Sunday, January 24, 2016

Memoir Offers Gruesome Glimpse at Civil War Surgery

By Berry Craig, September 2015

Gen. Ewell's story a reminder of how far O&P care has come.
When Confederate surgeons amputated Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s bullet-shattered left leg, they were anxious to prove to his young, soon-to-be stepson that the operation was life-saving.

“Dr. [William A.] Robertson of La. opened the leg along the track of the ball, in order to show me they were justified in taking it off – a Dr. Launer of Ala. having objected to it – but it had been plainly a necessity,” recalled Maj. Campbell Brown, 21, the general’s trusty staff officer.

Today, physicians do not generally invite relatives to watch them surgically sever a loved one’s limb. But Brown, whose wealthy widowed mother was Ewell’s first cousin, evidently went everywhere the general went, even to the operating table.

Ewell likely named Brown to his staff to curry favor with his mother, Lizinka Campbell Brown. Ewell was madly in love with her. Indeed, Richard and Lizinka ultimately married, a union that made Brown the general’s stepson.

Known for ‘bravery and generosity of spirit’
After the Civil War, Brown chronicled his experiences with Ewell in some of the bloodiest battles of America’s most lethal conflict. Terry L. Jones, PhD, a history professor at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, compiled and edited Brown’s reminiscences in a 2001 book, Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia. The volume offers a gruesome glimpse at an amputation that was typical of thousands of others in 1861-1865.

Richard’s beloved bride-to-be helped nurse him following the 1862 amputation. They were wed in 1863, though they parted when he returned to combat, fighting in the battles of Gettysburg, Pa.; The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Va.; and Sayler’s Creek, Va.

Lizinka and “Baldy” Ewell made an odd couple, and not just because they were kissing cousins. “He was the reigning eccentric of the Army of Northern Virginia, and his men, who knew at first hand his bravery and generosity of spirit, loved him all the more for it,” wrote Larry Tagg in The Generals of Gettysburg.

Tagg said the general spoke in a “shrill, twittering lisp” and was given to “muttering odd remarks in the middle of normal conversation, such as ‘Now why do you suppose President Davis made me a major general anyway?’”

In addition, Ewell was prone to cursing “spectacularly, blisteringly” and “was so nervous and fidgety he could not sleep in a normal position, and spent nights curled around a camp stool,” according to Tagg. “He had convinced himself that he had some mysterious internal ‘disease,’ and so subsisted almost entirely on frumenty, a dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk and sweetened with sugar. A ‘compound of anomalies’ was how one friend summed him up.”

In any event, Ewell, a Washington, D.C.-born West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran, joined the Confederate army soon after the Civil War began in 1861.

A Proven Survivor
He had survived several battles by the time he lost his leg, and nearly his life, in fierce fighting at Groveton, Va., also known as the battle of Brawner’s Farm.

Fought on Aug. 28, 1862, the battle was a prelude to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Like the 1861 Battle of First Bull Run, Second Bull Run and Groveton were Confederate victories.

Ewell, as usual, was in the thick of the fighting, which began in late afternoon. Determined to discover the source of some worrisome Union gunfire, he dismounted from his horse and knelt on his right knee to peer through some scrubby pine trees.

A minié ball smashed his left kneecap. The bullet “pierced the joint [and] followed the leg down for some inches,” Brown wrote. “When the leg was opened, we found the kneecap split half in two — the head of the tibia knocked into several pieces.”

The slug “had followed the marrow of the bone for 6 inches breaking the bone itself into small splinters [and] finally [the ball] had split into two pieces on a sharp edge of bone,” Campbell wrote.

Ewell’s injury was typical of musket wounds in the Civil War. Bullets, round, or cone-shaped minié balls, were large — typically .54, .58 and .69 caliber – and made of soft lead. Not only did such projectiles tear gaping holes in flesh, they often splintered when they struck bones.

In any event, the battle continued past sunset, with the Union troops finally retreating.

Image: Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell underwent a painful amputation in the midst of a battle after being shot in the knee. Image: Library of Congress.



Post a Comment


Facebook Twitter Delicious Stumbleupon Favorites