The following account comes from the July 12, 1900 edition of the National Tribune. Hospital Steward Theo. V. Brown records his memories of the Battle of Gaines Mill, which took place on June 27, 1862. His recollections provide illuminating details about the battlefield responsibilities of a hospital steward.
– Jake Wynn, Program Coordinator
Gaines’ Mill: A Hospital Steward’s Sketchy Picture of a Day with Bullets and Bandages.
By Theo V. Brown, Hospital Steward, USA, Retired
I received my warrant as a Hospital Steward, United States Army, shortly after we took the field in March 1862, and was assigned to duty with the 3rd Inf.
Thus I had been a soldier and combatant-non-combatant four years; had helped to put down the Mormon rebellion; had been on scouts after Indians, and had participated in the siege of Yorktown and McClellan’s siege of Richmond, but had not as yet heard the song of unfriendly bullet or shriek of bellicose shell, when, one fine morning – how green the woods and fields, how clear the sky, how sweet the warbling of the birds, how grateful the mingled odor of meadow and forest that memorable day! – we were ordered to pack up our tents, take our beds upon our backs and march. Some of us, blessed with a keener instinct than the rest, did sniff the breeze and smell the battle from afar.
Then we marched several hundred yards in the direction of Richmond, only seven miles distant. With a caution that beat all, we marched through some cornfields (we being the First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac); but as we did not detect any Johnnies in that direction , soon concluded to look for them in the opposite direction. Several of us had a little knowledge of geography, and as Richmond lay between ourselves and the Pacific Ocean, and only a few miles away, we could not quite comprehend why we should be marched straight for the Atlantic Ocean. However, as our superiors were supposed to know more about marches and countermarches than we, we trusted them blindly to lead us Richmond, even should we have to cross the Atlantic to get there. What a funny world this would be were the bright beacon, Faith, eliminated from its mysteries.
After this wandering around in an aimless yet expectant manner for three or four hours, we ascended, about noon, a little knoll upon which stood a substantial dwelling, which somehow reminded us that it was dinner time and that our stomachs were empty, though dire presentiments of a dinnerless day possessed our souls, and in this, at least, were not disappointed.
A battery was in position on this knoll, which seemed to fire minute shots in the direction of Richmond, since there was neither sight nor sound of an enemy; yet there were mysterious hints that a great battle was in progress. Presently, like a peal of thunder from a clear sky, and piece of iron, with its peculiar and highly disagreeable falsetto notes, came sailing over us – we did not even catch the report of the gun from which it was fired.
What made me look about so frantically for a hole in the ground? Surely, if I, enjoying all the rights and privileges of a non-combatant, must run the risk of coming in personal contact with such a barbarous vehicle of savage warfare, I might as well resume my original character as an armed warrior, with its alluring vista of promotions and brevets, which to the hapless combatant-non-combatant must ever prove a mere ignis fatuus.
However, five minutes, ten, passed without the advent of more such meteorites, and my nervous system resumed the even tenor of its way.
“So this a great battle!” I chuckled to myself. “Well, if so, I am ready to fight one every day as a pre-prandial appetizer.”
Alas! Just then a shell burst in the air over us, followed soon by another, then another. Now a party of four comes toward us, bearing on a litter a man whose thigh has been penetrated by a fragment of shell.
“What will my stomach do, that has always proven so refractory in the presence of human blood?” I ask myself in fear and despair. Thank the stars! My stomach is too engrossed with its own safety to sympathize officiously with the blood of a fellow-man, and I am able to assist at the application of a temporary dressing. Hardly is this done when I hear the command. “Fall in,” given in a sharp, decisive tone that presages no good and in a moment the regiment is quickstepping it past the battery, which is now firing briskly, and heading for a narrow valley which, God help me, now shows a long line of rebel infantry advancing to the attack, while the rising ground behind glistens with objects that my fast-beating heart tells me are hostile cannon; and toward these we are still marching.
The Song of the Bullet
I look at Dr. Sternberg with a glance he well understands, and which says: “Remember that we are non-combatants, and that our duty is to the man we left behind.” The Doctor is pale, but resolute, and answers my glance with one that says, “Follow me!” accompanied with an attempt at a smile. So, though still dissenting from my superior as to the propriety of going farther in that direction, I conclude to make a virtue of necessity, keep cool and trust to luck, as every good soldier does.
We are on much higher ground than the advancing line of rebel infantry, and still four or five hundred yards from that line, when I become conscious of something sounding like “z-zip” constantly passing my ear, and it is fully ten minutes before I learn that not insects peculiar to that locality, as it first I thought, but bullets, are when at last my eyes were opened to the true character of the sound, my pulse did not beat one iota more quickly. Not so when occasionally a shell came our way; then force of habit, established by the hustling railroad iron, again and again overcame me, and the momentary frantic search for a hole in the ground was not to be resisted.
When within a couple hundred yards of the enemy, the regiment formed in line of battle, and the other regiments formed in line of battle, and the other regiments of the brigade formed on its left and began firing. Dr. Sternberg and I, with our hospital force, consisting of four hospital attendants, the regimental band, and all the drummers and fifers, took position 100 yards behind the fighting line and planted our red flag, both to direct the wounded and to inform the hostile artillery of our character and mission. One of the hospital attendants carried the field case of surgical instruments, another the hospital knapsack, containing anesthetics, styptics, and bandages, and another led the Doctor’s horse; the rest carried litters, pails filled with water, wash basins and canteens.
Dr. Sternberg now unlimbered his pocket-case of instruments, and I did the same, little as I knew of their use. Indeed, little did I know of medicine and less of surgery, though the men, on some of whom I had, in my ignorant and therefore daring dispensation of strong doses, worked rapid cures in slight yet painful ailments such as colic and cholera morbus, had the utmost confidence in my knowledge and skill.
Being the only hospital corps on the spot, a stream of slightly wounded men, guided by our red flag and stretchers, soon came to us from all sides. Imitating my superior closely, I would say:
“My poor fellow, where are you hurt?”
“Right here in my arm.”
Finding no wound of exit, I would feel for the bullet, compass the surrounding parts with the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, cut down to the bullet, insert the little finger of my right hand under it, yank it out, put a bandage around the arm, and be ready for the next man, full of the feeling that if one of the everzipping bullets should mark me for its own, a reserved seat in the regions of everlasting bliss was at my disposal; such the satisfaction that springs from a sense of duty well performed. How some of the wounds healed that I made by cutting crosswise instead of lengthwise, I never learned.
During this time I noticed our Division Commander. Gen. George Sykes, cantering past, followed by one orderly, as cool and unconcerned as though out for a pleasure-ride after dinner. A soldierly man, indeed; sans puer et sans reproche!
I also noticed, soon after the fight began, a cloud of stragglers (to use a mild term) all along the line as far as the eye could reach, going to the rear – removing themselves out of the way of bullets without apparent excuse of any kind; and there seemed to be no one whose duty if was to stop them, and none was afterwards punished. This the more extraordinary when it is borne in mind that these men were Regulars; it must not be forgotten, however, that a majority of the officers of the Regular Army cast their lot with the rebellion, and most of the loyal minority were appointed to higher commands in the volunteer force, leaving the Regulars rather poorly officered with new men, appointed, for the most part from civil life. In fact, it may be asserted that the Regulars were volunteers at the beginning of the war, and the volunteers Regulars at its close.
We had been occupied in the manner stated not more than an hour, doing little real good, since all the wounded that came to us could have been better attended to at the field hospitals farther to the rear (I doubt that we were instrumental in saving a single life), when the regimental commander, Maj. N.B. Rossell, who had gone into action mounted on a showy horse, was shot through the left breast, and his Adjutant, Dr. Sternberg and I accompanied the litter which bore him from the field, to the orchard hospital about a half-mile away; none of us, I fear, very sorry for the excuse to leave the fighting line. The farmhouses and orchards were already crowded with severely wounded, dying and dead Zouaves, members of the 5th NY, a splendid body of brave men, and we deposited the Major in the shade of a tree. As we did so, he addressed Dr. Sternberg, in a voice still audible and natural: “Can you do nothing for me, Doctor?” “Nothing, Major,” answered the Doctor, sadly. “Then all stand aside and let me speak to the Adjutant,” said the dying officer, and whispering a last message to his loved ones in that officer’s ear, he promptly breathed his last.
Soon after this our line of battle gave way to the victorious rebels, a panic seized the host of stragglers in the rear, and a wild rush for the bridges over the [Chickahominy] began, in which we were forced to participate, leaving our wounded and dead in the hands of the enemy. This was the battle of Gaines’ Mill, fought June 27, 1862.
During the time we were on the battlefield, the artillery of both sides played but an insignificant part, presumably for the reason that the two lines of battle were too close to each other for the artillery to get in its work. The musketry-fire of the two opposing lines sounded to me like the noise made by the combustion of a big heap of firecrackers on a Fourth of July. Occasionally a shell exploded near us, much to our disgust, the hostile batteries apparently finding amusement in annoying us, though they surely knew our occupation.
When, late that night, I wrapped myself in my one blanket under an oak tree, to seek rest and oblivion of the day’s sad experiences, I said to myself that we, the hospital party, could have probably done much more good had we stayed farther away from the battlefield, as it seemed to me that a man will either die from loss of blood immediately after being hit in a vital spot, or the missile will have acted as a styptic through contusion of the smaller vessels and the consequent formation of the blood-clot, acting as a plug, which will hold good for a day or two. Our presence on the battlefield was, in my opinion, calculated simply to swell the list of dead and wounded, and of pensioners. I also resolved that any future war I should participate in should not find me in the role of a combatant-non-combatant.
Learn more about medical care at the Battle of Gaines Mill in this video
The Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862 resulted in more than 15,500 casualties.
This article was transcribed from the National Tribune by Avery Lentz.