“Here he lays far from home and kindred” – Assistant Surgeon Neil K. Gunn of Nova Scotia


From Eric Mink:

By the end of the Civil War, the United States Army employed nearly 11,000 doctors. That was a massive increase from a mere 98 surgeons and assistant surgeons on the army’s rolls when the war began. The high rates of casualties and sickness necessitated the assignment of a surgeon and an assistant surgeon to each regiment, as well as medical staff at higher levels and also those who worked in established hospitals. The commissioning of medical personnel to volunteer regiments often became the responsibility of the governor of the state from which the regiment was raised. Such was the case with the 1st Massachusetts Infantry when on March 18, 1863 Governor John A. Andrews appointed and commissioned 24-year old Neil K. Gunn to the position of Assistant Surgeon of that regiment. Gunn, who was not a citizen of the United States, had just seven days earlier finished his course work and graduated from Harvard Medical School.

Neill K Gunn Post

Neil K. Gunn

Neil K. Gunn was born in Scotland in 1839 to Catherine Gunn and her husband Reverend John Gunn. The following year the family sailed for Nova Scotia when John was recruited with four others to minister to the needs of the Scottish immigrants of Inverness County. The family settled in Broad Cove. At some point after 1860, Neil sailed for Massachusetts and enrolled in Harvard Medical School. Upon the completion of his studies and the receipt of commission and appointment Gunn joined the 1st Massachusetts Infantry in Stafford County, Virginia. He entered into his duties as the regimental assistant surgeon the final week of March 1863. Dr. Gunn arrived months after the disastrous December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, but just weeks before the Union Army of the Potomac took to the field again during the Chancellorsville Campaign. His introduction to war and military medicine must have been jarring.

Field Hospital Chancellorsville Post

A 3rd Corps field hospital at Chancellorsville, May 2, 1863. Drawn by Edwin Forbes, this sketch represents a scene similar to  one in which Dr. Gunn may have worked during the battle.

At Chancellorsville, Dr. Gunn’s position was on the field with the regiment.  More than likely, he was positioned near the front line and worked at the regimental field hospital. Warren H. Cudworth, chaplain with the 1st Massachusetts Infantry, remembered that Gunn “was the field surgeon for the regiment and almost constantly under fire with the rest of the men and officers.” Colonel Napoleon B. McLaughlen of the 1st Massachusetts reported a total of nine men killed and 44 wounded in the battle. Undoubtedly, Dr. Gunn treated many of those men. For the surgeons, the end of the battle did not mean the end of the treatment for many of the men required attention to wounds and injuries long after the fighting ceased. Chaplain Cudworth opined that because of Gunn’s exposure “to the fatigue, privation and inclement weather following that engagement, his constitution seems to have received a shock from which it never recovered.”

Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that grows in the intestines and is spread by the ingestion of food or water contaminated by Salmonella typhi. During the Civil War, typhoid was prevalent in the army camps where sanitation was less than adequate. According to the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, there were a reported 148,631 cases of Typhoid Fever and related disease in the Union Army during the war, and 34,833 deaths. One of those who died from the disease was Dr. Gunn. When he contracted the illness is not known, but it took his life on June 3. His service record states that he died of typhoid fever “at Convalescent Camp of 3 Army Corps at Potomac Creek Va.” The diseases that swept through the camps, such as typhoid, were difficult to diagnose, let alone, combat and the physicians themselves were not immune. It has been estimated that 335 surgeons died in military service during the war. Fifty-one were either killed or died of wounds received in battle. Most of the rest died of disease. Commissioned as an assistant surgeon and sent to the army to help the sick and wounded, Gunn’s service lasted 74 days.

Boscobel Post

“Boscobel,” the wartime plantation and home of William H. Fitzhugh, Jr. It served as the camp and headquarters for the Union Army’s 3rd Corps during winter and spring of 1862-1863. This postcard shows the house as it appeared around the turn of the 20th century. The house burned in 1915.

Dr. Gunn’s body returned from the hospital and was buried in the graveyard of the 2nd Division, 3rd Army Corps, to which the 1st Massachusetts belonged. The camp and graveyard were located on “Boscobel,” a plantation owned by William H. Fitzhugh, Jr. in southern Stafford County, Va. Along with the remains of Gunn, the body of Sergeant Thomas H. Bigelow also returned to the camp. Bigelow had been a 25-year old blacksmith’s assistant from Chelsea, Massachusetts He enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry in 1861, had been wounded at the Battle of Second Manassas, and was wounded again and captured at Chancellorsville. The Confederates released Bigelow, but he died of his wounds June 2 at the Potomac Creek hospital. Gunn and Bigelow were buried together on June 3, following a fairly elaborate ceremony. Chaplain Cudworth, in a letter to the Boston Traveler described the event:

“All the Medical officers were present in a body, with the Colonels and other officers from regiments in our brigade.

Two caissons from Osborne’s Battery were kindly loaded as hearses, the band of the 8th Reg. Infantry came over from Gen. Hooker’s headquarters and nearly our entire regiment turned out to follow the remains to burial.

Assistant Surgeons Oakes of the 1st Mass., Whittier of the 11th, Crosier of the 16th, Heritage of the 11th N.J., and Miller and Hendry of the 2d Brigade acted as pall bearers for Dr. Gunn, and Sergeants Strangman, Chase, Tyler, Carleton, Palmer and Sellon of the 1st for Serg’t Bigelow.

Services were held in camp, at the conclusion of which, with guns reversed and muffled drums, the band playing dirges, began the march to the grave. A closing hymn and prayer, the benediction, and the usual volleys, and all was over.” – W.H.C., “From the Army of the Potomac: Letter From Mass. First,” Boston Traveler, June 9, 1863

Colonel Robert McAllister of the 11th New Jersey also attended the funeral. In a letter home to his wife, the colonel described the procession.

“The funeral ceremony at the camp was very solemn. The coffins were then laid on two caissons, each drawn by eight horses. The coffins were covered by the national colors. An escort of about fifty men, armed, led the column with a fine band of music playing the slow and solemn ‘Death March.’ We followed the corpses; then came the Surgeons – seventeen in number, then the officers, followed by the privates. The whole thing was very sad and solemn. We moved along at the dead march until we arrived at the Division burying ground. A hymn was sung, the caskets lowered, muskets fired, and we bid adieu to the remains of these brave men.

The young Surgeon was a very promising youth, a native of Scotland, and with few friends in this country. Here he lays far from home and kindred. But this is war, sad war.” – James I. Robertson, ed.The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965) p. 319

Far away in Nova Scotia, Neil Gunn’s family appears to have eventually received word of their son’s death. A published history of Inverness County, Nova Scotia states that letters reached Dr. Gunn’s parents in which his death was confirmed and that his work and bravery was praised during his brief period with the army.

Headstones Post

The graves of Dr. Neil K. Gunn (left) and Sergeant Thomas H. Bigelow (right) in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The United States Congress authorized the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in July 1865, three months after the war ended in Virginia. Burial parties scoured the region’s battlefields and former camps looking for the graves of Union dead. The crews found 226 burials at Boscobel, of which the identity of 90 could be ascertained. Those included the graves of Dr. Gunn and Sergeant Bigelow. Dr. Gunn’s remains were moved to grave 4851 in the national cemetery, while Bigelow rests in grave 4848.

We don’t know what motivated Neil Gunn to join the United States Army, but we do know that his dedication and sacrifice was recognized and respected by the men that he cared for during his brief time with the 1st Massachusetts Infantry. Chaplain Cudworth wrote at the time that the men of the 1st Massachusetts were “deeply impressed by his early and sudden death.” Nor was Dr. Gunn forgotten at Harvard. As part of the transept of Memorial Hall on Harvard’s campus, plaques bearing the names of the school’s graduates who died during the Civil War are hung. Dr. Neil K. Gunn’s name is found on Plaque 26.

Eric J. Mink

Thanks to Jake Wynn at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine for fielding a question of mine.

Sources consulted: George W. Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War New York: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1952); Compiled Service Record of Neil K. Gunn, 1st Massachusetts Infantry, Fold3; Compiled Service Record of Thomas H. Bigelow, 1st Massachusetts Infantry, Fold3; John L. MacDougall, History of Inverness County, Nova Scotia (Truro, N.S.: News Publishing, 1922); Ancestry.com; “Harvard University,” Boston Traveler, March 11, 1863; U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series One, Volume 25, Part 1 (Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1889); United States Surgeon-General’s Office, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1961-1865, Volume I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870); Paul E. Steiner, Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare in 1861-1865 (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1968); Alfred Jay Bollet, Civil War Medicine Challenges and Triumphs (Tuscon, Ariz.: Galen Press, Ltd., 2002); Jerrilynn Eby, They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 Until 1865 (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Book, Inc., 1997); W.H.C., “From the Army of the Potomac: Letter From Mass. First,” Boston Traveler, June 9, 1863;  Warren H. Cudworth, History of the First Regiment (Massachusetts Infantry) (Boston: Walker, Fuller and Company, 1866); James I. Robertson, ed.The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965); U.S. War Department, Roll of Honor, Volume XXV (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870)

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