View Full Version : Conscripted Surgeons. 3K YA Two kids at the battle of Gettysburg.

March 10th, 2020, 05:20 PM
I felt a sudden jerk as the man’s leg came loose. The limb, from foot to just below the knee, seemed to weigh a ton as I reached over to drop it out an open window beside me.

Outside, the limb rolled off a pile and onto the ground. It was only one of many amputations that day. The appendages were piled almost to the lower window sill of the barn. Loud screaming came to my ears from across the room as more wounded came in to replace the ones already operated on.

There was a loud shout from the back of the barn to, “Get them damned goats out’a here. They’re in the way.”

I took time to look around, wipe a sweating brow with a bloody rag, and catch my breath. Two small bucklings run past, through a group of laughing Rebel soldiers, and out the front.

The room was suffused with the odors of fresh blood, straw, and horse manure. A muddy boot poking at my thigh brought my attention back to the operating table; actually a workbench covered with axle grease and crud -- with blood flowing through cracked boards on its surface to an already reddened dirt floor. The cool liquid there soaked the knees of my Levis.

A formerly moaning man screamed at the less than gentle action of placing him onto the table, the sound almost lost in the noisy atmosphere of the old building. He had been put under with something on a rag, chloroform? My job was bad but the helpers holding shoulders and heads had it worse. They risked being bitten and were given more work breaks as they were forced to breathe the odor of anesthetic.

I did my task by lying across ankles to steady lower limbs, clasping cross-ties under the surface of the table. Tiredly, I rested my right ear on a throbbing leg to watch a young surgeon, only a few years older than my thirteen years, make the first cut on the struggling soldier's right leg.

Archie, the surgeon, sweating from his labors, dripped moisture onto his work. I wish I could say that they were quick sure strokes, but I can’t. Archie was tired and the ninety or so degree heat didn’t help any. The kitchen knives and hacksaws he used would often slip in his hand, causing him to hack more than slice. Experience had gotten the time down to five minutes a leg, less for an arm.

My friend, Harry, sat next to the table, constantly sharpening extra knives on a small grinding-wheel. A number of blades were stuck point first into the dirt floor next to him, waiting for Archie. They became dull quickly from cutting through bone. I saw a hatchet lying near Archie's hand, used for particularly thick lower thigh bones. Some lost their complete leg, others only a foot.

Archie, like the rest of us, had been conscripted and forced to help the bedamned Southerners. He was only a second-year medical student who happened to be home, here in Gettysburg, at the time of the attack. When the Rebels heard of his schooling they made him a surgeon. So many wounded on both sides and so little help for them.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, we were willing. Don’t get the idea we weren’t. After all, these were wounded men, Rebels or not. It wasn’t their fault they were born on the wrong side of the creek. Hell, we lived so close to the border that some of them, for all we knew, may well have been relatives of us town-folk.


It was my fault for being so curious. The rest of my family fled before the attack. I talked them into leaving me to watch over the business -- my family’s shoe store. The greater part of the population left long before the enemy arrived.

There were a few die-hards, such as Mr. Peters at the Feed Store. Like my father had, he sent most of his stock out of town earlier but was afraid to send it all and wanted to protect the building. We didn’t own our store building, but did have the house.

We knew the Rebels were coming. Word had come over the telegraph that they had crossed the border into Pennsylvania from rebel Maryland. Earlier, we'd had a false scare when word came down that they’d taken Hanover, only sixteen miles or so from us. That had been a false rumor, but this time we knew it was true. They were a’coming.

Early one morning, we heard noises like thunder. At first, only an occasional burst, but becoming a steady crackle -- then a constant roar. While it was still in the distance, people started leaving. Every carriage in town seemed to pass our house, now empty except for myself. I waved as friends passed, heading west.

The few Union troops in town formed up and marched east for the conflagration. We were left to a town silent except for the crackle of gunfire in the distance. Small groups gathered on the street to talk and watch occasional flashes of light and gun smoke, so thick as to be seen even in the daylight. The roar of cannon ceased and we heard a steady crackle of small arms.

My friend Harry came over to my house and we watched from an upper porch. As the sounds came closer and seemed even louder, we became fearful. There was even an occasional shout heard over the firing. The dull thudding of spent musket balls hitting the upper stories of buildings reached us on my porch. A window shattered across the street.

“Damn, Tommy. Those are real Minié balls.”

“Maybe we better get inside?” I replied, seeing a ball hit another wall over there.

“Na. The shooting’s a’hind us. Can’t touch us here.”

We sat, drinking my Father’s homemade wine and not feeling in any immediate danger. We had confidence in our troops and were waiting for them to come back, victorious. As children, we felt safe though excited by the implied action to come.

The sounds of hooves hitting pavement reached my ears. Sitting up, we cheered as a half-dozen mounted Union troops thundered down the street in our direction. As they passed, the cheers stuck in my throat and we ducked out of sight. We saw a large group of other cavalry, in gray, come around the corner … chasing them. It was quiet for a while, until we heard the sounds of bloodcurdling screams in the distance.

“Better get inside, Tommy,” Harry whispered, “whilst we can.”

We went in and watched through a basement window. Eventually, Rebel foot-soldiers filtered down the lonely street. They looked very tired but were in good spirits. The enemy had their rifles at the ready but also held various foodstuffs and liquors in their arms as they occasionally entered houses along both sides of the street.

I felt like going upstairs and getting a rifle but changed my mind. Because of their numbers, as well as abject fear, I decided to watch instead.

Within a couple of hours, we saw townspeople out on the street, mostly headed downtown. The firing had eased off to an occasional shot or two. The battle must be over, I thought, and the braver citizens were letting their curiosity get the better of their good sense.

“Let’s go see what happened, Harry?” I asked him, being one of the senseless ones myself. “They don’t seem to be shooting our people and some are walking back from town, so we should be alright.”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s safer to just stay here.”

“Come on, they won’t shoot kids like us. We’re only thirteen. They know we aren’t soldiers.”

I finally talked him into it and we went out to the street. It felt kind of funny to even stand in front of my house. On one hand, I felt like going back to its safety, but I was also curious. We kind of tiptoed carefully down the edge of that now unfamiliar and dangerous brick surface toward the business section.

We found the town filled to the brim with strange men, mostly dressed in gray. Some, though, wore civilian clothing along with partial uniforms. At that early point in the war, neither side had enough uniforms. Even Northerners often wore civilian pants and shoes.

Speaking of shoes, I noticed that a good many were either barefoot or had rags wrapped around their feet. Of course, my next thought was the family shoe store.


When we arrived, a group of Rebels stood in front of it. They were only standing, but it looked as though they were working up courage to break the window. One even held a brick down at his side. Strange? I would have thought they would have already looted it. A couple of Rebel officers stood nearby, talking. That was probably what held them back? I thought. For some reason, unknown to me, they weren't doing much looting and burning.

Knowing my father had left only a small part of the stock behind to try to keep them from burning him out, I unlocked and opened the door. Might as well get it over with, were my thoughts.

Within a couple of minutes, the store was filled with Rebels. The two officers came in too, maybe to see order was kept.

I sold all the remaining stock in a half-hour or so. After the first few fittings, the others simply grabbed footwear at random. The hell with sizes or styles, they were impatient and just jerked them off the shelves. My father would have been proud of me, except for one thing. They insisted on paying with brand-new but worthless Rebel paper. Some wasn't even money, but IOUs for later payment. I don’t know about you, but I wasn't saying “no” to a passel of armed enemies.

“You’d better give me a piece of paper and a pen,” one of the officers told me. I gave them to him and he wrote a note saying, "This store is friendly to our forces and should not be touched. It is sold out," and signed it as a major. I thanked him and put it in the window. Leaving the worthless IOUs in a drawer, Harry and I went out to see what was happening.

Exhausted Rebels were everywhere, lying in the streets, in the few open stores, and walking around. There didn’t seem to be any looting that we saw. No women were in the street, but a couple were seen looking out windows. Sometimes Rebel officers would ride down the street on weary horses, the tired and excited animals flicking white foam from their mouths as they snorted.

We wandered through town, heading east for no real reason, and nobody bothered us. We heard screams and yelling coming from that direction. Being young lads, we wanted to know what was going on over that next hill. Of course, by that time we had lost most of our fear of the Rebs.

“Lets go over'ta Andy’s barn?” Harry suggested. That building was on a rise and the hayloft one of the highest points in town. “We can get a good view from the haymow,” he reminded me.

We hurried through town, going for the barn. As we walked we saw even more wounded soldiers. They were mostly sitting and lying in clumps.


“Hey kid, can you get me some water? I’m dying of thirst,” a Rebel, lying under a tree with some others, asked us. We stopped and looked at him. His left leg was covered with blood and lay stiffly in front of him.

“All right. We’ll be back in a few minutes,” I told him, and we left for an ice-house across the gravel road. The door was unlocked. It belonged to Mr. Johnson and he never locked anything.

Compared to outside, the small enclosure was chilling with various-sized blocks of ice stacked inside -- oddly-shaped chunks separated by straw mats. There was a lot of runoff water in a pan under the blocks, which were raised off the floor on boards. A few buckets were lying around, along with ice-scoops and large tongs. We filled four buckets and, closing the door tightly again, hauled them to the wounded Rebels.

Now, although Unionists, we weren’t very good ones. Hell, my family, like Harry’s, had relatives and friends in Maryland and Virginia. My father bought most of his leather and store supplies over in Rebel territory, even doing so after war was declared. As civilians, we pretty much ignored the war. So we didn’t really think of it as aiding the enemy.

Normally, that early in the war, it was mostly something to read about in the newspaper. Civilians from both sides simply walked or drove across the border, still dealing with each other. It was sort of a mixed up war, except for the politicians and soldiers.

We started off again for Andy’s barn, passing a whole bunch of wounded from both sides. The big difference was that the injured Union soldiers didn’t have guns while the Rebels did. Sometimes they were even sitting or lying together, talking. Apparently, once you were wounded you were on your own.

When we got to the barn we found a crowd of wounded outside, from both armies. The sound of screaming was coming from inside.

“We better get out of here, buddy,” Harry suggested. “No way I wanna go in there.”

We turned and almost ran into a tall angry-looking officer. Before we could run, he grabbed me by the collar.

“You boys doing anything important right now?” He glared down at us, the first such stare of the day and brooking no objection.

“Uh, no. I don’t think so, sir?” I stuttered an answer, failing to shake his hand off my shoulder.

“You are now,” was his simple answer, and that’s how I found myself in this situation....


The leg came loose, interrupting my thoughts. I idly tossed it out the window, rising to be ready for the next one. Another man was plopped onto the table, trying with Archie's help to straighten his leg so that I could spread myself across, legs on one side and hands gripping a bar under the surface on the other side. As with the others, I noticed wide fearful eyes blinking sweat. Having watched previous amputations, he well knew what was coming.

Eventually there came a break, Archie handing a dulled knife down to Harry.

"Let's try for a break?" he suggested. Okay by me.

I grabbed a bucket of fresh water and sluiced off the workbench before we lay across it, oblivious of the smell and moisture. I rested, head pillowed by cobwebs between ribs in the rough-plank wall. Harry sprawled in a relatively clean spot on the floor. We were dead to the world, lying amid the moaning and abject screams of the wounded. I could feel cramped muscles relaxing, prickling as they softened and lost their kinks.

"Don't they have enough doctors?" I asked, staring at the ceiling. It must be getting late in the day, I thought, no longer seeing sunlight sifting through rafters from the haymow above.

"Neither side has doctors," Archie told me. "The officers have their own private ones, and some of them pay to have regimental doctors and even surgeons for themselves. Common soldiers don't have anything. Not regular ones, anyway. There are always a few soldiers with some medical knowledge and, in a battle, they look around for local physicians. Guys like me." He giggled tiredly and continued, "Both sides have what they call Surgeon Generals. All they do is coordinate efforts to find doctors when needed and order medical supplies to carry along. Hiring physicians for soldiers costs money that could be used to buy guns and ammunition."

"Why aren't they looting and burning the town?" Harry asked from the floor.

"Who knows? The general probably said not to. There's not much sense in war. One time they'll burn and rape, the next time they won't." Archie sighed. "Or maybe they want to do it officially, the army hauling things away after the battle for themselves? Also, carrying loot along will slow down an army. They'd be drunk for days on stolen alcohol, for instance. Generals don't like that.

“And it might be that they want more sympathizers saying the Rebs aren't so bad, that they don't loot and rape. I even heard that the first couple of battles had civilians partying and watching from nearby vantage points."

A fresh wave of injured were brought in, meaning more screaming. Most of those new ones were in a bad way, having lain in the fields all day in the hot sun. We got up, somewhat reluctantly, and went back to work.

The latest batch were more compliant, worn out from the sun and loss of blood. Most didn't even make it to our workbench. Of those that did, Archie all too often had to wave the helpers to take them right back off. He knew they were already dead but didn't know it yet. We had too many others to waste time on the living dead.

There was little talk, all of us working mechanically and lost in our own thoughts -- or trying not to think. The sun went down and lanterns were lit. As tired as we were and in the dim lamplight, I had to constantly watch myself or Archie would take my arm off by mistake. As the night wore on, we became more like zombies than thinking creatures.

Eventually, it was over. Too exhausted to work, we had to sleep, even though men were still dying. None of us, Harry, Archie, or myself, gave a thought to leaving the now-dark barn. As others, both volunteer and conscripted, gradually took our places, not even the moans and cries of the wounded could keep us from an exhausted sleep.


The next day was a repeat of the first. It was only the second of July, 1863, and the second day of the battle, which had shifted to the western side of town at a slight rise called Cemetery Hill. The Union troops were said to be reinforced and had artillery placed on top of that one and another hill next to it.

It wasn't as hard on us three as the day before. We even had periods where’s we could rest up. More doctors had been found in nearby communities and brought in during the night.

In most part it was quiet, with the cannon sometimes opening up to a deadly roar as the Rebels attacked. Our work was the same, increasing after every attack, but mostly more of caring for the wounded than simply cutting limbs.

My guess was that they had other surgeons, closer to the battle, by then. Many of the wounded we received were already bandaged and splinted. They still needed water, food, and other care. We received and gave out morphine by the case, even occasionally using it ourselves to calm our nerves.

On our third day, many of the wounded were loaded onto wagons and taken away. We had no explanation, request, or paperwork -- nobody really being in charge of the barn.

A dozen large farm wagons showed up with a few Rebel troops and the wounded Rebs were soon gone, leaving spaces on the floor which we cleaned up by scraping bloody soil and horse manure off with the flats of shovels. The Union wounded were left behind though, and more were sent to us during the afternoon hours. Those had been treated elsewhere and we became one large hospital for Union troops.


On the morning of our fourth day, the three of us were ordered west of town, to see a Major Worth. It was the first time I had been to town since the first day.

"Look, why don't we just go to your house, Tommy?" Harry asked. "I'm sick of smelling blood and shit." As tired as we were, we had to help poor Archie along. He seemed in a daze, not really understanding what was going on. My thoughts were that he'd been using too much of that morphine on himself.

There wasn't much going on in town. It was mostly empty with the Rebs concentrated on the western outskirts. I had no idea where the braver townsfolk were. Later I found most had left and were in the woods north of town, either hiding or trying to see the battle from a safer position.

"All right," I conceded, plumb worn out myself. A day or two of rest would feel good. On one hand, I felt I should continue to help. On the other, we were all three too worn out to be of much use. Although I felt responsible to some extent for the men we had treated, I didn't want to start all over with another batch, all Rebels yet. We agreed that was what Major Worth wanted us for. To help staff yet another hospital.

The three of us spent the rest of the battle safely ensconced in my basement, so I can't tell you what happened after that. I do remember hearing noises outside as Union troops came back to town. Soon after that, the immediate fighting ended, bringing a welcome quiet back to the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The End.

Hvysmker – Charlie