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.

Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 2

From Eric Mink:

In a previous post, found here, I looked at the sources of the long accepted story that Union Colonel Emory Upton received a battlefield promotion following his May 10, 1864 attack at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Also, I considered the efforts made before the battle to secure for Upton the promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In this post, I will examine the timeline and circumstances surrounding that promotion.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

The attack for which Upton has gained much notoriety occurred in the early evening of May 10. He led twelve regiments, organized in an assault column, across open ground and briefly penetrated the strong Confederate entrenchments along the western face of the “Mule Shoe” line. Although ultimately forced to withdraw, Upton’s success has been credited with giving Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant the idea for a larger attack two days later. Grant later wrote that he immediately promoted Upton to the rank of brigadier general for leading this May 10 attack. Grant claimed he received this authority before leaving Washington, D.C. two months earlier, but contrary to this assertion he does not appear to have had the liberty to make battlefield promotions on the night of May 10. In fact, he did not receive that latitude until six days later.

In a dispatch dated May 15, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote Grant: “If you deem it expedient to promote any officer on the field for gallant conduct, you are authorized to do so provisionally, and your appointment will be sanctioned by the President and sent to the Senate.” This message did not reach Grant until the following day. Two things about it are important. Until it reached his hands on May 16, Grant did not have the leeway to make battlefield promotions, and once he did have that authority, the promotions still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. So, Grant did not have the authority to promote Upton on the battlefield six days earlier.

Edwin Stanton's May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

Edwin Stanton’s May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

This is not to say that Grant did not recognize Upton. The lieutenant general did recommend the young colonel for promotion. It’s likely, however, that the recommendation actually originated with Army of the Potomac commander Major General George Meade. On May 12, while the battle raged along the Confederate “Mule Shoe,” Stanton fired off messages to both Grant and Meade in which he urged the two generals to forward nominations for promotions. To Grant, Stanton wrote” “Please furnish me with any nomination you desire to have.” To Meade, Stanton pleaded “The sad casualties that have befallen the officers of your army leave many vacancies to be filled, and if you will send me the names of the persons you desire to have appointed to the rank of brigadier, their nominations will be immediately sent to the Senate.” The following day, Meade sent a message to Grant’s headquarters in which he recommended certain officers for promotion. The dispatch requested Brigadier Generals Horatio G. Wright and John Gibbon receive promotions to the rank of major general. Colonels Samuel Carroll, Emory Upton, and William McCandless were recommended for the rank of brigadier general. Meade simply stated that the men deserved promotions “for distinguished services in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court-House.” This same list of names appears in a dispatch from Grant to Edwin Stanton, also dated May 13, suggesting that Grant simply endorsed the recommendations made by Meade. Grant requested the promotions “to be made for gallant and distinguished services in the last eight days’ battles.” No specifics actions or reasons were provided for any of the men. Stanton replied the following day informing Grant that “The brigadiers in volunteer service you name shall be appointed.” The appointments still required confirmation by the Senate and that took time.

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Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 1

From Eric Mink:

For last year’s (2014) 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, a colleague and I provided a tour that focused on the May 10, 1864 Union attack on the Confederate “Mule Shoe” defenses. We entitled the program “Upton Gets His Star: Revolutionizing Warfare,” a reference to Colonel Emory Upton, who we understood was promoted to the rank of brigadier general following the assault. A month later, while assisting with the Battle of Cold Harbor programs, a visitor who had been on the Spotsylvania tour asked me why the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery’s monument at Cold Harbor listed Upton, the regiment’s brigade commander, as a colonel if he had been promoted two weeks earlier at Spotsylvania. I questioned Bob Krick, my friend and colleague at Richmond NBP, who informed me that when the monument was being planned in 2001 he could not find any indication that Upton held the rank of brigadier general at Cold Harbor. This interpretation ran contrary to the story we told, and had been telling for years, at Spotsylvania. If Bob was right, then when did Upton receive his promotion?

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

The claim that Emory Upton received his promotion to brigadier general at Spotsylvania originates with an authoritative and seemingly indisputable source. Ulysses S. Grant claimed in his military memoirs that he promoted Upton on the field. In his own words:

“Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act confirmed by the President.” Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885) 224-225.

Another oft-cited source for Upton’s promotion on the field at Spotsylvania is the memoir of Dewitt Clinton Beckwith of the 121st New York Infantry, as quoted in Isaac O. Best’s 1921 history of that regiment, and available here. Best quotes Beckwith remembering “Colonel Upton had been made a brigadier general upon the field by General Grant.” Best takes it further and quotes Beckwith relating a conversation the latter had after the war with Martin T. McMahon, former Chief of Staff at Sixth Corps headquarters. Beckwith said, as quoted by Best, that McMahon made the following promise to Upton just prior to the attack on May 10:

“’Upton you are to lead those men upon the enemy’s works this afternoon, and if you do not carry them you are not expected to come back, but if you carry them I am authorized to say that you will get your stars.’” Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry (Chicago: W.S. Conley Co., 1921) 135-136.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

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The unique promise of Spotsylvania Battlefield

By John Hennessy: We re-post this on the eve of the Spotsylvania 150th. It originally appeared in 2011.

Ours is an imperfect park constructed on some misplaced assumptions, as we clearly indicated in a post a few months back. The four battlefields within the park are too close together to be administered separately, which in turn has limited the amount of land at each that political reality dictates can be preserved. The result is a land base that does not include key battlefield lands–hallowed ground–and a geometry of the park (more than 100 miles of boundary) that lends itself to intrusion from adjacent development.These factors have shaped the management of these landscapes for decades.

The park in 1986, after the 1974 boundary was set. Click to enlarge

But amidst the imperfection, there is a place of unique promise: the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. It has a few things going for it:

First, its land base tends more toward round than linear, and it’s the only one of the four fields that does. Continue reading

War in human form

From John Hennessy:

[What follows is due entirely to the generosity of John Hoptak, historian at Antietam National Battlefield, who has devoted much of his life to documenting and chronicling the wartime experiences of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Recruited from the coal regions of central Pennsylvania, the 48th was one of the Union army’s most interesting units–gaining fame as the excavators of the famous mine at Petersburg in July 1864. The regiment, part of the Union Ninth Corps, also saw heavy service elsewhere, including at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. John maintains a blog where he shares both his work and his insights. The value of his work goes beyond documenting the service of a single regiment; by doing that, he offers up one of the more compelling testaments to the human experience of war, as experienced by these men of Pennsylvania.  Check out his site here–it’s worth a regular visit.   John has shared with us–explicitly for Mysteries and Conundrums–some powerful material he has gathered about a member of that regiment who was killed on May 12, 1864. We are grateful.]

War takes its most powerful human form when it narrows from the panoramic to the personal, from broad vistas to individual faces.

Private Henry J. Ege.

Henry Ege of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania was too young to fight when the war began.  But, the war waited for him, grinding along for three years until he turned 18. In February 1864, he enlisted in Company I of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.  Too young to have built anything like a profession, his occupation was simply listed as a “laborer.”  Blue-eyed, 5’5″ tall, the youthful boy soon found himself in the 48th’s camp near Annapolis, Maryland.

April 13, 1864
Dear Parents
I take my pen in hand to let you know that we are all well at present time and hoping that these few lines may find you enjoying the same state of happiness. I have not much news to tell you this time. I am out of money and would like if you would send me about five dollars as soon as you receive this letter. I would not have written for some money but we don’t know when we will get paid, a person feels lost if he has no money out here. General Burnside and Gen. U.S. Grant were here today, they are very fine looking Generals. The rest of the Orwigsburg boys are all well. I have no more news for this time. I had a letter from my school master C.H. Meredith. No more at present. Excuse bad writing for I had a bad pen.
Answer Soon
From Your Son
Henry J. Ege

[I am always struck by sons who in letters home to their parents signed their full name, plus initial, as if their parents wouldn’t know them otherwise.] Continue reading