Saturday, September 29, 2018

For these vets, Antietam wounds a longtime pain in the ... ankle

A circa-1890s X-ray of 16th Connecticut veteran Bela Burr's ankle revealed a Rebel bullet.
(New England Civil War Museum)
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For at least two Union veterans, the painful price of fighting at Antietam was suffering with a bullet in the ankle for decades.

16th Connecticut veteran Bela Burr, 
second row in middle.
(New England Civil War Museum)
Bela Burr -- a private in 16th Connecticut who became a newspaperman after the war -- was severely wounded in both legs during his regiment's disastrous attack in the 40-Acre Cornfield.  Required to use a cane much of the rest of his life because of the wounds, he groused that his crippled right leg felt like a "block of wood" or as though a "weight was tied to it." When Burr's doctor X-rayed his left ankle more than 30 years after the battle, he discovered a "small, hard oval object,"  about an inch above the joint. It was a small piece of Rebel lead, later removed.

When "Captain" Crowley was wounded in the ankle at Antietam, the Regular Army officer went down on his face "like a flash." Soon blood oozed over the top of his shoe. A Federal surgeon examined the wound, advising amputation, but Crowley wanted no part of that. Before the harried division surgeon moved on, he gave Crowley hope and a prediction: the lead would someday work itself out of the ankle.

Flash forward to the summer of 1900: As Crowley walked down a staircase, he slipped, the sudden movement loosening the bullet that long ago had lodged in his ankle, just as the surgeon had predicted. The old soldier, whose foot had swelled, sought a doctor to finally remove the tiny clump of lead. Crowley -- who told his bullet story to a Washington Evening Star reporter -- found the perfect man for the job.

Read on ...

Washington Evening Star, Aug. 17, 1900

Nearly 40 years have gone by since the first gun was fired at Fort Sumter, and it would seem that all the incidents relating to the war which followed have been since told and retold several times, but a fresh one came to light a few days ago through an accident.

Capt. Crowley, stopping at the Takoma hotel, slipped while coming downstairs recently and the jar loosened from its place a bullet that had been located beneath his ankle bone since the battle of Antietam. The leaden missile had troubled the captain at different periods since, but the accident precipitated a climax. The foot immediately began to swell and the next day he decided to go to a hospital.

"Captain" Crowley's Antietam bullet story appeared in many
newspapers in 1900. He had the removed bullet

made into a watch charm.
On his way to one of the local institutions, Capt. Crowley happened to glance over a paper and noticed that his old division surgeon, Dr. Woodall, had but recently returned from the Philippines and was stopping in Baltimore. Without further discussion the captain was taken to Baltimore.

Surgeon Woodall was located and by a short operation the ball was removed. In conversation with Capt. Crowley, a reporter of the Evening Star was told the story of the bullet which had been carried about by him for more than a third of a century.

The captain said: "I was a lieutenant in the regulars at the time the battle of Antietam was fought, and the first day of the struggle I was leading my company up a short hill, on the crest of which was located a large body of 'confeds.' As we charged, with every man yelling at the top of his voice, I went down on my face like a flash. Thinking I had stumbled over something, I immediately arose as one of the boys called back to me: "'Hello, lieutenant, are you hit?'

"'Not a scratch,' I replied, and at once started after my company.

"I had hardly taken a dozen steps before I felt something wet around my shoe, and, stooping down to turn up my trousers (we didn't wear leggins then), I found blood oozing over my shoetops. As soon as I pulled off my shoe, my foot became swollen to twice its natural size, and I started for the rear.

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"You may have heard what a field hospital was like, but as the thermometer registered fully 125 in the sun that poured down on us further description is unnecessary. Surgeon Woodall, God bless him, was in command, and after a hurried examination told me the foot would have to come off. But I protested, and the surgeon said all right; he would examine it later. As there were hundreds of brave boys lying around waiting to be attended to, the surgeon passed on.

"But an accident again brought him near the spot where I was lying on the ground and he once more probed for the ball. It was no use, however; it could not be found. The surgeon then said: " 'Crowley, that ball has gone up under your ankle bone, and if you want it out now the foot will have to come off. The wound may heal up and enable you to walk upon the injured foot. Some day you will jar the ball from its place, and then it can be taken out easily.'

"Quite a prediction, wasn't it?

A Confederate bullet, perhaps
like one that lodged
in Crowley's ankle.

"A few minutes after the surgeon left me back came our men on the run, and confusion was everywhere. The army was retreating and the wounded men were to be left behind. Try as I could, no one cared to help a regular, and I thought my chances pretty good of falling into the hands of the Johnnies. Just then a mule team with supplies halted near me, and in the twinkle of an eye I was on the back of one of the animals. The darky driver made no objections, and we went off of that battle field with a skip and a jump.

"I remained in the hospital for two months and was then discharged, being able to walk with a crutch. Since those days I have had numerous operations performed on the foot, but the bullet refused to come from its hiding place. The jar given me last week, however, did the trick.

"The strange part of the wound was that the bullet when taken out was encased in a sort of amber-like covering, and this had prevented blood poisoning. I have had the bullet made into a watch charm, and money couldn't buy it."'

Capt. Crowley fought through the entire civil war, being with the Second division of the Fifth army corps, and to-day is hale and hearty, a slight limp and stoop being the only reminder that many years have elapsed since he fought for Uncle Sam.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Bela Burr widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

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