Battlefield Wounds

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Battlefield Wounds

Civil War combat was up close and personal. Because of the relatively limited range of the weapons used and the inability to accurately observe enemy formations from any great distance, most fighting was done within a few hundred yards of the opposition. As a result, munitions retained their maximum ability to deliver horrific damage to the human body.

The threat of injury in some sort of military action was an almost daily reality for most troops. Soldiers faced wounds or death from three distinct classes of weapons: small arms (pistols, shotguns, rifles, muskets, and carbines), artillery, and edged weapons (swords, sabers, and bayonets). Each presented its own unique threat to a serviceman's body, though the degree of their lethality and the damage they could inflict varied due to a host of factors. The injuries caused by these weapons ranged from minor to serious, disabling, or fatal. They also had a psychological impact on both the victim and those witnessing his distress.

Wounds from Small Arms Fire

According to statistics in the multivolume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, published by the U.S. government between 1870 and 1888, the vast majority of battlefield wounds, 88 percent to be precise, were caused by rifle or musket fire. Pistol or shotgun rounds were responsible for 9 percent of the wounds recorded at field hospitals.

Twelve percent of gunshot wounds were caused by the .69-caliber smoothbore musket round, whereas 76 percent were inflicted by the more common .58-caliber "Minié" bullet (commonly, but incorrectly, called a ball), used in the rifled muskets of both armies. Between 1863 and 1865 fewer smoothbores were in use than was the case in 1861 and 1862. Hence, the number of injuries caused by .69-caliber rounds decreased dramatically, while those inflicted by Minié bullets rose. Both smoothbore and rifled muskets propelled a soft lead projectile at a relatively slow muzzle velocity. While both could kill, the Minié bullet caused infinitely greater damage than the round .69-caliber musket ball because of its conical shape.

According to Confederate surgeon Deering Roberts, smoothbore musket balls "caused many fractures in bones on the extremities" (Bollet 2002, p. 148). The Minié bullet's effect on its victim, however, was usually much worse because the soft lead bullet tended to flatten and distort when it hit, greatly magnifying its potential for damage. "The shattering, splintering, and splitting of a long bone by the impact of the minie… ball," Roberts recorded, was "both remarkable and frightful" (Bollet 2002, p. 148). A surgical textbook published during the war also spoke of the "frightful traces of devastation" left by Minié bullets (Bollet 2002, p. 146). In his memoir, The Surgeon and the Hospital in the Civil War (1987), Albert G. Hart noted that the rifled musket and Minié bullet combined to vastly increase the striking power of projectiles, resulting in "more dangerous wounds." Whereas a smoothbore round might be deflected from a thigh bone "with no serious injury," a Minié bullet "under similar conditions might not only fracture, but crush two or three inches of the bone" (p. 34). The fact that a high percentage of wounds treated by field hospitals had been caused by Minié bullets and musket balls indicates that small arms fire was generally not immediately fatal. Indeed, there are many examples of men shot through the head who lingered for hours or days before they died.

Where a man was hit could make a huge difference to his chances for survival. According to the Medical and Surgical History (1870–1888, vol. 3, p. 392), wounds to the chest or abdomen were either immediately fatal or led quickly to death; they were responsible for 51 percent of battlefield deaths but only 18 percent of recorded wounds. Injuries to the head and neck accounted for 42 percent of those killed in action, but a mere 11 percent of wounds. Hits to the legs or feet killed only 5 percent of those who died in battle, but on average produced 35 percent of a battle's wounded, whereas injuries to the arms or hands were responsible for 3 percent of battlefield fatalities and 36 percent of wounds. In most cases, therefore, small arms fire wounded, rather than killed.

The majority of men struck by small arms fire experienced similar sensations. In his memoir, Fighting for the Confederacy (1989), artilleryman Edward Porter Alexander recalled being hit by a sharpshooter's bullet during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia (June, 1864 to April, 1865). Ricocheting off "hard ground," the bullet flew upward and struck the colonel in the left shoulder, going under his shoulder bones and "lodging in the muscle behind." Alexander felt his arm go numb, but "no real pain" (p. 445). E. D. Patterson recalled being struck by a bullet at very close range in the Battle of Frayser's Farm, June 30, 1862. " fell forward across my gun, my left arm useless falling under me," he reported. However, Patterson "did not at the moment feel any pain, only a numbness all over my body. I felt as if someone had given me an awful jar, and fell as limber as a drunken man. I could not even tell where I was hit" (Wiley 1971 [1943], pp. 265–266).

For most men, the first instinct after being hit was to determine the nature and extent of their wounds. In a memoir entitled Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1887), Frank Wilkeson recalled that wounded men "almost always tore their clothing away from their wounds, so as to see them and to judge of their character" (p. 204). Long experience made veterans "exceedingly accurate judges" of wounds and they could quickly tell whether an injury was fatal or not. Wounds from bullets, therefore, generally afforded men the opportunity to evaluate their chances of survival. Those injured by other weapons were often not so lucky.

Wounds from Artillery Fire

Fragments from exploding shells accounted for 12 percent of all wounds treated at field hospitals, whereas grapeshot or canister rounds were responsible for 1 percent of the total (Medical and Surgical History, 1870-1888, vol. 3, p. 696). The small percentage of wounds resulting from artillery fire appears at first to make a case for the ineffectiveness of cannon on the Civil War battlefield. Close examination of after-action reports published in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and of regimental histories, memoirs, and diaries, leads to a different conclusion, however.

Official statistics reflect only those wounds treated at field hospitals. Men who were killed outright on the battlefield, who succumbed to their wounds before reaching medical aid, or who were considered to have mortal wounds upon reaching a hospital, were not recorded as wounded but rather as killed in action. For understandable reasons, no effort was made to officially determine the cause of death for these men. Thus, the nature and cause of their wounds never became part of the statistical record.

In his Civil War Medicine (2002), Alfred Bollet points out that it is highly likely that artillery munitions—shells, grapeshot, and canister—accounted for a high percentage of fatal wounds on the battlefield (p. 84). The reasoning behind this assumption is easily understood: Civil War artillery was most effective in a defensive role. At great distances, field pieces fired solid shot (the stereotypical solid cast-iron round cannon ball) or exploding shells. Solid shot was intended to break down fortifications and structures, but could also be useful against tightly massed bodies of troops. A twelve-pound iron ball hurtling into the bodies of unprotected men would often cause crushing injuries that were quickly fatal. Shells, on the other hand, were designed to explode and throw jagged metal fragments in all directions, intending to inflict injuries and death over a wide area.

Although shell fuses sometimes proved faulty and ordnance occasionally failed to explode or fragment satisfactorily, shellfire generally killed rather than wounded. Examples of lethal shell explosions are readily found. In a skirmish near Stevensburg, Virginia, in October 1863, a shell fired from a Confederate cannon exploded among a group of Union troops. The shell ripped off the top of one victim's head, killing him instantly. Another quickly bled to death when a piece of shell ruptured an artery in his thigh. A third Federal was so badly torn apart by the explosion that his bowels and part of his spine protruded from his body. This final victim, although mortally wounded, was not killed instantly. The dying man begged his enemies for water and pleaded for them to shoot him and end his misery. Indeed, wounds from artillery fire were generally more gruesome than those caused by other means. Frank Wilkeson reported that the most horrific wound he ever saw was the result of an exploding shell. A Federal soldier, lying face down to obtain cover, was struck by a shell fragment that tore the flesh off both thighs, "exposing the bones." The soldier bled to death within minutes (Wilkeson 1887, p. 205).

Solid shot could be just as deadly. During the Mine Run Campaign, of November 26 to December 1, 1863, several men were killed when solid shot burrowed into the ground beneath their prone position. Although not a mark was found on their bodies, they had been killed by concussions. Wounds caused by grapeshot and canister were almost universally fatal. Considered close-range ordnance, grapeshot and canister were specially designed as antipersonnel weapons. Grapeshot consisted of "nine cast-iron balls of varying sizes" held between wooden plates that were secured together by "a vertical rod with nuts on each end" (Medical and Surgical History, 1870-1888, vol. 3, p. 697). Canister was a tin can filled with two dozen or so round musket balls. When either type of ammunition was fired, cannon became, in essence, huge shotguns. The wooden plates or tin can came apart, allowing the balls to spray over a wide area. Remnants of the plates, rod, nuts, and tin can also became projectiles. Effective up to a range of several hundred yards, a well-placed canister round could cover an area dozens of yards wide and deep. Men caught in its blast often received multiple wounds simultaneously and were sometimes all but obliterated by the impact. An eyewitness to the Battle of Franklin, of November 30, 1864, for example, described the terrible destruction caused by a Federal gunner firing off his cannon: "Like a huge thunder bolt that awful roar and flash went blasting through that crowd of men, annihilating scores. Arms, legs and mangled trunks were torn and thrown in every direction" (McDonough and Connelly 1983, p. 114).

Few men hit by grapeshot or canister survived to reach a field hospital. It is this that accounts for the fact that only a tiny percentage of reported wounds were recorded as having been caused by artillery projectiles. By contrast, bountiful evidence of deaths inflicted by these weapons can be found in the testimony of men who survived the war.

Wounds from Edged Weapons

Swords, sabers, and bayonets were responsible for only a minuscule number of wounds treated by surgeons—no more than 0.4 percent of the total (Bollet 2002, p. 84). Despite its widespread portrayal in works of art, fiction, and film, hand-to-hand combat was relatively rare in the Civil War. The effectiveness of small arms and artillery fire meant rival bodies of troops seldom came close enough to fight with bayonets or clubbed muskets—and one side or the other usually gave way before the moment of contact was reached. Nonetheless, such combat did on occasion take place, and when it did, witnesses or survivors were quick to recall its vicious finality.

Injuries from the swords carried by officers were indeed rare. The officer's sword was more a badge and tool of rank than a combat weapon. In close action an officer was more apt to use his pistol, and hence wounds or deaths from swords were quite unusual. Sabers, used almost exclusively by cavalry, were more formidable weapons, although mounted troops tended to prefer firearms to edged weapons in combat. When sabers were used, the very nature of a cavalry melee worked against their lethalness. Two men dueling with each other on moving horses generally slashed with their sabers rather than trying to stab. The result was seldom fatal, as the saber was designed to be a stabbing, not a cutting, weapon. The cuts about the face, hands, and arms that were most typical could be painful, but seldom proved fatal and often did not even require a visit to a surgeon.

Bayonets and clubbed muskets were another story. Rare though bayonet fighting was, when it did occur it was incredibly savage. "It would be impossible to picture that scene in all of its horrors," one Union colonel recalled of a bayonet fight. "I saw a Confederate… thrust one of our men through with the bayonet, and before he could draw his weapon from the ghastly wound, his brains were scattered on all of us that stood near, by the butt of a musket swung with terrific force" (McDonough and Connelly 1983, p. 117). Little wonder that wounds inflicted in this kind of combat almost invariably proved fatal and thus sent few men to hospitals.

Effect of Wounds on Morale

Death and wounds inflicted on the battlefield had a psychological as well as a physical impact. Men unaccustomed to the realities of combat were shaken by their first exposure to the brutal damage or death inflicted by a wide variety of weapons. A sudden wave of casualties in the ranks of a green unit could lead it to flee to the rear. Sometimes, the death of an admired leader, or simply a single particularly gruesome wound, could cause a military formation to break apart. However, even in their first combat, most soldiers absorbed the horror around them and continued to perform their duty. Caught up in circumstances and influenced by the odd mixture of emotions that overcome men in battle, they kept fighting. In the aftermath of their initial combat, however, most soldiers recoiled at the evidence of the damage inflicted by rival armies.

Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga"

Ambrose Bierce's short story "Chickamauga" (1889) contains horrifying descriptions of the injuries inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike during the Civil War, as the following excerpt shows. Bierce (1842-1914?) works these descriptions into a plotline full of irony: A little boy wanders off into the woods to play soldier, falls asleep in the forest, and wakes up after dark to have his innocent childish notions of soldiering destroyed by the realities of war:

One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure…. The [boy's father] loved military books and pictures and the boy had understood enough to make himself a wooden sword, though even the eye of his father would hardly have known it for what it was…. [B]ack at the little plantation, where white men and black were hastily searching the fields and hedges in alarm, a mother's heart was breaking for her missing child. Hours passed, and then the little sleeper rose to his feet….

A thin, ghostly mist rose along the water. It frightened and repelled him; instead of recrossing, in the direction whence he had come, he turned his back upon it, and went forward toward the dark inclosing wood. Suddenly he saw before him a strange moving object which he took to be some large animal-a dog, a pig—he could not name it; perhaps it was a bear…. Before it had approached near enough to resolve his doubts he saw that it was followed by another and another. To right and to left were many more; the whole open space about him was alive with them-all moving toward the brook….

He now approached one of these crawling figures from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw-from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious view of the situation….

Shifting his position, [the child's] eyes fell upon some outbuildings which had an oddly familiar appearance, as if he had dreamed of them. He stood considering them with wonder, when suddenly the entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building as his own home!

For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, then ran with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin. There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries-something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.

Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

rebecca j. frey

SOURCE: Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. 2: In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. New York and Washington: Neale Publishing Company, 1909, pp. 46–57.

In his The Life of Johnny Reb (1971), the historian Bell Irvin Wiley traces a common evolution in the way soldiers responded to combat. One Georgian's reaction to his first battle at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862, was typical of those new to fighting. Recalling "friends falling on both sides dead and mortally wounded," he found it "impossible to express" his feelings "when the fight was over and I saw what was done." Viewing the battlefield he admitted "the tears came… free, oh that I never could behold such a sight again to think of it among civilized people killing one another like beasts" (Wiley 1971 [1943], p. 32). Continued exposure to the hardships of soldiering and the realities of battle quickly transformed men into veterans, however. Before long they took death and wounds, even those of close friends and comrades, in stride. "I saw the body [of a man killed the previous day]," wrote Private Henry Graves, "and a horrible sight it was. Such sights do not affect me as they once did. I can not describe the change nor do I know when it took place, yet I know that there is a change for I look on the carcass of a man now with pretty much such feeling as I would do were it a horse or hog" (Wiley 1971 [1943], p. 35).

At Vicksburg, John T. Sibley saw a shell tear off the arm of a soldier standing nearby, and noted the lack of reaction among the men in his unit. "I am astonished at my own indifference, as I never pretended to be brave; it distresses me at times when I am cool and capable of reflection to think how indifferent we become in the hour of battle when our fellowmen fall around us by scores" (Wiley 1971 [1943], p. 35). Union Captain Francis Donaldson, recalling childhood games in which he and his brother aped the "indifference" of famous military commanders to the "work of death" going on about them, remarked: "I little thought then that my attempts at being funny would ever be recalled to mind so vividly as they were at Gettysburg," where two fellow officers "were shot down on either side [of] me, [one] killed outright, and to view with actual indifference an occurrence that at any other time would have horrified me" (Donaldson 1998, p. 322).

Troops quickly hardened to the business of war. They viewed wounds and death as part of their trade and came to look upon them analytically. Such detachment, however, could never completely inure a soldier to the wounding or death of a dear friend or family member. Nor could it remove from his mind the fear of being maimed, disfigured, or left wounded on the field of battle without aid or assistance.


Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Ed. Gary W. Gallagher. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Bollet, Alfred Jay. Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs. Tucson, AZ: Galen Press, 2002.

Cozzens, Peter. The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1997.

Donaldson, Francis Adams. Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experiences of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, ed. J. Gregory Acken. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.

Hart, Albert G. The Surgeon and the Hospital in the Civil War. Palmyra, VA: Old Soldier Books, 1987.

McDonough, James Lee, and Thomas Connelly. Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865), Surgical Section, Vol. 3. Prepared under the direction of Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870-1888.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Wilkeson, Frank. Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1887.

Jeffrey William Hunt