Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/June 1892/First Actions of Wounded Soldiers

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | June 1892

FIRST ACTIONS OF WOUNDED SOLDIERS.
By GEORGE L. KILMER.

AFTER observing for thirty years the questions of the curious on the subject of battle-field experiences, I should say that nine times out of ten the one first asked by a layman, old or young, relates to the sensations of a soldier when wounded. Even though the questioner has been maimed in a railway smash-up, or torn or fractured or bruised in some peaceful and therefore safe (?) occupation, the interest is the same, on the supposition, doubtless, that to be hurt by one of the engines of destruction in war is productive of unique sensations.

First of all, generalizations will not cover this intricate and expansive subject. An infantry soldier at Gaines's Mill, who was hit in the knee by a bullet and ultimately died of the wound, said that he thought he had run against a standing thistle; and the fact that he marched on, until his comrades drew his attention to blood flowing down his leg, indicates that he did not make too light of the first sensation. An officer, whose ankle was shattered by a bullet as he stood upon a pile of fence-rails to reconnoitre, thought that a rail had turned under his weight and sprained the joint. He felt only a slight burning sensation, although the wound proved a mortal one in the end. On the other hand, a strapping, coarse-grained fellow, whom I knew well, and often remarked making light of the very idea of pain and suffering, quickly collapsed under a wound that he survived. And well he might. He was hit by a section of mortar-shell weighing three or four pounds that cut edgewise through his thigh, bone and all. He happened to be resting with his thighs across a small log that served as a block to the jagged cleaver. I was looking into his face, about to speak to him, at the very moment the missile struck, and, despite his callous fiber and almost brutal stoicism, he winced as though he felt—exactly as a human being might be supposed to feel under such a blow all "broken up" by the calamity.

Wounds that almost kill on the spot seem to be the least felt at the outset. Slight ones often produce enough disturbance to suggest the work of a dozen death-hurts. A spent missile that only raises a lump will make the victim feel as though an arsenal full of balls had struck him; and often soldiers with ghastly mortal wounds insist that nothing serious is the matter, and act up to the idea until death or nervous exhaustion lays them low.

This much, however, may be said in a general way: When felt at all, bullets through the flesh usually produce a burning sensation more or less acute. When bones are broken, stinging accompanies the burning. When bones are hit but not broken, there is a numbing sensation in the whole region involved in the shock, followed very soon by severe and sometimes intense pain. When muscles and tendons are involved, there is a tugging sensation, sometimes very slight, and shell-wounds produce feelings similar to those by bullets, more or less exaggerated, according to the size of the missile and the degree of velocity. Bayonet-wounds I never saw except upon corpses—for I was not a hospital attendant—and as for cannon-balls, they do not, as a rule, leave anything behind to exhibit feelings.[1]

Again, a soldier may receive two or even more hits so close together as to produce counter-sensations. I once saw my commanding officer prostrated by a piece of shell that shattered his thigh-bone. While he was falling, pieces of another shell hit him in the arm and hand, and a piece of a third shell quickly following grazed the crown of his head. He has always believed that he felt three ways at once during those few seconds, and he is very positive that he felt badly hurt, and cordially wished to be out of it.

Not infrequently, too, when a victim has been spared the smallest amount of vitality after the impulse of anger is cut short by a slashing wound, he feels very much as did an enthusiastic tar upon a trying occasion. In an affair now memorable in history, a certain war-vessel's crew was compelled by the etiquette of the service to stand by and see their country's flag hauled down in contempt, without being given a chance to strike in its defense. "It was the saddest hour of my whole life," said one of them, "and for quite a spell I alternated between a desire either to cry like a baby or swear like a pirate."

All this preliminary to a paper the scope of which is only partially suggested by the title. Poets and orators, who take a wholly sentimental point of view, ask the world to accept the notion that it is a glorious fortune for the individual man to suffer punishment in honorable warfare; but between the wound and the sequence, whether death or the hospital and the scalpel, what are the symptoms, what the actions, above all, what the conscious feelings of the victim himself, or, as poetical fancy insists he shall be named, the hero? How wide or how narrow to his vision is the interval between the hard reality and the sentimental ideal? Flesh and bone of themselves can not be expected to rise to the height of the strained occasion. Torn and broken, glory never heals the one or sets the other; and so men's bodies will not forever remain insensible to the claims of Nature, even though in the excitement of war the mind may be superior to every consideration less than heroic. Yes, there must be a time when the will of the soldier is at odds with the forces that normally rule the sinews and tendons of his frame—a time, dear poet, when the hero proves to be only a man a creature inspired after the flesh as well as after the spirit.

And now, looking at the soldier as a warring machine, does a missile fired into the delicate apparatus bring the whole engine quickly to a dead halt? The world hears so much about the Light Brigade at Balaklava that it should be familiar with the tragic story of the most noted victim of that affair, Captain Nolan. Nolan, as aide-de-camp of the division general, assumed to guide the Light Brigade in its awful charge, and, with frantic exclamation and vehement gestures with his uplifted sword, he rode to the right oblique beyond the head of the reckless column, in order to draw the six hundred out of the valley of death, which lay directly in their course, off toward a line of flanking redoubts which they had been ordered to attack, and where victory and not disaster doubtless awaited them. When he was a few paces to the right of the leading ranks a piece of shell struck him on the chest, tearing into the heart.

"The sword dropped from his hand," says the minute chronicle of Kinglake, "but the arm with which he was waving it the moment before still remained high uplifted in the air, and the grip of the practiced horseman, remaining as yet unrelaxed, still held him firm in his saddle. Missing the perfect hand of his master, and finding the accustomed governance now succeeded by the dangling reins, the horse all at once wheeled about and began to gallop back upon the front of the advancing brigade. Then, from what had been Nolan—and his form was still erect in the saddle, his sword-arm still high in the air—there burst forth a cry so strange and appalling that the hearer who rode nearest him called it unearthly. And in truth, I imagine," continues the historian, "the sound resulted from no human will, but rather from those spasmodic forces which may act upon the bodily frame when life as a power has ceased. The firm-seated rider, with arm uplifted and stiff, could hardly be ranked with the living. The shriek men heard rending the air was scarce other than the shriek of a corpse. The dead horseman rode on till he passed through the interval of the Twelfth Light Dragoons. Then at last he dropped out of the saddle".

The line between Nolan living and Nolan dead was very narrow, yet the uplifted arm[2] and the battle-shout ending in an unearthly yell would indicate that the soul of the warrior dominated every element of activity so long as any activity remained. Had Nolan been trotting along in the ranks of the six hundred with no other thought than that of keeping in line and getting ahead, he would doubtless have gone to the ground like a bolt under that blow.

An experience of the same nature, but at the other extreme, was that of General Joseph Hooker at Antietam. On the morning of the 17th of September, being in the presence of the enemy with his corps, he began a movement to seize high ground on his front, and was compelled to pass lengthwise of the Confederate line within range of hostile batteries. Soon a strong body of the enemy showed itself in his pathway, and in the excitement of making new dispositions, and routing and pursuing the Confederates, the general, to use his own language, "was lifted to the skies." "The whole morning has been one of unusual animation with me," he wrote also. Yet at the end of the successful attack he was removed from his saddle just as he was in the act of falling from it, weakened by the loss of blood from a wound of which he had not been conscious at all. A musket-ball had passed directly through the foot between the arch and the muscles of the sole, the seat, as every one knows, of very sensitive nerves. Had the general been in a state of moderate repose, as, for instance, quietly watching the execution of some movement, the blow would have unmanned him, for the moment at least. Intensely preoccupied as he was—and he had good reason to be, at that stage of the battle—he did not notice the blow or the sensations that accompanied and followed it. He may have carried the wound an hour or more before succumbing to the faintness.

My attention was first drawn to this subject by a strange personal experience—suspended animation in the body combined with partial mental clearness. The facts were of a kind that could be recorded with accuracy, and I am able to state them in detail. We were in front of the enemy at Fredericksburg Heights, May 3, 1863, and were lying under the shelter of a low ridge, expecting to charge or to repel a charge. The term of service of our regiment would expire the day following, and the troops be sent home to disband, and with others I speculated not a little on the chances of escape in the impending fight. There had been times in my career as a soldier when I was "too anxious for wounds and scars" as General Grant once remarked of Ned Buntline, and even at the eleventh hour, with the prospect, as I believed, of a speedy return home, I consoled myself with the thought that if wounded I would carry a glorious badge on the homeward march. But I went into action that day, convinced on the whole, that the fellows across the line would not pay special attention to me, for I held that I was an indifferent mark for good ammunition—a lad of seventeen years, small inches, and light weight.

It turned out that our position, though supposed to be well sheltered, was closely inspected by a number of Confederate sharpshooters, but, as it was very important that we remain at that point, we had to make the best of it. I was near the head of the line of the regiment, and, as we lay strung along on the slope of the ridge, I could see every man in the command. One after another the sharpshooters' bullets began to tell. I noticed a lieutenant in one of the companies moving about on some official errand and making a splendid target, and, while I was thinking how cool he was, something struck him and twisted his body around so that I detected the break in his locomotion. He did not halt, but went on calmly and freely for some paces, and in a few minutes, having delivered some orders and exchanged words with some of his men, he went to the rear with a decided limp. Between the moment of his wounding and the accomplishment of his purpose he did not limp at all, and probably did not know that he was hit (it was a flesh-wound in the thigh) until told of it. Then, when he knew what had happened, he yielded to new mental processes and acted as wounded men are supposed to do. When the lieutenant had disappeared from view, I turned my face to the front, bolstering my trembling hopes with the thought that this last victim was a shining mark, as I certainly was not. Besides, I believed that the sharpshooters could not get the range on our end of the line. Then followed a "thud" close to me, and my next sensation was that I was prostrate on the ground, pierced through my left arm, heart, and spine with a rod, and pinned to the earth. This was the physical sensation, but, of course, was not the fact. Then through my brain there flitted quickly a vision such as the thought of a battle most commonly brings to mind masses of warring men struggling individually for the mastery. I seemed to be in the midst of the melee, and with all the indignation I could express was shouting to the men in gray, "There, you have hit me!" Next I was being lifted and supported by some one, and a voice said, "He isn't hit, but something is the matter". "Yes" said another voice sternly, "he is hit, and as good as dead. Take him to the rear." I had so far recovered as to comprehend these remarks, and instantly concluded that I was the subject of a practical joke. In another moment I was seized with the keenest pain I have ever experienced in my life, in the region where it had seemed in my swoon that I was run through with a rod. Now, what had happened was this: I had been in a sitting posture, resting partly on the ground, partly upon my legs doubled beneath me, the left hand holding my weapon, the arm well braced across my chest so that the middle of the upper bone pressed against the heart. On my arm were two shirt sleeves, a jacket sleeve, an overcoat sleeve, and the overcoat cape; and a musket-ball moving in the direction of my heart and spine that is, obliquely to the front of my person had ticked the limb of a bush a few feet away, keeled over, and struck flatwise on the arm, imbedding itself in the flannel and the flesh. The bone, protected by the clothing, had been the resistant, and the shock, carried to the heart and spine, had rendered my body senseless for a time; but the brain, depleted by the sudden stoppage of circulation, had been abnormally active. The man who exclaimed that I was as good as dead had reason to think so. He was on the slope above, and was looking at me at the time. He heard the bullet, and saw me go down under it "like an ox hit on the head with an axe," as he expressed it. He also said that my face changed colors rapidly from ghastly white to deep purple, and that I lay on the ground so still that he believed for the moment that I was dead. It is evident that the fancies of the brain immediately following the wound were closely connected with the previous thoughts, for the burden of them was surprise and disappointment that, after all, I had been hit. It was somewhat singular that in my delirium I located my hurt correctly, and had the physical sensation of being pinned to the earth by a rod running through the very spot where the shock of the blow was keenest.[3]

An experience, similar in many respects, befell one of my companions in arms, Captain W. R. Helms, (Fourteenth New York Heavy Artillery, and Sixteenth New York Volunteers) at the battle of Gaines's Mill. Helms was a lieutenant at the time, and while the regiment was charging to recapture a battery that the Confederates had just taken and were about to open upon its late owners he was hit and went down. He heard his captain give the command, "Take his body to the rear," and saw men leave the ranks to respond. He thought that his head only was lifted from the ground, and tried to speak, but could not. He recognized a fellow-officer who passed at the moment, and remarked upon the accident. Then he concluded that the battery had been fired, and that his head had been shot off. This puzzled him, and he began to speculate upon the phenomenon of a head carrying on reasoning processes while separated from the body. Was it not a mistake, after all, to believe that the soul is located in the body? Was not the experience he was passing through proof that the seat of all consciousness, will, and reason, and every spiritual attribute was in the head? (Helms was orthodox, and a remark from a skeptical physician, some time before, to the effect that dissection revealed no such an organ as the soul, had left a strong impression upon his young mind. He was yet in his teens.) Metaphysical thoughts were at length interrupted by a pricking and stinging sensation in the neck, and gradually full consciousness and motor power returned. He had been lifted and carried out of the reach of balls, head and all intact. A bullet had hit the leather straps of his haversack and canteen where they crossed his shoulders, cutting two and stopping at the third, as they lay close to the neck. (The flying ends of the severed straps caught his eye the moment it was done.) The collar-bone was broken, and the large muscles and tendons of the neck were badly bruised. Evidently there was temporary paralysis caused by injury of certain nerves at the neck, with but slight derangement of the functions of the organs in the head, while the sensory functions of the body were cut off from participation in sensations registered at the brain.[4]

In contrast with Captain Helms's counterfeit is a case of actual decapitation, noted vividly and vividly recalled by comrades of my regiment, particularly by one who was a careful and sensitive observer, Captain A. H. De Graff, now an engineering expert. On the 17th of June, in the charge of the Ninth Corps on the Confederate works east of Petersburg, a sergeant of the Fifty-seventh Massachusetts leaped upon the parapet, and, with his cap in his left hand and his musket in his right, stood cheering and gesturing with his arms to incite his comrades to come on. Suddenly a shell took his head off as completely as a knife could have done, but the tall form continued erect for some seconds, the arms still waving frantically, but with ever-lessening sweep and power, until the forces of the body collapsed, when the headless trunk toppled over to the ground.[5]

Virtual subordination of the physical or material senses to the nervous centers controlling the intellectual or spiritual faculties, and for an appreciable length of time, seems to be quite common in wounded men, even in the severest cases. It is easily conceivable that a thoroughly mad man might ignore an ordinary wound until his anger cooled a little; but that men wounded to the death should, even while actually dying, persist in their purposes as though nothing had happened, at first staggers belief. Yet such things do unquestionably occur. Every veteran of the field will recall instances, and history in one way or another records a great many. In the attack on the Ninth Corps lines at Petersburg, known as the battle of Fort Steadman, I noticed a mounted Confederate officer leading a body of men in a charge upon a cannon near which I stood. The last view I had of him and that was across the sight of a Springfield rifle showed him riding boldly forward, sword on high. Others saw him later and nearer, and his fearless action in riding a white horse under a storm of bullets, grape, and shells attracted much notice. Suddenly man and horse disappeared, and after the fight we found the bold rider lying dead about sixty to eighty yards from our parapet.[6] His form was prostrate, his sword-arm outstretched and grasping the weapon firmly, with its point toward the cannon he had aimed to capture. His face was partially upturned, as though he had struggled at the very last to see something or to speak. The horse had wheeled about and gone to the rear some distance, then had leaped at a breastwork and fallen dead across it. Whether this was after his rider had been hit or before couldn't be determined. In any case the Georgia major breathed his last with his face to the foe, evidently warlike and defiant in death. His wound was in the head.

An instance similar to the last was that of General Elon J. Farnsworth, at Gettysburg. At a crisis in a charge, Farnsworth raised his saber and rode toward the ranks of the Fifteenth

Alabama Infantry, meeting a volley of balls. Shortly afterward his riderless horse dashed through the regimental lines. The general had fallen, with five mortal wounds, and when found still clutched his outstretched saber, and bore the appearance of having been unhorsed when dead or dying, much as in the case of Captain Nolan.

In the excitement of such actions as those where the Georgia major and Farnsworth fell, it is not possible for any observer to note the symptoms minutely. The fact that a man is down and out of the fight is about all that friend or foe can take account of for the time being. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that some deaths are instantaneous, the men being literally killed in action. One such case I had an opportunity to study with unusual care at Fort Haskell, in the Fort Steadman battle at Petersburg. The action there was defensive on our part, the scene very small, and the fight prolonged, hence many things were observed that would escape notice on an open field. At one time, just in front of me as I looked toward the enemy, there was a soldier of our garrison firing his musket from a gun-staging that raised his head and shoulders above the parapet. He was the oldest man I ever saw in battle, and for that reason doubtless I observed him closely. His hair was white, and his form had reached the stage of unsteadiness. He fired very slowly, and after each shot would scan the enemy's lines, as though watching the results of his last ball or spying out a target for the next. Finally, when I had my attention almost wholly on him, he half turned to reload, and I saw his cap fly off smartly without any visible help, and the large and bony frame shrink together and sink down into a heap. There was no spasm, no agitation whatever. It seemed to me that he simply sat down slowly until he rested on his legs, bent under the body, his head going down to his knee, or to the trail of the cannon. A little stream of blood ran from his forehead and made a pool on the plank, and this blood reached the plank about the time that his frame settled itself down motionless. From the time that his cap flew off until the blood appeared on the staging, and the motionless body led me to say, "He is dead," could not have been more than thirty seconds, and was probably about twenty. The fatal ball had penetrated the left temple or near it. This was the only case where I noted all the external manifestations of a soldier killed "so quickly that he never knew what hit him," as the saying is.

All that are found dead on the battle-field figure in the lists as "killed in action." Of these quite a percentage may meet with instantaneous death, but the majority show proof that both body and mind were at work after the fatal blow was received. One of the most convincing cases of the kind, and at the same time the most terrible, that came to my personal knowledge was at Antietam, where General Hooker conducted the fight when he received his wound. The Confederates were massed in a field of tall corn, and Hooker ordered his batteries to open on them with canister. In his report he says that the shot cut every stalk of corn in the greater part of the field close to the ground as neatly as though done with a knife. Of course, the men in that field did not escape the biting hail. Neither did they stand like lambs and accept their doom. After the first cannon volley the survivors started toward Hooker's batteries, mounting a rail fence that barred their progress, and just in front of and along this fence several hundred lay dead after the action. The regiment in which I served took position at one end of the fence some hours afterward, and as this field was between the lines the bodies had not been disturbed. About sundown there was a sort of truce to remove some of the wounded, and with others I passed along the fence to see the line of the dead. Some of the poor fellows had passed over the fence and begun creeping forward, gun in hand; some had gained the top of the fence, and death had left them balancing across the rails; others, in the act of climbing, had died leaning against it or dangling from it head foremost, having passed partly over and been caught by the feet. Generally the sword or musket was held in firm grip, the eyeballs turned forward, and every muscle and organ bearing evidence of having been strained to get at the batteries that were making such dreadful havoc. When I returned to the end of the line and glanced back again at the prostrate column, I said to my comrades who had not gone out to get a close view: "Boys, it is just as it looks from here. Those men were caught at it, and were struck down in the act." It is not to be wondered at that General Hooker was too much absorbed at the time of this fighting to notice his wound. He wrote of the action that the "slain (Confederate) lay in rows precisely as they had stood in the ranks a few moments before."[7]

Very, very few of these dead bore the look of having passed away composedly. Yet, on the ordinary battle-field, where the killed outright number but two or three to every hundred of combatants, the exceptions are those who do not die in a quiet-state of mind or body. Men who are cut down in a charge, while the tide of heated action sweeps on, leaving them alone, bend their thoughts at once to themselves, and, if death is felt approaching, turn their faces up to the quiet skies, compose their souls, and so breathe their last. It will be only in some such struggle as at Antietam, or before the stone wall at Fredericksburg, or in Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, and the front line at that, that men will die retaining full intensity of battle ardor so long as breath holds out. There we may expect to find men dead with their weapons poised and their colors held firm in the death-grip.[8] The manner in which men fall depends also upon the nature of the action in which they are engaged. Nearly every one is familiar with the traditional stage fall, where the victim of a supposed death-shot strikes an attitude, clasps his hand to his heart, stiffens every joint and muscle, breathes hysterically, and goes down like a log toppled over from the end. Another popular yet erroneous notion is that men shot through the vitals leap into the air and go down in a dramatic attitude. Sometimes men are found on the field in striking positions, but often an examination shows that the position was taken after the fall. As a rule, a man who is hit above the hips goes down.[9] The slighter the wound the more commotion, for the body instinctively resists, just as it does when one slips or is pushed or collides with some object. But a wound in a vital spot weakens the resistance, and men sink at once, or reel and tumble with very little self-control. One reason why men are found dead in a variety of positions is that so long as consciousness remains they strive to help themselves. The wound and the fall together create a temporary panic. Any one who knows the sensation of being temporarily arrested, when at a high rate of speed, by some accident, may imagine the general state of mind of a soldier when hit in action. Something has happened; he is the victim; how serious is it? A man's first thought is of the rear of the column, and this not from fear, but because he expects surgical aid from that direction. So long as he can move he goes toward the place of help. When no longer able to move he makes himself as comfortable as he can and waits. In this waiting many die, and it is a question whether many do not die from over-anxiety—that is, add to their hurt by fretting and struggling. There are soldiers of the civil war living to-day who received wounds as serious at the time as some who died on the field. Either their temperaments were more hopeful or their circumstances more favorable.

Returning to the question of persistent aggressiveness in severely wounded men, two instances remarkable in a special way are worthy of note. There was no warlike anger, but simply sudden excitement, for a cause. In one instance two soldiers were practicing at bayonet exercise and became very much warmed up, as men do in a boxing match. Finally, when one of them made a lunge at the breast of the other, the muzzle was knocked down slightly by the opposing piece and a discharge followed, the bullet going through the groin. With this frightful wound, given at a couple of feet at most, the unfortunate victim kept a tight grip on his piece, staggered forward, and made fitful lunges at his opponent, who dropped his gun and ran, terrified by the unearthly stare and grimace and the frenzied actions of the other. It was supposed that the balls had been drawn, and the man whose piece went off did not know at once that the charge was fatal. The injured man gave chase for a few paces and then fell dead.[10] A case where there was even less external incitement to extraordinary endurance is recorded by Captain J. F. J. Caldwell, in a history of Gregg and McGowan's South Carolina Brigade. During the engagement at Sutherland's Station, below Petersburg, April 22, 1865, Captain Caldwell, while riding over the field on staff duty, met two Union soldiers who had broken through the Confederate lines with a charging column that had been repulsed, and become separated from their comrades. Resistance was useless, and they dropped their guns and followed the captain toward the Confederate rear. One of the prisoners lagged on the march, and, on being told to step lively, he held up one arm and showed such a bloody and distressing wound that the captain allowed him his own gait. All the time both prisoners chatted briskly about the Union tactics, and boasted that the tables would soon be turned upon the Confederates. When the party came to a fence the wounded man helped to let down rails for the captain's horse, and in every way showed good spirits and fair condition. At the first medical bivouac Captain Caldwell turned his charge over to a surgeon, who found a second wound in the patient's breast, and in a few minutes after halting death ended his captivity. The man had borne up under a mortal wound, with the spur of personal enthusiasm and expectation. He had hoped for a recapture by the advance of the Union lines.

The conduct of wounded men after an interval I do not purpose to describe. So soon as the mind gets settled down to the new order of things, individual temperament resumes entire control. The phenomena of severely wounded soldiers continuing in action is correctly ascribed to abnormal mental excitement. Analogies are seen in every-day life. Contusions, incisions, and even fractures are sustained during excitement and no immediate impression is carried to the intellect. Yet how keen the suffering experienced under slighter hurts made by the surgeon's scalpel, forceps, or drill, when all is known beforehand! A soldier's life predisposes to intensity in either direction. He will stoically ignore or morbidly welcome injury. His mind, first of all, is made up not to notice danger or to be unmanned by wounds. So long as he can keep in action—that is, so long as he may personally direct some expenditure of muscular energy—his stoical purpose will hold out. As a matter of course, when he changes from a personality to a mere machine, manipulated by higher minds, fighting when told to, and again standing or lying still to receive blows and injuries with no chance to retaliate, he changes from a Stoic to a morbidly sensitive being. Familiar with deep and distressing injuries to others, in hugging the hope that he will be spared the worst, he invites fears for the worst at the moment he receives a blow, and fears strike the mind as soon as the bullet hits the body. This may account for frequent aberrations of conduct that follow ordinary wounds. The bravest may be unmanned by them, and doubtless death-fright actually takes place with gallant souls; or, if neither death nor delirium follow, then extravagant notions of pain, and violent wailing over trifles.

Numberless cases might be cited showing that excellent soldiers are thrown into sudden mental and physical panic by war wounds, just as civilians are by injuries and surgical operations. Exaggerated sensations of suffering and often quick delirium are reported from the battle-field, such as can not be the direct and necessary sequence of the actual injury, but take rise in the emotions.

As a rule, reported war cases are confined almost wholly to injuries not necessarily fatal. Fatal ones rarely get on record, because the cool and observant surgeon does not study the symptoms of the actual field of fighting.[11] Of those who are struck insensible and subsequently revive and survive, there are known to be many; but of the number rendered insensible who revive and resume action and then die, there can only be conjecture. In this class must be placed many whose attitudes in death are abnormal. But taking into account the symptoms of the wounded who have lived to report them, and of the dead whose cases have been recorded by spectators, there is a general agreement that symptoms do not at all correspond in kind or severity to the injury.[12] Hence phenomena appearing at first thought remarkable may be accepted as not uncommon, considering the unrecorded instances.

I class as remarkable the cases of Nolan, Hooker, Farnsworth, the Georgia major, the beheaded sergeant, the wounded prisoner, and the man skylarking in bayonet practice, and will add that of General Albert Sidney Johnston, killed at Shiloh; and it is proper to state that this collection sprang originally from an effort to bring together the same order of phenomena without reference to antecedent causes. Further investigation proved that, of these cases, Nolan, Hooker, Farnsworth, the Georgia major, and Johnston certainly, and presumably the Massachusetts sergeant, had the highest order of emotional stimulation at work before closing into the heat of action.

It was Nolan's first chance in real war. He had served on routine headquarters duty until that day, and being sent to the front in a crisis, he galloped his horse down a rocky steep where no hoof had ever before trodden. On delivering an order to the division commander, words ensued as to its meaning, and Nolan's excitement was increased. When at last the Light Brigade started and went wrong, he kept the intended course alone, saying, with all the powers of voice and gesture he could command: "This way, this way! For Heaven's sake, not that way!" While so engaged he was hit in the most vital spot in the body, yet warlike action was persistent to an almost supranatural extent.

Hooker had just received command of a corps; there was rivalry between him and others; he was honored with the lead in the most important attack; the enemy's resistance was unexpectedly stubborn, the carnage frightful above all experience on any American battle-field, and on him rested the responsibility of success that would glorify the whole army and the nation.

Farnsworth, on being asked to lead a cavalry charge over a field strewed with bowlders and swept with cannon, demurred, and his chief said to him tauntingly, "If you will not lead your brigade in, I will." "Where my brigade goes, I will lead," was the answer, and he sounded the charge. He found a slaughter-pen as he had expected, was hemmed in, and with fifty followers started to cut his way through a double line of Confederate infantry. Possibly his five mortal hurts were received simultaneously, but probably he carried two or three of them while persisting in his fight.

The Georgia major had been selected or had volunteered to lead a forlorn hope upon which the salvation of an enterprise depended, and he was called upon to pass eighty rods under crossfire of cannon and muskets. That feat he essayed, conspicuously mounted upon a white horse.

The attack in which the Massachusetts sergeant engaged was the third day of fierce and progressive onslaughts, and was directed against the last but one of Lee's interior lines around Petersburg. The stubbornness of the Confederate resistance had aroused the spirits of the assailants to the supremest pitch.

General A. S. Johnston at Shiloh was engaged in a campaign for the recovery of territory valuable to the Confederacy; he had been transferred from the East to supersede other generals; his fame was at stake; he had engaged upon one of the most daring and delicate enterprises known in warfare, a surprise of his enemy, to end in a wholesale slaughter or capture of the routed hosts on the banks of a bridgeless river. The movement carried well up to a point; there, a Union division showed what Johnston pronounced stubbornness; his men hesitated, and he went personally with one brigade in a charge; the charge succeeded, and he drew back to bring up another brigade, when a musket-ball severed an artery in his leg. He made no sign, but kept on giving orders and watching events until spectators saw that he was pale. He was asked if he was wounded, and, as if acknowledging it to himself for the first time, said: "Yes! And I fear seriously." He was then on the point of death from hæmorrhage.

Under normal conditions the symptoms in each of the cases in this recapitulation, except that of the headless man, should have been trembling, tottering, pallor, faintness, nausea, with expression of anxiety and distress, the whole frame being instinctively sympathetic with the injured part. But the several nerve-centers were not in a condition to perform normal functions. The mental excitement acting in the nature of a stimulant upon the center of the brain, monopolized the capacity for keen sensation, and centers that should have registered the hurt suspended their functions. So there was no concentrated shock, as ordinarily happens. The shock was distributed and showed itself, when finally potent, in an instantaneous collapse. This is the theory generally accepted by science—the theory of a law that two nerve-centers can not be excited at one and the same time. Is there not confirmation of it in the complicated case of the wounded prisoner reported by Captain Caldwell? The man doubtless suffered laceration in the arm and the cutting of an internal artery, by the same ball in the order named. His arm-wound would register its shock first upon the intellect, and it would be of a kind that a soldier in his situation would speedily resolve to "grin and bear"; and the second, though mortal, would be overlooked, and suffered to do its quiet and fatal work. His first wound increased the existing excitement at the chief nerve-center, and aided to suspend the functions of the center most vitally involved in the wounding. The case of the beheaded man is again anomalous. Spasmodic action or discharge of the motor-forces stored in the nerve-centers of the trunk may have produced the phenomena.

Incidentally there arise from the consideration of the foregoing these two questions: First, could the expenditure of stored-up nerve force, either in sound or injured parts, or in both combined, generate all these erratic manifestations, or do impulses issue direct from the brain so long as life holds out? Second, is there a battle frenzy peculiar to certain natures, and in certain conditions to average men as well, that may lend them abnormal powers of nervous vigor and endurance? But, whatever the efficient cause, at least one compensating thought follows a study of these phenomena, and the poet and orator may extract some comfort from it, cold and speculative though it may appear. The soldier in war bears up under a severer hurt than the same man could endure in every-day life, and collapses under a lesser one than would ordinarily be required to disable him. He bears up longer and collapses more quickly. Therefore, the provision of Nature that renders him insensible of wounds in heated action may be a twofold blessing, in that it spares him pain and terror at the moment of his hurt, and while doing this service rapidly exhausts in his system those reserve forces which might otherwise tide him over the inevitable prostration succeeding wounds and warlike ardor, and embitter him with a sense of his vulnerability and weakness. How many noble fellows, missing the lethal stroke, have besought their comrades, their captors, and their medical officers to put them out of misery, annalists of the field would shudder to make known. So the hero's impulse, be it patriotism, fanaticism, or frenzy, in spurring him on, saves his high-strung soul from the rack of physical torture, and brings death in a moment of rapturous exaltation, weaving about his last deeds the halo of that glory which is the soldier's most coveted reward. Not alone soldiers, but men of action everywhere, long for a death that shall be but a pause—no, that could be perceptible a lightning leap between a fiery fullness of being on earth and the dazzling dawn of new life beyond the veil.

  1. Experts affirm that a cannon-ball having velocity to keep it in the air will make a clean cut of flesh, bones, and ligaments, and not simply tear them, or push them aside as with a punch; and that a ball slowing up and rolling along the ground at the rate at which a man moves in rapid walking will crush the bones of a foot or leg that resists it. In the civil war spherical and elongated shells usually served the stead of solid cannonballs.
  2. External pressure—the weight of the sword and the pulling of the horse at the bit—would cause relaxation of grip in both sword and bridle hand, and collapse of the chestwalls the strange expiratory cry.
  3. Statistics on this point have not been widely gathered, but numerous instances have been noted where severely wounded men who retained consciousness did not know the location of the hurt until sight or touch revealed it. Physiology accounts for the phenomenon in many ways. In my case an unusual area of skin and bone surface received pressure and the sensations were unusually strong.
  4. Physiology assumes that complete separation may take place at the Deck and the functions of the divided parts go on for a space. A head freshly guillotined gave back mocking gestures of the mouth and eyes when a bystander made faces at it.
  5. A swift bullet will pass through a pane of glass and not jar it enough to crack it. The shell did its work without upsetting the body by the force of the blow. Dr. S. G. Cook, now President of the Board of Police Surgeons in New York city, witnessed a similar instance in the Atlanta campaign, where he served as surgeon in the One Hundred and Fiftieth New York Volunteers. The doctor, with other officers of the medical corps, was riding rapidly across the range of a Confederate battery, which was shelling a column on the march. Hearing a "thud" behind, as a shell passed near him, he turned around and to his amazement saw that one of his companions, Surgeon H. S. Potter, of the One Hundred and Fifth Illinois, had been decapitated, and his horse was galloping on with a headless rider sitting perfectly erect and natural in the saddle. With a little steadying the body remained upright until shelter was reached, the pace being all the while a gallop.
  6. From conversation with the late Henry W. Grady, respecting his father, who lost his life in this attack, I believe this officer to have been Major Grady, of Georgia. I did not shoot him. After drawing bead on him perhaps half a dozen times, admiration for his unexampled daring got the better of me, and I lowered the weapon with the exclamation, "He is too brave—I can't do it."
  7. The scene here described was visible from two o'clock p. m. until sundown from the northern edge of the East Wood along the fence running from the East Wood westerly to the Sharpsburg pike, and separating a corn-field from the elevated cleared field lying south of the Miller farmstead.
  8. Physiological science recognizes, and in a measure accounts for, rigor mortis in cases of the kind cited.
  9. There is an apparent, but, I think, not a real contradiction of this statement in the statistics collected by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, in the United States Army Hospital at Philadelphia, during the war. Out of fifty-six wounds involving the arm system of nerves, twenty-seven fell. But he had excluded all cases accompanied by "early and severe hæmorrhage," and was not considering the dead and mortally wounded, nor those cases too severe for long-distance transportation.
  10. Pare, the French surgeon, recorded the case of a duelist who received a sword-thrust through the heart, large enough to admit a finger, and who followed up his fleeing antagonist, thrusting repeatedly, for two hundred yards before he fell.
  11. In the civil war the proportion of deaths to the surviving injured was a trifle more than one to three.
  12. The small missiles which inflict the majority of war wounds strike fewer nerves of pain than do the instruments of injury in ordinary collisions, where large areas of skin surface are bruised or lacerated; their execution is also more rapid. The instantaneous collapse following violent symptoms of warlike vigor is also a peculiarity of battle-field life. Violent mental and muscular actions have swiftly depleted the reserve forces, and, where collapse would be slow under normal strains, it is swift in abnormal cases.