Thomas Fanning Wood, newly promoted to assistant surgeon, leaves behind the comfort and safety of Moore Hospital in Richmond to join the 3rd North Carolina Regiment in the field. He feels no enthusiasm for the assignment, which begins in snowy midwinter. He would rather remain under the tutelage of Dr. Otis Frederick Manson, head of Moore Hospital. Under Manson’s mentorship, Wood attended just six months of a nine-month course of lectures at the Medical College of Virginia and passed a rigorous oral and written board examination. Before the war, a medical student attended all the lectures twice, but that redundancy is set aside for the duration.
Now, he is officially Dr. Wood — a title he has dreamed of earning since he was a boy. He wears the distinctive gray uniform of a medical officer: collar and cuffs faced with dark, black stripes down each trouser leg. Embroidered on his cap in gold are the letters M.S., flanked by the olive branches of peace. Each sleeve carries a double row of gold braid, and three gold bars adorn the collar.
Still, he feels a little self-conscious about his relative youth and inexperience. He’s a slightly built young man with swept-back, dark hair, clean-shaven cheeks, and a cavalier’s long mustache. After a brief stint in the infantry, for many months he led an indoor life, divided equally between studying medicine and caring for the patients on his ward. Now his duty requires a robust vigor, physical stamina, and a hardy constitution.
Wood reports in February, tramping through deep snow to the medical director’s tent several miles beyond Hamilton’s Crossing on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad line, and settles into camp life. He writes to his mother, “If I dared, I would look back at the comfortable old rocking chair, the blazing and cheerful hearth, and plenty of good books, far, far away. But I control such retrospective glances, and in a few hours after I got into camp I learned to look upon home and all its happy appliances as a romantic little spot, having existence only in the imagination.”
Life, and death, at camp
At least he has a couple of months to get used to camp life before the war gears up again in the spring. The North Carolinians move toward Fredericksburg as part of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. There, they meet a colossal Federal Army, led by General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, pouring across the Rappahannock River. Jackson’s corps of 70 regiments, 26,000 men marching four abreast, with wagon train and artillery, stretches out more than six miles.
The entire Confederate Army enlists just 3,200 field surgeons — one for every 300 soldiers. Among them, they have the use of just 10 thermometers. “Surgical instruments were so scarce that it was not every assistant surgeon who had a pocket case,” Wood writes in his memoirs, “so that having none myself, I secured a very poor one.” He confiscates it from a Union surgeon captured in his field hospital at the Battle of Winchester.
An ambulance corps of 20 men, two from each company in the regiment, assists Wood and the other surgeons in the 3rd North Carolina. “These men were selected with care, generally because of the physical strength and personal courage of the men,” Wood recalls. The ambulance corpsmen are excused from the routine duties of standing guard and conducting drill, but in battle, they share much of the danger that fighting troops face. Like the rest of the medical staff, they are far more likely to be captured when their position is overrun. They cannot easily retreat with their cadre of wounded.
In addition, the regimental medical staff has its own cook and a designated “knapsack bearer,” who carries the hospital pack in addition to his own. “Morton was my knapsack bearer,” Wood writes. “He was a short, stout boy, about 23, and carried the hospital knapsack and his own with perfect ease, and was always ready to do extra duty when called upon. He was a picture of smiling good nature, under the most trying circumstances.” On the campaign, Morton never strays far from Wood’s side with his precious cargo of instruments, sponges, lint bandages, liniments, adhesive plaster, ligatures, and morphine. Bandages and sponges are scarce, so doctors reuse them, sometimes after a brief rinsing, more often not. One of the ambulance men carries one canteen of water and another of whiskey.
The regimental ambulance corps has just two spring wagons, each drawn by a brace of sturdy mules, for transporting the wounded. When there is a lull in the fighting, an ambulance serves as Wood’s quarters, a respite from soggy, cold ground.
Treating the general
In early May, one of the ambulances bears Stonewall Jackson from the nighttime battlefield at Chancellorsville after his own men shoot and severely wound him. General Jackson’s wounding is kept quiet, lest his men become demoralized. Jackson’s guide in the ill-starred scout of the Union position, Pvt. David Kyle, recounts what happened:
“We went down that old Mountain road some four hundred yards when we came in hearing of the Federals. … We stayed there I should judge from two to four minutes when Gen. Jackson turned his horse around and started back up the road we had come down. … When we were about halfway back … he turned his horse’s head toward the south and facing the front of our own line of Battle he started to leave the old Mountain road and just as his horses’ front feet had cleared the edge of the road while his hind feet was still on the edge of the bank there was a single shot fired. … In an instant it was taken up and … a volley as if from a regiment was fired.”
The shots come from jumpy men of the 18th North Carolina Regiment who believe that the returning party of scouts are Union cavalry — a shame they will bear till the end of the war. One shot strikes Jackson in the right hand and two more strike him in the left arm. The litter-bearers carry him by hand over the rough terrain under enemy fire, dropping him twice before reaching the ambulance.
He succumbs to pneumonia a week later, on May 10, 1863.
Wood’s job is to follow the advance of the regiment and treat wounded men on the field. At Chancellorsville, as he gently turns over one soldier to learn if he is dead or alive, a tremendous barrage of artillery erupts all around him. “The clear space on each side of the road was very narrow, perhaps no more than 100 yards — and all the artillery was concentrated there,” he reports. “Shells and shrapnel rattled around us for awhile so that we were obliged to lie down until it was all over.”
On another part of the field, cannon fire sets a tangled forest ablaze, and the sight of the dead sickens Wood, for “some of the badly wounded who could not get away were charred in the very agony of their contortions.” For Wood, the aftermath of battle is a test of both nerve and faith. And he learns soon enough that he has the extraordinary stamina required of a field surgeon, who must work without pause for many hours, many days, regardless of his personal fatigue or the horrific nature of the work before him.
That night he unrolls his bedding under a tree in the dooryard of a farmhouse, wounded soldiers lying all around him in the open. The next morning, Sunday, he awakens beside a corpse.
But there is little time for shock or grief.
Wood has entered a violent world where ordinary human emotions must be set aside if he is to function. He must remain aloof from the suffering in order to maintain his own sanity and do some good. He is recalled to a field hospital in the rear, where the worst of the wounded have been collected, and the work is the most grisly he has yet faced. “My first case was amputation just below the shoulder joint,” he recalls. “There was no escape from it and it was necessary to save the man’s life.”
Previously, he treated fevers, splinted broken bones, bandaged bullet wounds, and saber strikes, but never has he performed radical surgery on his own. He does not hesitate. He understands the procedure in theory, knows the awful sequence of his duty: chloroform, tourniquet, knife, saw, suture, and bandage.
The operation takes only a few minutes and seems to go fine. But he has no chance to follow up, to learn if the man survives beyond a few hours. The wounded accumulate in staggering numbers, and soon Wood is an old hand at the bone saw. Water runs low, flies infest the wounds, men strip off their filthy shirts and socks to fashion bandages. Day after day, from sunup till long after dark, there is no respite from the stench of gangrene and the pitiful cries of the wounded. He works steadily, confident now in his own hands, filtering out all distractions, as focused as he has ever been in his life.
One minor piece of good news reaches him: After a spirited charge against an improvised earthworks at the Chancellor House, the regiment captured a large supply of medicine, including blessed chloroform and ether, bearing the brand of E.R. Squibb, Brooklyn, New York.
After a week of fierce fighting and shocking casualties, the commanders call a truce between the armies to exchange the wounded. At a crossing called United States Ford, Hooker’s engineers expertly lay down a pontoon bridge — planks secured to floats. For the next three days, a parade of 200 Yankee ambulances crosses the river back and forth, hauling away their own wounded and bringing across their wounded enemies, Wood’s compatriots. In addition, the Union Army sends five wagons loaded with fresh beef, 50,000 rations, blankets, and medical supplies. Twenty-six Union surgeons remain behind to help care for the wounded of both armies.
For Wood, it is a spectacular show of humanity on the part of the Yankees. It is also a dispiriting reminder of wealth and plenty, the nearly endless resources to be found north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The butchery on both sides is about equal: Altogether, more than 3,000 soldiers die and almost 20,000 are wounded in seven days of fighting that decides nothing — except that the war will go on.
Gen. Robert E. Lee determines that only a second invasion of the North will force the federal government to accept a conditional peace. He plans to march the Army of Northern Virginia up the Shenandoah Valley and maneuver behind Washington, D.C.; panic the enemy; and dare him to attack Lee’s forces on Union ground.
In June, the North Carolinians cross the Potomac River at Shepardstown and the following day bivouac at Sharpsburg, near Antietam Creek. The previous September, it was the site of the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history — during the first invasion of the North. President Jefferson Davis justified that first invasion because “… we are driven to protect our own country by transferring the seat of war to that of an enemy who pursues us with a relentless and apparently aimless hostility.”
Now at the site of that great slaughter, the North Carolinians march to the mass grave of their own regimental dead from the battle. They salute their fallen comrades by reversing arms: pointing sword tips and rifle muzzles to the ground in the time-honored military expression of grief. The regimental chaplain, the Rev. George Patterson, consecrates the ground with a Christian burial service, and a color guard fires a salute over the grave.
That was the fruit of the first invasion, a “victory” that nearly shattered the army. It is a portent of the dark days to come.
But for now the roads are flat and make for easy marching, the weather is fine, and food is abundant. The troops marvel at the neatness of the Pennsylvania farms, the lush plenty of the countryside. “Every field here is groaning under the burden of immense crops, which we are in hopes to eat,” Wood notes. General Lee issues strict orders that there is to be no looting — he is determined to demonstrate that his troops will not loot and vandalize civilians like the invading Yankees did in Virginia and elsewhere. So the obliging North Carolinians pay for all the food and horses they take — in Confederate dollars.
For days on end, they march deeper into the heart of enemy country, but no enemy appears. Then the various columns of Lee’s army converge on a picturesque country crossroads called Gettysburg, fringed to the south by hills: Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill. There they stumble into a battle that lasts for three days and nearly consumes the army.
The 3rd North Carolina arrives on the field after the first day’s fighting, which resulted in a stunning and almost accidental Confederate victory. For the next two days, they fight tenaciously but cannot dislodge the stubborn Yankees. On the third day, they attempt a final assault on Culp’s Hill, trying to break the Union line on the right while Gen. George Pickett’s division attacks the center. But the attacks are not coordinated. Pickett’s troops step off late, and the North Carolinians are hit from all sides in a murderous crossfire.
More than 500 men charge into battle, and more than 200 fall killed or wounded. Only three officers remain standing. At a field dressing station set up in a farmhouse northeast of Culp’s Hill, Wood and his small staff labor to exhaustion and beyond. And even then, there is no rest: They fall back, first to a divisional hospital, then toward safety across the Potomac.
Wood writes, “The retreat from Gettysburg was begun in the rain which continued without cessation for some days. Every empty wagon was loaded with wounded men, and the roads leading toward the Potomac were full of troops, stragglers, slightly wounded men, making their way as best they could. But there was no panic.” It is a fighting retreat, with skirmishes at every creek crossing until they reach the Potomac River.
Long walk home
Wood soldiers on through the bloody nightmares of the Wilderness Campaign and Cold Harbor, and the long fight up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington, D.C., in 1864. At last he finds himself, in April 1865, at Appomattox Court House with about 30 surviving members of his regiment. North Carolina troops fire the last volley of the Army of Northern Virginia before surrender. Lt. Thomas Fanning Wood signs his parole and begins walking home through 200 miles of ruined country. It’s a slow journey. Along the way, he lingers to tend wounded and sick men.
When at last he reaches his hometown, Wilmington, he finds that the great church his father and uncle built, St. James, has been taken over for a military hospital — for Union soldiers, many of them recently liberated from Salisbury and Andersonville prisons. The nearby Burgwin-Wright house at Third and Market streets, owned by the family of the late Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, becomes a staging area.
The house was built into the side of a hill in 1770 by John Burgwin, a wealthy planter and merchant, then used for headquarters by British Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis in the days leading up to his final defeat at Yorktown. Before the Yankees commandeered it for a hospital, Confederates operated it, and it even acquired something of a reputation as a “party house” where officers could drink and gamble and entertain women. Now the party is over, and the grim business of amputation is well underway.
In the basement, under the supervision of Union surgeon Dr. Henry Shaw, doctors prep sick and wounded soldiers for surgery.
They lie in rows on the floor, their blood staining the wide, heart-pine boards, remnants of the original New Hanover County jail, on the ashes of which Burgwin constructed his residence. A trapdoor in the pine floor leads to yet another basement, a dungeon, where, in Colonial times, incorrigible prisoners were locked. Outside, recessed into the stone foundation, three additional cells are secured with barred iron doors. No one records the irony that liberated prisoners once again languish helpless in jail.
Locally, the little Burgwin-Wright hospital becomes known as the clearinghouse to the National Cemetery, only a few blocks east on Market Street, not far beyond the whitewashed Union headquarters at Bellamy Mansion.
Louis B. Erambert, the 24-year-old pharmacist who gave Dr. Wood his first job in medicine, is long gone, killed by the yellow fever epidemic in 1862.
Years after he settles into his peacetime medical practice in Wilmington, Dr. Thomas Fanning Wood strikes up a conversation with an old one-armed oyster monger named Everett who regularly peddles his wares in the alley behind Wood’s house at Second and Chestnut. Wood inquires of him with professional curiosity: “Who amputated your arm?” Everett replies, “I think you ought to know; you done it yourself.”
He was Wood’s first amputation case at Chancellorsville, a hardy survivor, a living testament to the skill of a “rather unripe specimen of a doctor.”
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The author is indebted to the following: Heidi Appel and Dr. Al Denn, Sc.D, Burgwin-Wright House; Donald G. Johnson, M.D., M.P. H., Brunswick Civil War Roundtable; Dr. Chris Fonvielle, UNCW Department of History; the staff of Chimborazo Hospital, Richmond National Battlefield Park; the staff of Special Collections, William Madison Randall Library, UNC Wilmington. Source include: http://www.nps.gov/frsp/jacktr.htm, the National Park Service web guide to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvaina County Battlefield Park; The Thomas Fanning Wood Family Papers, MS 172, William Madison Randall Library Special Collections, UNCW; Doctor to the Front: The Recollections of Confederate Surgeon Thomas Fanning Wood 1861-1865, edited by Donald B. Koonce (The University of Tennessee Press, 2000).
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
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