Saturday, February 13, 2016

A slow, agonizing death for Private George Chamberlain

16th Connecticut Private George Chamberlain suffered from a "wound from the entrance
 of musket ball a little below the bend of the right knee," according to a
Union surgeon's report.  (Chamberlain image Middlesex County Historical Society)
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Adapted from my book, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam. E-mail me for information on how to purchase an autographed copy. Click here for the Faces of the Civil War thread on my blog.

After he sliced open George F. Chamberlain’s shot-up right knee on Oct. 17, 1862, surgeon Edward McDonnell drained more than a pint of pus from the 18-year-old soldier’s wound. His patient was “very nervous,” the surgeon noticed, undoubtedly because the Rebel lead in his leg still had not been removed a month after the Battle of Antietam.

A private in Company G of the 16th Connecticut, Chamberlain at least could count on the comfort of his mother, who traveled from Middletown, Conn., and remained by her son’s side in Maryland hospitals for six months while he recuperated. George was quite close to Mary Ann Chamberlain, a single mother who had struggled to rear her only son and three daughters ever since her husband, Ezra, a leader in the Adventist movement, had died in 1855. Before the Civil War, George worked as a clerk in Middletown and on a farm, giving his earnings to mother, who supplemented the family’s meager household income by teaching children at her small house.   When he enlisted in the Union army on Aug. 9, 1862, George, who stood 5-11 and had long brown hair, brown eyes and a light complexion, had to receive Mary Ann’s written consent.

When McDonnell first examined Chamberlain after he was admitted to the German Reformed Church hospital on Main Street in Sharpsburg on Oct. 6, he noticed a bullet wound slightly below the bend of the right knee. Apparently lodged in a spongy part of the tibia, the bullet caused a great deal of inflammation and required Chamberlain to keep his leg still and flexed at a right angle to avoid excruciating pain. McDonnell prescribed cold and hot cloth treatments for the swollen knee and applied wet oakum, a surgical dressing made of rope, to absorb blood, pus and other fluids that drained from the wound.   Amputation -- the bane of almost every wounded soldier -- apparently was not an option, but Chamberlain’s health seemed to teeter on the brink.

          A panoramic view of the field where George Chamberlain was wounded.

“He was some of the time in danger of losing his life from fever and septic accidents,” recalled Truman Squire, a surgeon in the 89th New York, who also treated soldiers at the Reformed Church.

As Chamberlain recuperated, 16th Connecticut Pvt. Jacob Bauer of Berlin tried to cheer his friend, giving him his watch “to amuse him” and perhaps to take back home when he was well. But by November, Chamberlain still was not healthy enough to go home. While Mary Ann helped care for her son, they witnessed the death of another Connecticut soldier. On Nov. 16, 16th Connecticut Pvt. Horace Lay of Hartford, who had suffered serious bullet wounds in both legs, died with his wife by his side at the Reformed Church.

On April 1, 1863, nearly six months after he was wounded at Antietam, Chamberlain finally was discharged from the army and sent back to Middletown under the care of his mother. But the young soldier was never the same after he was shot in farmer Joseph Sherrick's 40-acre cornfield. George was “emaciated and very weak” because of his war wound, remembered a Middletown doctor who treated him for free because the Chamberlains couldn’t afford to pay. “He had a cough which he attributed to a cold contracted in the hospital,” recalled Dr. Rufus Baker, who noted that Chamberlain also suffered from a slight hemorrhaging of the lung.  Gainful employment was out of the question for a young man who needed crutches or a cane to walk.

Desperate to get better, Chamberlain traveled to Ohio, where he lived in a boarding house and with relatives. While there, he was persuaded to try electric bath treatments at a facility on Prospect Street in Cleveland. Although of dubious value, ill and infirm people sought such treatments, which employed electricity of  low voltage generated by friction devices.

The Union army used the German Reformed Church in Sharpsburg, Md., as a hospital after Antietam.

     Where Chamberlain was treated: Inside the old German Reformed Church hospital.

“I am still here and shall remain for a while,” he wrote his mother on March 12, 1864, “long enough to give it a fair chance.”

 Initially, Chamberlain was optimistic his health would improve.

 “I think he is the nearest right of any physician that I have employed,” Chamberlain wrote his mother about an Ohio doctor in late winter 1864. “He says also that from my throat to my stomach is one complete mass of ulcers and that it is like raw meat. … I am convinced that the greatest trouble is in my stomach. I am greatly troubled to keep food down at all.”  Unable to work, Chamberlain worried about how he was going to pay for his room and board and bath treatments, which cost $1.50 each.

16th Connecticut monument at Antietam.
Extremely concerned about her son, Mary Ann Chamberlain offered encouragement. “Do try to be careful of your health,” she wrote George on June 16, 1864. “Go to bed early at night. Keep good company and above all make up your mind to serve God.”

But Chamberlain’s health was no better by the spring of 1865. “Sometimes I think the baths help me,” he wrote Mary Ann Chamberlain on March 16, “and then I get discouraged and think they don’t."
By late spring 1865, Chamberlain took a turn for the worse. The electric bath treatments provided no benefit. Coughing attacks continued. On May 11, 1865 -- 958 days after he was shot in the right knee in a cornfield at Antietam and a little more than a month after Lee had surrendered to Grant -- George Chamberlain died at the home of a relative in Stow Township, Ohio. He was 21 years old. The cause of death, according to a doctor, was the battlefield wound and “attendant constitutional injuries.”

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


--Squires, T. and McDonnell, E; Surgeons Reports, File A, Box 15, Records of Adjutant Generals Office, Record Group 94; Nationals Archives Building, Washington, D.C.
--George Chamberlain and Horace Lay pension records, National Archives and Records Service, Washington.
--Pvt. Jacob Bauer letter to his wife, Oct. 2, 1862, Copy in Antietam National Battlefield library.


  1. I suspect this is a sad yet all too typical tale of a slow lingering death that overtook many young men who thought they had 'escaped' the ravages of war ...

  2. Sad story which gives us some idea of what our ancestors suffered...

  3. Poor guy...hard to read...

  4. So much suffering... Very sad...