Sunday, October 30, 2016

'No sweet dream': Remarkable life of a Gettysburg casualty

Armless vet George Warner (on rock) at 20th Connecticut monument dedication at Gettysburg.

 Adapted from my book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers. E-mail me here for information on how to purchase an autographed copy.

In the months and years after George Washington Warner had both his arms nearly completely blown off by friendly fire at Gettysburg , a stark picture was presented of the former 20th Connecticut private. “This case calls for unusual sympathy,” a Hartford surgeon wrote after a medical visit by Warner in the winter of 1864. "He is entirely helpless -- so far as that he cannot dress himself nor eat his food without the aid of others,” Homer Buchanon and John Richardson, Warner’s neighbors in New Haven, Connecticut, noted ten years later. “… it is unsafe for him to walk out from his home alone and consequently [he] is always attended by a young man … he [is] entirely incapacitated from performing any act without the aid and assistance of one or more persons.”

And yet despite his handicaps, Warner led a remarkable, eventful life after the Civil War.

“… the former soldier radiates cheerfulness and optimism as he sits on the veranda of his cosy [sic] little home and nods to passers-by or chats with his neighbors,” Warner’s hometown newspaper reported five decades after he was grievously wounded. “Life has been no sweet dream for Mr. [Warner], but he has made the best of it, and intends to enjoy things to the utmost for a good many years to come.”

Married with five children before the war, Warner fathered three more children with wife Catherine after he was discharged from the army on October 17, 1863. A frequent attendee at Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ events, Warner was a familiar figure for years in New Haven at Memorial Day parades and monument dedications.

"Life has been no sweet dream" for 
George Warner, his hometown newspaper
wrote five decades after he was
severely wounded at Gettysburg.
(Bob O'Brien collection) 
At the dedication of the 20th Connecticut monument in Gettysburg on July 3, 1885, Warner was given the honor of raising a huge American flag from atop the monument near the crest of Culp’s Hill, about 300 yards from where he was terribly wounded 22 years earlier. A special pulley was constructed that allowed him to do the honors by simply moving backward with a rope tied around his waist. Afterward, Warner, wearing a regimental ribbon and a bowler hat and sitting atop a boulder near the monument, posed with his comrades for an image shot by renowned Gettysburg battlefield photographer William Tipton.

Nearly two years later, on June 17, 1887, Warner was called upon to unveil one of the four statues at the base of the 110-foot Soldiers and Sailors monument at the summit of East Rock Park in New Haven. In one of the grandest events in the city’s history, thousands marched on a hot, hazy day from the center of town to East Rock, 400 feet above New Haven and Long Island Sound. “The crowd surged where it pleased,” the New Haven Morning News reported. “Its very magnitude made it omnipotent.”

A huge procession that included hundreds of veterans crossed a bridge and wound its way to the park, where merchants were “busy as bees” selling ice cream and beer. “The river of moving blue coats, brass buttons and the various uniforms of the civic societies presented a magnificent appearance …,” another local newspaper reported. While cannons of three warships offshore boomed in celebration, many in the crowd at East Rock, estimated by some at 100,000, sought shade in the woods. At about 2 p.m., former Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan were in attendance as Warner, again using a special pulley and a rope, remarkably removed the drapery on the statue with his teeth.

On June 16, 1905, at the dedication of a Civil War monument on New Haven's Broadway, near Yale University, Warner used another special contraption that also allowed him to use his teeth to remove a flag to unveil the 33-foot granite monument. Afterward, he presented in his clenched teeth a small American flag to Gen. Edwin Greeley, a former 10th Connecticut colonel.

In the decades after the war, Warner’s son, William, frequently accompanied him, helping him scratch out a living selling books and paying the trolley fare for his armless father. Warner also peddled carte de visites of himself -- in one he looks forlorn, empty sleeves of a coat dangling by his side, while in another George sits with his five children and his wife, who holds a cannon ball. A device attached to doors in Warner’s three-story house on Edgewood Street, near the Yale Bowl in New Haven, allowed the veteran to open them with his feet. In his later years, Warner sometimes rode the trolley alone (with the fare in his coat pocket for the conductor), played records on his phonograph and loved to play pinochle. Son Charles, a cabinet maker, built his father a box on which he could place his cards so he could easily point out which one he wanted to play with his stump.

JULY 3, 1885:: 20th Connecticut veterans at  dedication of their monument at Gettysburg.
Randy Bieler collection.  (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Born May 9, 1832 in Glastonbury, Connecticut, George was one of 10 children of Andrew and Phoebe Warner, who squeaked out a living as farmers. When he was 12, Warner was employed as a laborer on a local man’s huge farm along the Connecticut River, earning $12 a month – enough to purchase a cow as a present for his mother. (The family apparently sold the animal for a profit two years later.) After Warner’s father died, George, several of his siblings and his mother found employment in a cotton mill.

On August 5, 1862, Warner enlisted in the 20th Connecticut in Derby, leaving behind his wife and children in nearby Beacon Falls, where George was employed as a mill worker. “It was a sacrifice,” the New Haven Register reported in 1922, “but it showed the stuff of which the men of those hectic days were made.”

At Chancellorsville, Virginia, on May 2, 1863 -- the 20th Connecticut’s first battle of the war -- Warner and his comrades held a small trench at the foot of a hill. Union artillery was positioned to the rear of the regiment, near a patch of woods. When Rebels appeared at the top of a hill, the regiment was caught in a crossfire fire between the two armies, sending Warner and his comrades running for the lives into the woods “to keep from being cut to pieces.”

“I escaped unhurt,” Warner recalled years later, “but one piece of lead struck my knapsack and took it clear off my back. I lost all my little keepsakes, including a picture of my wife, but I couldn’t stop then.” Lt. Col.William Wooster, the 20th Connecticut’s commander, was among those who were captured.

Two months later at Gettysburg, Warner was terribly mangled when a fragment of an artillery shell fired from Federal batteries on Baltimore Pike or Powers Hill struck his right arm as the 20th Connecticut made its way up the south side of Culp’s Hill early on the morning of July 3, 1863. The regiment was attempting to re-capture earthworks it had constructed the previous day. The fragment severed the arm a few inches below Warner’s shoulder, shockingly carrying the limb several feet from him; another fragment, perhaps from the same round, struck the thirty-one-year-old private’s left arm and forearm, lacerating the soft parts badly and breaking bones. Warner also suffered severe flesh wounds on his scalp and left knee.

Post-war image of George and Catherine Warner and six of their children. 
Mrs. Warner holds a cannonball. (Bob O'Brien collection)

Incensed by the toll his army’s own artillery took on his men, Wooster, released by the Rebels after Chancellorsville, threatened to turn his regiment on the Union battery responsible. “He [Wooster] was not only required to keep the enemy in check, but encountered great difficulty, while resisting the enemy, in protecting himself against the fire of our own artillery, aimed partly over his command at the enemy in and near our intrenchments,” 1st Brigade commander Archibald L. McDougall of the 123rd New York recalled. “His greatest embarrassment was the farther he pushed the enemy the more directly he was placed under the fire of our own guns. Some of his men became severely wounded by our artillery fire.” Another officer threatened to personally shoot members of the battery responsible.

Circa-1910 image of Warner and his wife,
Catherine. (Courtesy Bob O'Brien)
An hour after he was wounded, Warner’s left arm was amputated by regimental surgeon J. Wadsworth Terry. Initially unaware that he had lost both arms, Warner soon came to a sober realization: "Why, surgeon, I've lost my right arm too," he told Terry. "I thought I had only lost my left!"

Nearly a month after his wounding, a Soldiers’ Aid Association volunteer observed Warner in a XII Corps hospital near Gettysburg, noting the private had “both arms off” and was also wounded in the legs, but was “apparently doing well.” On July 29, 1863, a doctor wrote that Warner’s condition was good and that he slept well and took long walks about the grounds of the hospital. His wounds, the doctor noted, were “quite open and discharging freely.” Three months later, at an army hospital in Philadelphia, a surgeon wrote the obvious: “He is unfit for Invalid Corps.” Catherine traveled from Connecticut to escort her crippled husband home.

Not surprisingly, shortly after Warner applied for a pension in 1863, it was quickly granted. He received $8 a month in October 1863, with an increase to $25 a month in 1864, $50 a month in 1878 and later another increase to $100 a month in 1889. In 1918, Warner sought another increase, noting in a letter to the Bureau of Pensions that he had “been told that all Civil War veterans are getting an increase in pension and [I] would like to know if I benefit by it.” Already receiving the maximum allowed by Congress, he was denied more government aid.

“In the hospital, they treated me fine, too. I couldn’t have asked for anything better."

-- George Warner, recalling his treatment during the Civil War

Despite what the war did to him, Warner said he didn’t regret his service. “I was treated good and had plenty to eat all the time… although there wasn’t much strawberry shortcake,” he said shortly after his 90th birthday. “In the hospital, they treated me fine, too. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Outliving his wife and five of his eight children, Warner died October 12, 1923. The 91-year-old veteran was laid to rest next to his wife in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, where he lived for fifty-eight years.


-- George Warner pension file, National Archives and Records Administratoion, Washhington D.C.
-- Hartford Daily Courant, July 30, 1863
-- Hartford Courant, June 17, 1905
-- New Haven Morning News, June 18, 1887
-- New Haven Journal-Courier, May 26, 1981
-- New Haven Register, May 21, 1922
-- “Program For The Dedication of a Soldiers Monument, First Light Battery and the Sixth, Seventh and Tenth Connecticut Volunteers Monument Association”, 1905
-- The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1901
-- Storrs, John W., The Twentieth Connecticut, A Regimental History, Ansonia, Conn., The Press of the Naugatuck Valley Sentinel, 1886

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Nice job John. I relate Warner's story on almost all of my tours on Culp's Hill. Incredibly resilient and it's hos personality to others that is gripping. A shining light for the 20th CT.

  3. Anonymous5:27 AM

    What a soldier.