The Civil War created many legends, from the eccentric Virginia Military Institute professor transformed into “Stonewall” Jackson to the borderline alcoholic and military strategist — Ulysses Simpson Grant — who whipped Southern troops wherever he encountered them.
And the war generated a historical lore that, to this day, requires historians to sift fact from legend. One event allegedly involved a humorous conversation between General Phil Kearney, who had lost his left arm years earlier, and a Union general who had just lost his right arm.
That general was Oliver Otis Howard from Leeds. Initially the colonel and CO of the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment, he served in most Army of the Potomac campaigns from First Manassas to Gettysburg and then fought from Chattanooga to Atlanta and across Georgia and the Carolinas before Joe Johnston threw in the towel in mid-April 1865.
Howard and his brigade — the 5th New Hampshire Infantry, the 61st New York Infantry, the 64th New York Infantry, and the 81st Pennsylvania Infantry — crossed the Chickahominy River late on May 31, 1862. Earlier that day, Johnston had hurled Confederate troops against two Union corps deployed around Seven Pines and Fair Oaks Station; on June 1, Howard and his men pitched into the Confederate infantry.
Howard later detailed that battle in his post-war memoirs. Under enemy fire, he “mounted my large gray horse” and “placed myself, mounted, in front of the” 64th New York Infantry. Howard’s aide and younger brother, Lt. Charles Howard, sat on a horse “in front of” the 61st New York.
“Every field officer was ordered to repeat each command,” Oliver Otis Howard remembered. First he shouted, “Forward!” Then he shouted, “March!”
“I could hear the echo of these words and, as I started, the Sixty-fourth followed me with a glad shout up the slope and through the woods,” Howard recalled. “The Sixty-first followed my brother at the same time.”
Then “a small Mississippi rifle ball” hit Howard’s right forearm. Moments later Charlie Howard “ran to me on foot and said that … [his] horse was killed. He took a handkerchief, bound up my arm, and then ran back to the Sixty-first.”
Oliver Otis Howard advanced the New York regiments until they recaptured the abandoned Federal camps at Seven Pines. “Behind those tents was found a stronger force of Confederates, kneeling and firing,” he wrote.
Both sides unleashed murderous volleys at a distance of “thirty or forty yards,” Howard recalled. He rode behind the deployed New Yorkers about 10:30 a.m.; then a bullet shattered his horse’s left foreleg, and “though I was not aware of it, I had been wounded again, my right elbow having been shattered by a rifle shot.”
The 64th New York’s Lt. William McIntyre “seized me and put me in a sheltered place on the ground,” Howard wrote.
“General, you shall not be killed,” McIntyre said.
But “the bullets were just then raining upon our men,” and “McIntyre himself was slain … giving his life for mine,” Howard wrote. He would never forget McIntyre’s sacrifice.
“Without flinching,” the New Yorkers “were firing back” as Howard passed command to Col. Francis Barlow of the 61st New York. Then soldiers took the severely wounded Howard to where Dr. Gabriel Grant “was operating under fire beside a large stump.”
Grant “bound up my arm,” and “I found my brother shot through the thigh, just able to limp along by using his empty scabbard as a cane.” Grant dressed Charlie Howard’s wound and ordered him into a stretcher.
“I preferred to walk,” Oliver Otis recalled. Headed north to a field hospital set up about a half mile from Fair Oaks Station, he and another wounded soldier soon leaned against each other for support.
A “Dr. Hammond, my personal friend, met me near the” field hospital about 11 a.m. and examined Howard’s shattered right arm. Hammond reported that “the last ball had passed through the elbow joint and crushed the bones into small fragments,” Howard wrote.
Confined briefly to a bed in occupied slave quarters, Howard listened as Hammond, a Dr. Palmer, “and several others … stood by my bedside in consultation.
“At last Dr. Palmer, with serious face, kindly told me that my arm had better come off,” Howard recalled.
“All right, go ahead. Happy to lose only my arm,” he responded to the news.
Not until 5 p.m. did Palmer appear “with four stout soldiers and a significant stretcher,” Howard wrote. Once his patient was supine on the stretcher, Palmer tightened a tourniquet “around the arm close to the shoulder … above the wound.
“Then they bore me to the amputating room, a place a little grewsome (sic) withal from arms, legs, and hands not yet all carried off and poor fellows with anxious eyes awaiting their turn,” Howard wrote.
The hospital orderlies placed Howard “on the long table,” Dr. Grant loosened the tourniquet, and “a mixture of chloroform and gas was administered and I slept quietly,” Howard noted.
“Dr. Palmer amputated the arm above the elbow. When I awoke I was surprised to find the heavy burden was gone, but was content and thankful,” he wrote.
After sunrise on Monday, June 2, the doctors discharged the brothers Howard and sent them to Fair Oaks Station in an ambulance. At the station occurred an incident later immortalized in Civil War lore.
Gen. Philip Kearney, who had lost his left arm while fighting in the Mexican War, had led his troops into the Seven Pines fight on May 31. Now “he rode up with his staff” as Oliver Otis Howard eased himself from the ambulance’s front seat.
“General, I am sorry for you,” Kearney told Howard while referring to his missing right arm. “But you must not mind it; the ladies will not think the less of you!”
“I laughed as I glanced at our two hands of the same size and replied, “There is one thing we can do, general. We can buy our gloves together.”
“Sure enough,” Kearney replied “with a smile.” Then he rode away to die later that summer at Chantilly, Va., and Howard “did not see him again.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.