Sufferings Inconceivable: The Horrors of Port Hudson

“You cannot imagine the sickening scenes of a siege,” Surgeon Samuel C. Hartwell of the 38th Massachusetts wrote to his wife Ellen back home in Southbridge, Massachusetts in the wake of another failed Union assault on Port Hudson in June 1863. “The dead lying in ghastly stiffness until, under the flags of truce, they can be removed for burial; the horrible wounds produced by shells, tearing and lacerating the body and limbs into hopeless severity. The stench of the dead horses and mules makes an awful scene which satisfies with a single sight. The wounded who lay a few hours have their gaping wounds filled with maggots and vermin and the suffering of some of those who are not easily approached under fire of the enemy are inconceivable.”

General Nathaniel Banks’ army was settling into its third week of siege around Port Hudson on the Mississippi, licking its wounds after suffering very heavy casualties attempting to take the town by storm on June 14, 1863 when Dr. Hartwell wrote home. He had had nary a moment to spare over the past few days, noting to his wife that he personally attended to more than 600 wounded men in the days following the engagement. More than 1,500 miles separated Southbridge, Massachusetts from Port Hudson, and by writing this letter, Surgeon Hartwell hoped that the remoteness of Port Hudson would not blind his homefolks to the horrors of the war in Louisiana.

A prominent physician before and after the war, Dr. Hartwell was discharged for disability in March 1864 and returned home to Southbridge, continuing to practice medicine into the 1880s. The Queen Anne-style brick home he and Ellen had built at 79 Elm St. in Southbridge around 1870 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dr. Hartwell’s letter describing conditions at Port Hudson first saw publication in the July 3, 1863, edition of the Southbridge Journal.

 

 

Surgeon Samuel C. Hartwell of the 38th Massachusetts carried a slouch hat similar to the one above during his Civil War service. The 42-year-old physician from Southbridge, Massachusetts wrote poignantly of the horrors of caring for horribly wounded men during the siege of Port Hudson from May-June 1863. The M.S. insignia denotes medical service. 

Before Port Hudson, Louisiana

June 18, 1863

 

Dear Ellen,

          Since writing you last, we have had some hard fighting and many wounded but a comparatively small number killed. Our old 38th regiment lost eight killed and 92 wounded in the action of June 14th. You cannot imagine the sickening scenes of a siege; the dead lying in ghastly stiffness until, under the flags of truce, they can be removed for burial; the horrible wounds produced by shells, tearing and lacerating the body and limbs into hopeless severity. The stench of the dead horses and mules makes an awful scene which satisfies with a single sight.

The wounded who lay a few hours have their gaping wounds filled with maggots and vermin and the suffering of some of those who are not easily approached under fire of the enemy are inconceivable. Two were brought into my hospital last night who had lain three days and nights in the burning sun and through a deluging rain without food, cover, or drink. General Charles Paine, whose name you will see among the wounded of the 14th, is General Emory’s successor and a brave and noble soldier. He was lying on the field from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. and after two or three had been shot endeavoring to get him off, he refused to be approached until night. When he was brought in, he was swarming with maggots as his left leg was broken, but we will try to save it. Colonel Fearing of the 8th New Hampshire succeeds him.

Brigadier General Halbert E. Paine sustained a nasty wound to his left leg while leading his brigade in the assault on Port Hudson on June 14th. Repeated attempts to rescue him led to the deaths of the soldiers attempting the deed finally prompting Paine to order the attempts to cease. Paine remained on the field under enemy fire until nightfall and "when he was brought in, he was swarming with maggots as his left leg was broken, but we will try to save it," Surgeon Hartwell stated. Paine, an Ohio native, would survive the wound and the war, later being elected to Congress and serving in the U.S. Patent Office. 

One example of heroic devotion I shall never forget. Mrs. Frances Helper, the wife of a corporal in the 156th New York, went under the fire of the enemy into the trenches and nobly carried relief to the wounded and dressed the wounds of 20 of our men whom the stretcher bearers could not approach without certain death. I sent for her and publicly expressed my gratitude for her noble conduct and told her I would make a special report of it to General Banks, which I did, and received his thanks for it. She is from New Orleans and I hope every paper in the land will copy these facts with her name that so noble an example which places this heroic woman on a level with the Grace Darlings and Florence Nightingales of other lands may not be lost to history. Poor woman! Her husband was killed in the action. Thus, she becomes doubly entitled to the sympathy of every true-hearted woman in the land.

Surgeon Samuel C. Hartwell, 38th Massachusetts (1820-1888) is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Southbridge. 

You may judge from my labors when I tell you that over 600 wounded have passed through my hands and have been transported by my ambulance trains from 16-24 miles and all since Sunday morning. We are in a good position and unless some unexpected disasters befall us, we shall take this place if we have to shove the whole concern into the Mississippi River. Port Hudson is perhaps not as strong by art at Vicksburg, but when we come to tell the country the story of Port Hudson, it will open eyes wide that were never quite opened before.

         

Source:

Letter from Surgeon Samuel C. Hartwell, 38th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), July 3, 1863, pg. 3


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