Saturday, March 11, 2017

'Quietly sunk away': Friend's tribute to Massachusetts private

At Second Manassas, Major General Fitz John Porter's V Corps, which included the
 18th Massachusetts,  charged across  this field to attack Confederates in the
Unfinished Railroad Cut. (Library of Congress)

        William Fuller may have been wounded at Unfinished Railroad Cut at Manassas.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen panorama.)

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In cold, clinical language, a Union surgeon described the condition of gunshot victim William D. Fuller, who had recently been admitted to Union Chapel Hospital in Washington.

"...circular wound of arm, four inches below acromion process of scapula; shoulder swollen," William H. Butler wrote shortly after the 18th Massachusetts private had arrived from the Second Manassas battlefield, the regiment's first major action of the war. "Complains of pain on motion. Some yellowish discoloration over outer part of scapula and tenderness on pressure. Applied cold water constantly which had the effect to reduce the swelling."

For the next several weeks, Butler documented his observations of his 30-year-old patient. On Sept. 3, 1862, a piece of a musket ball, "greatly misshaped and irregular," was removed from Fuller's shoulder. Two days later, another piece of the ball was removed from that wound, easing the pain of the shoemaker from Needham, Mass. Ten days later, pieces of small bone were found in his dressing, apparently caused by a "copious discharge."

On Sept. 18, Fuller, whose hospital diet included mutton and oyster broth, had an "anxious look" and a fever. A day later, the nervous soldier complained that the church hospital at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street was noisy. At night, Fuller, described as "very yellow," was "sleepy and dosy," muttering as he lay in a "heavy typhoid state." He talked "rather thick," Butler noted, "evidently the result of pus absorption."

Another view of Unfinished Railroad Cut, (Photo courtesy Shelly Liebler. More of her images here.)
        20th and Pennsylvania Avenue: 1862 site of Union Chapel Hospital in Washington.
              18th Massachusetts Private William Fuller died here on Sept. 25, 1862.

                                                             (Google Street View)

Butler's patient sipped wine, and Fuller's hemorrhaging wound was controlled by frequent changes of bandages. But early on Thursday morning, Sept. 25, 1862, the married father of four children died. Cause of death: pyemia. An autopsy later that day revealed Fuller had suffered from a fractured shoulder blade and gangrene, among other health issues.

Of course, Butler's detailed account of Fuller's treatment hardly presented a full picture of the life of the 18th Massachusetts private.

On Nov. 21, 1862, nearly two months after Fuller died in a hospital near the White House, an obituary for him appeared in The Liberator, a weekly Boston newspaper published by ardent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Information may have been supplied by Fuller's army comrade or a Needham resident, who wanted a friend to be remembered. We know him only by his initials -- E.S.A. Could he have been 18th Massachusetts Sergeant Eli Atwood Jr., who was killed at Fredericksburg, Va., a little less than two months later?

"Notices like the above are so sadly common at present that they hardly excite attention, much less provoke comment," The Liberator noted in a paragraph after the who, what, when and where of  the death of Fuller, an ardent abolitionist himself. "The individuality of a private soldier, in an army of a million of men, is so far lost, that but for the watchfulness of friends, heroism and cowardice would be buried in one common oblivion. In this instance, as in thousands of others, it is left to a friend's hand to snatch from forgetfulness the memory of a brave and good soldier."

The beginning of Fuller's eloquent obituary in The Liberator on Nov. 21, 1862.
As it appeared in The Liberator, here is the poignant snapshot of the life and death of William Fuller:

Mr. Fuller was one of the earliest to enlist under the first call for three years men. He was induced to take this step, not by the mere enthusiasm of the moment, but after careful consideration of the subject, and counsel with friends, he chose a soldier's life from a sense of duty. Though he left behind him a wife and four children, his high purpose never faltered from the first, His frequent letters were a mixture of womanly tenderness and manly resolve. He knew what he had to leave before he left; he understood what he was to undergo before he encountered it. No man had a juster comprehension of the sacrifice to be made, and no man made it with more thorough heartiness, or with more self-forgetful courage.

William Fuller's gravestone in Washington's
U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery, formerly
Military Asylum Cemetery.
(Edna Mode | Find A Grave)
He was from the very beginning a strenuous advocate of the policy of emancipation. So strong were his convictions on this subject, that some of his comrades charged him with being a disunionist. But he was not afraid either of the bullets of the enemy or the sneers of friends. He felt it his duty to urge the policy everywhere and always. "What are you all about at home," he writes, "that you do not work night and day to create a public sentiment on this point? As for me, I would willingly lay down my life, if by doing so I could give freedom to a single slave." It is a source of regret that he did not live long enough to see the inauguration of that glorious era, which he so earnestly hoped and prayed might dawn.

He fell on the fatal field of Bull Run, With a single comrade he was skirmishing on the edge of the battle. A rebel sharpshooter, behind a pile of railroad iron, was annoying the men, and he was determined to silence him, which, after a few shots, he succeeded in doing, and then turned his attention to a second, who, hidden behind a similar breastwork, flaunted a small secession flag every time he fired. Just as he was preparing to fire, a ball from his enemy pierced his lungs, and he fell. His comrade raised him, and was about to carry him from the field, but he refused, saying he wanted to see the fight out. Stretched on the field, he watched the shifting phases of the conflict, till, feeling exhausted from loss of blood, he tried to make his way to the rear. He had gone but a short distance when he was struck in the leg by a spent cannon ball and 2was so disabled that he was obliged to be carried from the field, He was put into an ambulance and sent to Alexandria, a distance of twenty-five miles, "the longest ride," he says, "I ever took," and thence to Washington, where , after two operations, the ball was at length removed from the shoulder, where it had lodged. He was supposed to be out of danger and doing well until a few hours before he died, when hemorrhage ensued, and he quietly sunk away into the sleep that knows no wakening.

In this hour, when bereavement is such a general heritage that men are in danger of forgetting all but their own private griefs, a friend who knew and loved the departed would lay this humble tribute on his distant grave. Brave soldier and true man, he realized the promise --

"To them who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, honor, and immortality, eternal life"

Grantville, Oct. 28, 1862


Fuller was buried in Military Asylum Cemetery, now called U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery. His gravesite is Plot B 745.

Another view of  Fuller's gravestone (center) in U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery in Washington.
(Edna Mode | Find A Grave)

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-- Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal, Edited by Julius F. Miner, M.D., Buffalo: Joseph Warren & Co. Printers, 1863.
-- The Liberator, Boston, Mass., Nov. 21, 1862.

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