Self-inflicted wounds and the surgeons’ revenge–1864

From John Hennessy:

Few things speak to the intensity and horror of the Overland Campaign than this candid admission from a man of the 2d US Sharpshooters, written on May 9, during in a lull in the campaign.

Monday, May 9 Perfectly still. Don’t know what it can mean. I’m afraid the army has moved, and I can’t tell which way. Still in the rear, and wish I was at home. I would give a hundred dollars for a discharge. Almost made up my mind to wound myself; & then concluded that I would not.*

The temptation to wound oneself was not an uncommon sentiment during the Overland Campaign, and more than a few men did.


William McParlin, surgeon general of the army, estimated that more than 100 men wounded themselves on May 8, 1864 alone.

Assistant Surgeon John Billings recorded that a “very large number of wounds of the palm of the hand and fingers have been observed” and that often the skin around the wound was “blackened with powder,” suggesting a wound self-inflicted.

Billings also wrote of the surgeons’ revenge for what they perceived to be self-inflicted wounds:

“Amputation of the injured fingers, in such cases, has been usually performed without the use of anesthetic.”**


*Merton Coulter, ed., “From Spotsylvania Courthouse to Andersonville: A Diary of Darius Starr,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. XLI, June 1957, No. 2, p. 179.

**Billings quote from Medical and Surgical History, Part 1, Vol. 1, p. 202.

10 thoughts on “Self-inflicted wounds and the surgeons’ revenge–1864

  1. This post just sent me on a mini run around the internet to explore the concept of self-inflicted war wounds. In the process, I learned a new word: “malingering” which refers to this practice and the act of pretending to be sick, etc. Further investigation found that there was actually a process by which those who were suspect were cross-examined before being allowed a pension (Pension file of Charles Lucillis Babbitt 12th NY Vols, and 9th NY HA, NARA Washington, DC) Interesting information — thank you for the tip off.

      • My pleasure. I just returned from Gettysburg, where the last part of my trip was spent looking into medical procedures, wounds, and the dark side of war. This topic is an extension of that interest. Babbitt’s story is complicated and probably not the best example, it was intriguing nonetheless — I read about it in a book titled Unmade: American Manhood in the Civil War Era. Babbitt initially shot himself in the hand in hopes of extended hospital time at the least, a medical discharge at best. What actually happened was that he had a brief hospital stay and was returned to service, prematurely. Whilst at the battle of Cedar Creek, Babbitt found an opportunity to “get captured” and spent time — almost dying — in a prison camp. Upon his return, and subsequent pursuit of pension, questions came up about his overall conduct, thus, he had to face the pension board for inquiry. Whilst he managed to hide the self-inflicted wound and receive pension, the guilt would plague him for years. Ultimately, he penned a letter of confession about the wound to both his Congressman & then President McKinley — some 30+ years after the wound! His service record before and after the wound was filled with enough legitimate action, that to the best of my understanding, the confession was dismissed and the pension remained in place.

    • Yes, eventually I hope to produce an article. I need to do much more research to fill in the blanks on Babbitt’s life before, during, and after the Civil War. I am quite interested In this real story about a real soldier with flaws, but yet, he managed to survive in spite of two other wounds, and nearly starving to death in prison. My interest in ” the darker side of war” began last year after listening to a CWI2016 lecture that included amputees coping after the war. The interest morphed into surviving and living with the consequences of extreme wartime medical procedures, and wrapped around with this macabre revelation of surgeons revenge. Thank you for providing inspiration to dig deeper into history.

      • Good day, I have the actual gutta percha comb that belonged to Charles L Babbitt. He inscribed his name
        , Company I and NYSV on the comb. I recovered it on an organized relic hunt in Stafford, VA where the 12th NY was encamped. I too wish to fill the blanks in regarding Babbitt’s service. Any reference materials mentioning him would be greatly appreciated. Let me know if you would like me to send along pictures of this unique and personal relic.

  2. John —

    I didn’t observe that it was mentioned in the original post, but is this really a a story about the intense guerilla-character and the conflicts & engagements, which the soldiers encountered in the Battle of the Wilderness, May 3-8 — a battlefield in which the tactical manual had to be thrown out the window, creating a sort of melee, in which it was “every man for himself,” and the combat could easily be hand-to-hand. That helter-skelter,, in which frontlines were confounded, with shots flying in every direction, was unprecedented to that point in the war, I think, and nerve-wracking. It created the nervous tension, that might drive a soldier to this level of distress, but it ALSO provided unique conditions of isolation within the Wilderness underbrush, created the conditions of “cover” where over-stressed soldiers could actually “self-inflict’ a wound with a certain amount of isolation, and thus without being detected by their comrades. Whereas, in most battles, I think, the maintenance of battlefield formations, the open fields, and the execution tactical orders completely obviated this sort of “opting out.” No doubt, soldiers aren’t going to be shooting themselves in those battles unless they can stage some plausible occasions for an ‘accident”,

    Your post brings up the date of May 8, the last day of the Wilderness, by which point frayed nerves were snapping. The soldier’s admission was written on May 9, during the lull before Spotsylvania. That was the same day of the killing of 6th Corps Commander General John Sedgwick and reminded me of this issue of YANKEE SCOUT not uploaded yet. I just put it up here:

    Comments welcome. let me know if it opens alright

    • Roch, I have followed your roll-out of Calif Newton Drew’s memoir, and I have to say it’s both a historical and visual extravaganza. No one has dared to present a primary source as you have. I hope people check it out…… JH

      • Thanks for the plug, John. I was editing those aggressively during the pendency of the 150th, but my energy began to flag afterwards, and I’ve got a handful of incompletes yet, including Fredericksburg I — which is your bailiwick I recall.
        Thanks for this fascinating post, especially the revelation re surgeons retaliating with amputations.

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