Tuesday, December 27, 2016
6:51 PM Carole Adrienne No comments
By Patrick Young, Esq., 1-4-13
Private William McCarter was badly wounded during the Irish Brigade’s disastrous attack on the stone wall during the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. He lay bleeding on the field for hours before nightfall made possible his still-dangerous escape to the rear.
The Northern army had a medical corps consisting of doctors and assistants, but most of the wounded were brought off the field by members of their own regiments who went back to try to collect friends. These Union soldiers would often pass by other wounded men, reserving their aid for men of their own units alone. McCarter was helped by two Irish Brigade comrades who recognized him in the dark. They put him on a horse-drawn ambulance. The ambulance was overloaded with twelve men when it took off to try to find medical care. The men were offered no first aid and two of them died before the vehicle reached the city of Fredericksburg, a short ways away.
When McCarter got to Fredericksburg, Union soldiers were wandering about aimlessly in the streets. Some broke into houses and looted them. A number were getting drunk on whiskey they had stolen. McCarter was dropped off at a house that served as a make-shift hospital. More than fifty “mangled victims” of the fighting were in the one room. The men did not see a doctor until the next morning. By then, a wounded man lying near McCarter had died.
A severely overworked doctor was finally able to see McCarter. He dug the bullet out of the soldier’s shoulder, but first he had to cut away much of McCarter’s uniform to get at his wound. When McCarter had to evacuate north by foot the next day, he did so with his wounded arm naked and exposed to December’s cold. He and thousands of other wounded men walked to a rail depot where they waited hours without shelter for a train to take them north. “[T]he wounded men crouched and huddled together and…some of them died from the exposure,” he recalled.
McCarter next went to a makeshift hospital made up of a collection of tents. There was so much blood and so many severed body parts that he later described it as looking like a “village of butcher shops.” The surgical tent left a lasting impression:
Lying around were cases of ugly looking surgical tools, including the saw and the knife. In the back end of each tent a hole was made. Through it amputated arms or legs were thrown out upon the ground outside.
When trains finally arrived, the wounded rushed to get on. There was no order to the loading and the healthier men shoved aside the severely wounded. “It was simply every man for himself,” McCarter wrote, “I saw three men killed by falling under the car wheels as a locomotive began to move.” When McCarter was finally evacuated he was taken by a four hour train ride to Aquia Creek. Along the way, nine of McCarter’s wounded comrades died.
McCarter and hundreds of other wounded men on the train were taken off and hauled onto a steamship that was to take them to Washington. Few comforts were provided the suffering men and McCarter was forced to rest on the cold floor of the ship, when an unexpected source of comfort came to him. A woman, a Catholic nun, a Sister of Mercy comforted him, fed him and found him a warm place to sleep. This was McCarter’s first experience with these women, many of whom were immigrants like himself.
As he soon found out, the Sisters of Mercy had volunteered to take over the care of the men on the ship. McCarter remembered that during the trip they did “everything in their power to alleviate the terrible sufferings of the cargo of our wounded, sick and dying soldiers.” Over the coming weeks he would be cared for by many Sisters of Mercy. Their ministrations would be offered to native-born and immigrant soldiers alike of all religious backgrounds. In coming articles, we’ll look at how these immigrant religious women helped create the nursing profession in the United States and changed attitudes about women in medicine.
Image: Field hospital at Savage’s Station in 1862.