Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Beyond medical aid': A private's death at First Bull Run

Surgeon Luther V. Bell cared for John Mead and other Union wounded at Sudley Church. 
(Barnard & Gibson | Library of Congress)
CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.
Two children, probably sons of a Confederate soldier, at graves for soldiers near 
Sudley Church, which appears in the background. (George Barnard | Library of Congress)
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For 11th Massachusetts surgeon Luther V. Bell, the First Battle of Bull Run was a horror show. Scores of wounded Union soldiers filled a small, brick church near the battlefield on the afternoon of July 21, 1861, creating a madhouse of misery for the former head of an insane asylum.

"The whole volume of military surgery was opened before me on Sunday afternoon with illustrations horrid and sanguinary," the 55-year-old Dartmouth Medical School graduate wrote in a letter to a friend. "Sudley Church with its hundred wounded victims will form a picture in my sick dreams so long as I live."

"The wounds were awfully ghastly," 
wrote surgeon Luther V. Bell
of the soldiers he treated
at Sudley Church.

Within an hour, wounded covered the floor and gallery of the church. Pews had been removed to make room. "The wounds were awfully ghastly," Bell recalled, "being made much with shell, Minie-balls, and rifled canons."

John P. Mead, a 29-year-old shoe cutter from Lynnfield, Mass., was among Bell's patients at the makeshift hospital near Bull Run.  A married father of a 4-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, the 11th Massachusetts private had suffered a horrible wound from an artillery shell.

Mead's regiment, which went into the first major battle of the war wearing state-issued gray uniforms, had advanced to a brow of a hill, fired and then fell back a few rods. Then the soldiers reloaded, advanced and fired again. The cacophony of artillery shells and rifle fire was frightening. "Oh! Sarah," 11th Massachusetts Lieutenant John Robertson wrote to his wife, "it was a fearful scene. I cannot describe it. One must experience it to feel it ..."

Ordered to a new position to support a battery, the regiment had to pass through a narrow gully. Suddenly, a shell burst among the regiment, knocking Robertson to the ground and bloodying his nose. When he recovered his senses, he rushed to catch up with his company. Soon, he discovered the awful effects of the Rebel fire. " ... a piece of the shell which burst and knocked me down [and] struck the man who was touching me in my platoon," he wrote his wife, "and tore away all the lower part of his abdomen making a most horrible wound."

That man -- John P. Mead -- was carried to the rear. He faced bleak prospects. "Doct Bell who dressed the wound says he could not possibly have lived more than three or four hours," Robertson remembered.

Marker for  Private John P. Mead
 in Willow Cemetery in Lynnfield, Mass.
(Find A Grave)

On Aug. 1, 1861, nearly two weeks after the battle, Bell wrote a two-page letter to Jane W. Mead explaining the circumstances of her husband's death. (See complete transcription below.) At about 3 p.m. on the day of the battle, the grievously wounded soldier arrived at Sudley Church.

"I found he had received a truly horrible wound from a piece of shell in the upper part of the thigh bone," the surgeon recalled. "As he was at first in great pain, I put him under the influence of ether, and proceeded to examine the wound, and took therefrom all the contents of his pocket, which had been driven into it. I saw at once that he was beyond medical aid, as the damage was too near the body for amputation."

Mead, who asked Bell if he would lose his leg, never "appreciated fully how severely he was wounded," Bell explained.

When it was apparent the Rebels would overrun the position at the church, the Union army retreated, and Bell reluctantly left his patients. "I have seen a person who was taken prisoner and afterwards escaped," Bell reported to Jane Mead. "He reports that Mr. Mead lived some 36 hours; that the wounds were not ill-healed, and that he then died easily."

Although it's unknown if Mead's remains were recovered and sent to Massachusetts, a marker honors his memory in Willow Hill Cemetery in Lynnfield. A ring he wore at Bull Run was returned to the family as a memento.

National Archives via fold3.com.
Head Quarters, 11th Regt. M.V.
Near Alexandria, Va.

Dear Madam

I am much pained to be obliged to inform you that your worst apprehensions respecting the fate of Mr. Mead are realized. He was brought into the Church near Bull Run, not Centreville, where a portion of the wounded were taken, at about 3 o'clock, Sunday afternoon. My attention was soon called to him, and on examination, I found he had received a truly horrible wound from a piece of shell in the upper part of the thigh bone. As he was at first in great pain, I put him under the influence of ether, and proceeded to examine the wound, and took therefrom all the contents of his pocket, which had been driven into it. I saw at once that he was beyond medical aid, as the damage was too near the body for amputation.

I dressed it before he came out of  the etherization, gave him some comforting things, and told him I would come and see him again as soon as I could attend to some pressing cases (indecipherable) the whole church fall we had ...

National Archives via fold3.com.
... I do not think he appreciated fully how severely he was wounded, as I recollect his asking me if I thought he would lose his leg?

At about 6 1/2 P.M. the rush of the foe was upon us made such circumstance as compelled us to retire or be killed, and we were obliged to leave the place on our retreat.

I have seen a person who was taken prisoner and afterwards escaped. He reports that Mr. Mead lived some 36 hours; that the wounds were not ill-healed, and that he then died easily.

I believe these are in the main facts in this sad narrative, and I would close by offering my deepest sympathies in this hour of your bereavement.

I might add that Mr. M. recognized me, and seemed in a perfectly resigned and cheerful frame of mind.

Very faithfully yours
Luther V. Bell
Surgeon 11th Regt M.V.

Mrs. Jane W. Mead
Lynnfield, Mass.

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NOTES AND SOURCES

-- Luther V. Bell became surgeon of the 11th Massachusetts on June 13, 1861. In an impassioned letter to a friend, he wrote about his devotion to the Union cause: "... I have never had one beginning of a regret at my decision to devote what may be left of life and ability to the great cause. I have, as you know, four young motherless children. Painful, as it is, to leave such a charge, I have forced myself into reconciliation by the reflection, that the great issue under the stern arbitrament of arms is, whether or not, our children are to have a country."

While serving as a brigade surgeon, Bell died of disease at Budd's Ferry, Md., on Feb. 11, 1862.

"Bell had long been an invalid," The New York Times reported the next day, "and had suffered to some degree from pulmonary disease, and he has had several attacks of hemorrhage, but his health had been better in the army until within a week, when he had an attack of pleurisy, complicated with acute rheumatism. For several days he had suffered intensely, and could only be relieved by inhalations of chloroform.

"He was aware of the severity of his case, and gave directions that his friends should be notified of his perilous condition."

Digital copies and a transcript
 of  John Robertson's lengthy

Bull Run letter to his wife 
may be accessed here.
-- Ellis, George E., Memoir of Luther V. Bell, M.D., LL.D, Proceedings of Massachusetts Historical Society, April 1, 1863. 

-- John Mead widow's pension file, National Archives & Records Service, Washington, D.C., via fold3.com.

-- Lieutenant John C. Robertson letter to his wife, Sarah, July 27, 1861, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection, Tufts-Robertson Papers, accessed online April 19, 2017.

In the letter to his wife, Robertson referred to reports of Confederate atrocities committed at Sudley Church after the Yankees' retreat. "...we have it from what seems good authority," he wrote, "that after our retreat the rebels blew up the Hospital and inhumanly murdered every wounded man they found. For the sake of humanity, I trust this may not be true." The reports were unfounded.

-- The Massachusetts Register, A Very Complete Acccount of the Massachusetts Volunteers, Boston, Adams, Sampson & Co., 1862.

-- Wellman, Thomas, History of the Town of Lynnfield, Mass., 1635-1895, Boston, Published and illustrated by the Blanchard & Watts Engraving Co., 1895.

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