave comrades, he deemed, were falling one by one around him, just as they had done in that dreadful hour of fratricide and carnage. The spirit of the time came over him and his features assumed the air of bold, fierce, fiery, and unyielding determination and he broke forth in exclamations, the most terrible and appalling I had ever listened to in all my life.

          “Louder with the music! Louder! Louder! Louder! Bursts the heavens with your strains! Sweeter! Softer! Sweeter! Charm the blessed angels from the very courts of heaven! Victory! Victory! Onward! Onward! No flagging, no flinching! No faltering! Fill up the vacancies! Close Up! Fill up! Fill up! Step forward! Press forward! Your comrade’s graves! The fresh graves of your slain! Remember the graves of your comrades! Blue Mills! Blue Mills! Shelbina! Shelbina! Hager Wood! Shiloh! Shiloh! Shiloh! For God’s sake, onward! Onward, in heaven’s name, onward! Forward! Onward! See the devil’s waver! See them run! See! See them fly! Fly! Fly!”

          During this outburst of passion, his countenance kindled and grew purple till his look seemed that of diabolism! Such a fury marked his lineaments that I instinctively drew back. But there was a method in his madness. He only erred in mistaking time and in misplacing himself and in misplacing his position; facts which the martial music and the pomp and circumstance of war in the public streets would have a natural tendency towards producing.  In the very middle of his fury he seemed suddenly to comprehend his mistake. He ceased abruptly, his whole frame in a tremor of emotion. He looked around upon the faces present and without a word quietly laid down his head. He grew meditative as he seemed to realize a full sense of his unhappy situation. At length, his eyes gradually filled with tears and his lips grew slightly tremulous. He quietly remarked, ‘Well boys, goodbye, goodbye. I should so but sorry fighting on a wooden leg.’ He again lapsed into silence and was shortly afterwards carried away to his room.

This image of three Union soldiers helps emphasize how young our Civil War veterans were; the soldier on the right scarcely looks 16 years of age. 


 

Source:

“A Singular Case of Anesthesia: The War Spirit of an Iowa Soldier,” Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), December 12, 1862, pg. 1

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