by Capt. James F. Fitts, Co. F, 114th New York
Those who have had much experience with the effects wrought by missiles of modern warfare have been impressed by two curious facts; first, that a very slight wound is often sufficient to produce death; and second, that a human being may receive a most desperate and apparently fatal injury from these dreadful causes, and yet survive a long time, possibly just as long as though no wound had been received, and finally die from other causes. The experience of almost every soldier of the late war abounds in illustrations of these facts, and also of the other interesting fact that the most disfiguring and inconvenient wounds often do produce death. A few instances from my own observation may be set forth.
A soldier accidentally wounded in the great toe by the discharge of a musket, before Port Hudson in June, 1863, died while chloroform was being administered to him preparatory to amputation. It may be questionable in this case whether the fatal result is properly attributable to the nervous attack, the fright, or the effects of chloroform. It is well known that in rare cases the administration of this anesthetic is necessarily fatal.
Spent balls have sometimes produced death. At the Battle of Winchester, in September, 1864, the present writer was knocked down by a musket ball which did not even indent the skin. In some cases of this kind the shock of the nervous system has been sufficient to kill, without drawing a drop of blood.
At the assault on Port Hudson, on June 14, 1863, one of our soldiers in reserve saw a cannon ball, apparently spent, rolling over the ground near him. He carelessly reached out his foot to stop it. The result was a mangled foot which had to be amputated.
In marked contrast to the above were the following cases, all occurring within my personal knowledge:
A major of Connecticut volunteers, before Port Hudson, on the 27th of May, 1863, was struck in the breast by a grape shot, which traversed the body and was taken out from the back. Contrary to expectation he did not die immediately and was laid aside without attention until he should die, but a couple of Days passed, and he still survived. He was sent down the river to New Orleans, with some hundreds of others, and lay there in the hospital for months. Still he did not die – would not die, and becoming well enough to travel was sent home. At that time it was not within the expectation of any person who knew anything about the case that he would ever be able to perform the slightest military duty again. And yet, on October 19, 1864, just sixteen months after the wound was received, the major was in command of his regiment at the bloody battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia. He escaped the perils of that day unharmed, and for aught I know to the contrary is alive and well now.
Not to speak too much in the first person, at the assault on Port Hudson, June 14, 1863, I was prostrated by a buckshot just above the hip. After being taken to the rear, the wound was probed by a surgeon, and the ball could not be found. “This is serious” he said, and his face expressed sincerity. I was laid aside to die, and others for whom something could possibly be done were placed on the table. Three days passed, and I lived; ate vigorously, and felt well, except for the condemnation of the surgeon, which seemed to settle it that I ought to have died within twenty-four hours. My persistency, not alone in living, but feeling well, excited renewed attention, and the case was reexamined. It was then discovered that the buckshot had struck a rib, followed its general course around to the front, and buried itself in the abdominal integuments so deeply that it could not be extracted. And there it lies today. A heavy feeling in that vicinity sometimes reminds me of it, and occasionally a pain from the spot where the shot entered; but my life has not been shortened a day by the wound.
Before Port Hudson, June 10, 1863, Corporal Medbury, of my company, on duty with a fatigue party constructing a military road, was seriously wounded by a minnie ball striking him just back of the shoulder joint. The wound was probed; the ball lay too deep to be extracted; the patient was considered as fatally hurt. He was sent down to New Orleans and taken to a hospital. A week later I found him there, with his arm in a sling, walking about, feeling cheerful and well, and expecting to recover entirely in a few days. In five days after that Medbury was confined to his bed; in two days he was dead! A post-mortem examination showed that the bullet had passed through one lung and half through the opposite one. The death was caused by gangrene – mortification – and was necessarily fatal from the first. The curious part of the matter was that a man should carry a fatal bullet in his body for two weeks, should apparently recover from the wound, and should shortly afterward die of it.
On the assault of Port Hudson, before referred to, a sergeant of my regiment was struck in the mouth by a buckshot. It took out every tooth on one side of the upper jaw, front, as clean as a dentist’s saw could have done it, and inflicted no other injury.
I saw after the surrender of Port Hudson, a colonel, who, during the siege had received a minnie ball in one cheek, just forward of the angle of the jaw. It had passed entirely through the face, through both cheeks, taking out at least four double teeth I its course, but happily escaping the tongue. The wound had entirely healed, and the disfigurement was great; but the gallant colonel could eat and talk as well as before.
At the St. James’ Hospital, New Orleans, on the pallet next to me, in June 1863, lay a captain of the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteers, helpless, and suffering with one of the strangest wounds I ever saw. He had received it on the 27th of May, in command of his company of skirmishers, creeping over the ground in advance of the lines of assault, among the tangled forest and ravines before the enemy’s works. While working forward upon his hands and knees he was struck by a minnie ball just below the hip. The ball took a circular course round the leg, never touching bone, but running round through the muscles at least twice between the hip and knee; thence skipping the kneepan, it circled round twice in the same manner between knee and ankle, and was finally extracted near the foot. The wound was one of the most debilitating and confining, as well as painful, but not necessarily dangerous.
At the hospital in Winchester, in November, 1864, I saw among others, a soldier who had been shot by one of a squad of Mosby’s guerillas while out on reconnaissance. The wound was inflicted by a heavy navy revolver or carbine. The ball entered behind one eye, and apparently took a straight course through the head. It did not come out on the opposite side, and probing failed to discover it. The man was sent to the hospital and given up as one who was certain to die. Yet, when I saw him, almost two months had elapsed since the wound was inflicted; the sight in one eye was gone, but that of the other was perfectly good. The general health of the patient was good, and everything seemed to indicate a speedy recovery.A surgeon of the Second New York Mounted Rifles told me that while before Petersburg, in 1864, a cavalryman came in on his horse one day from a skirmish, with one leg entirely torn off by a shell, and hanging from the seared and ragged stump was the dangling end of the great artery, effectively closed by the heat of the shell. It was impossible that the patient could live with such a wound. The great wonder was that he could have traveled a mile or two on horseback without bleeding to death; and it was quite as strange that he lived three days after being placed in the hospital.
- For those seeking more information on Captain James Franklin Fitts, his papers are located at the University of New Hampshire Library.