Lt. Col. Edward Bacon Witnesses Civil War Surgery
Although great advancements and improvements in the medical treatment of wounded soldiers were made during the Civil War, surgery in the field hospitals remained a frightening experience. In June of 1863, the 6th Michigan Infantry was engaged in the Port Hudson Campaign in Louisiana as part of the 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Union Army’s Nineteenth Corps. On the 13th of the month, a line of 100 skirmishers from the 26th Connecticut and 15th New Hampshire Infantry regiments, also of the 1st Brigade and 2nd Division, advanced upon the Confederate works and were repulsed with casualties. In his memoir published shortly after the war in 1867, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bacon of the 6th Michigan recalled seeing the army surgeons at work on one of the wounded from that engagement. Bacon did not think highly of army surgeons, but his description of the horrible scene in a field hospital of a soldier suffering from a terrible wound is unforgettable.
There is the dim flicker of lights in the midst of surgeons, with their young assistants, crowded around a rough bench, on which lies the subject, a nobly formed young volunteer of the Fifteenth New Hampshire. Chloroform has been used in vain. He is crying, in an agonized, despairing voice, “O kill me! kill me! do kill me!” I see his large, manly breast, heaving with agony, as he lies on his back , held by some of the young doctors, who have their eyes set upon the hands of older doctors, at work now with probe, now with knife and saw, and now with other frightfully appearing instruments of torture. The young man has been shot in the shoulder, and the doctors are digging out his arm for experiment. Some one of them says aloud, “There is not much chance for him”. The glimmer of candles flickering in the night breeze, dimly showing the naked form of the writhing victim, and the hard faces of the surgeons, with their bloody hands and saws, the darkness hanging over us like a pall, the stars sparkling in the vault of heaven–the same stars beheld by our friends at home, far away, and by our enemies in the beleaguered fort before us–all together make a tableau not to be forgotten. I am glad to find myself at last riding away from the horrid odors and sights of that hospital. The voices of myriads of insects of every kind and size, and the occasional boom of a connon, with straggling shots from the sharp-shooters, are not enough to drive from my ears the groans and cries of the poor New Hampshire soldier, dying in the hands of his tormenters as we left.
–Edward Bacon, Among the Cotton Thieves
In his History of the Fifteenth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers 1862-1863, regimental historian and veteran Charles McGregor identified the wounded man in Bacon’s account as 22 year old Private Elias H. Hadley. Hadley was shot in the shoulder during the advance, and refused an offer by the Confederates to be taken to their side for treatment of his wounds. Hadley remained on the field in the hot sun until nightfall, nearly bleeding to death in the process. He was taken to the hospital, where his arm was removed at the socket. Hadley died shortly after the amputation, as Bacon had predicted.