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.