Saturday, March 23, 2013

Antietam: A visit to Private Charles N. Penfield's grave

Mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam, 20-year-old Charles N. Penfield is
buried in Wilcox Cemetery in East Berlin, Conn.
The German Reformed Church in the 1890s and today. The church, 
used as a  hospital after Antietam,  is now called
 Christ Reformed Church. Charles N. Penfield was
 treated here after Antietam.
After he was wounded in John Otto's cornfield at the Battle of Antietam, Charles N. Penfield was probably carried to a makeshift field hospital, perhaps to the barn on Otto's property. Or he might have been taken across Burnside Bridge to Henry Rohrbach's farm, where a field hospital for IX Corps soldiers was established in the barn with the distinctive H.R. formed by missing bricks. Eighteen days after he was shot, the 20-year-old private in Company G of the 16th Connecticut was admitted to the German Reformed Church, one of three hospitals established in Sharpsburg churches after the battle. St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church and the Lutheran church in Sharpsburg were also used as hospitals.

In a casebook in which he documented the condition of several other wounded Union soldiers, a surgeon noted that Penfield, from Berlin, Conn., suffered from a fractured left femur, a musket ball having gone through his thigh from front to back. The femur, the only bone in the thigh, is the longest and heaviest bone in the human body. On Oct. 6, Penfield was given morphine to sleep and an "easy position on firm bed & wet oak. to wounds," according to the surgeon. Oak is an abbreviation for oakum, a surgical dressing made of rope that was used to absorb discharges of pus, blood and other matter from a wound.

By Oct. 20, Penfield complained less of pain but six days later was "very uncomfortable," according to the surgeon who treated him. Although details in the casebook go no further than Nov. 1, 1862, Penfield probably was a candidate for amputation. He lingered until a day before Thanksgiving, dying on Nov. 26, 1862.

His remains were returned to East Berlin, Conn., where he lies buried in Wilcox Cemetery, a few steps from the grave of William North, a private in Penfield's company who was killed at Antietam. "I die with my armor on," read the words on the bottom of Penfield's weathered gray marker.  

On my visit to his grave this morning, an American flag, planted to the left of Penfield's gravestone, fluttered in the stiff, cold wind.

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