Physician, heal thyself on the road to Gettysburg: Part I

Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched sick and wounded soldiers resting on their beds inside a Union hospital tent at Harrison's Landing. A hospital steward (center) offers drink or food to a kneeling patient. Waud did not identify the shorter person standing beside the steward, but the manner of dress suggests a nurse. (Library of Congress)

Combat artist Alfred Waud sketched sick and wounded soldiers resting on their beds inside a Union hospital tent at Harrison’s Landing on the James River in midsummer 1862. A hospital steward (center) offers drink or food to a kneeling patient. Waud did not identify the shorter person standing beside the steward, but the manner of dress (jacket and skirt) suggests a nurse. (Library of Congress)

If Dr. Albion Cobb had known the horrors awaiting Army of the Potomac surgeons converging on Gettysburg, he might have consigned himself permanently to the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment’s sick list on Thursday, June 25, 1863.

Apparently from Ogunquit, Cobb had studied medicine with “a Dr. Stone,” according to Richard F. Potter, a Connecticut resident who transcribed Cobb’s wartime diary before donating it to the Maine State Archives in the late 1990s. Describing Stone as a “Teacher of Medicine,” Cobb meticulously learned the physician’s trade from him.

In December 1862, Cobb joined the 4th Maine Infantry as an assistant surgeon. A Union regiment usually fielded a senior surgeon and his assistant, and between their heavy workloads and execrable food, many surgeons often resigned their positions in a short time.

When Robert E. Lee launched his Pennsylvania invasion in June 1863, Joseph Hooker went after him with a vengeance, yanking Union troops from their Rappahannock River camps and marching them north. The 4th Maine had camped in one place for a while; Cobb spent time chatting with Col.  Elijah Walker (the regiment’s commander), picking fresh cherries and strawberries, and noting the local flora and rock and soil formations.

The gig was pleasant for a Maine doctor, but everything changed at 10 a.m., Tuesday, June 9, when Cobb suddenly heard “cannonading in the direction of Warrenton, or thereabouts.”

Dr. Albion Cobb was the assistant surgeon of the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment. (Courtesy of the Collection of Janet and Bedford Hayes)

Dr. Albion Cobb became the assistant surgeon of the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment in December 1862. Beneath his weathered features lurked the heart of an amateur geologist; even as the 4th Maine marched north in June 1863, Cobb commented on the terrain and rocks in his diary. (Courtesy of the Collection of Janet and Bedford Hayes)

With Cobb in tow, Walker headed for the regimental picket lines along the Rappahannock. Upriver firing gradually subsided as the Battle of Brandy Station (regarded by many historians as the first act of the Gettysburg Campaign) ended with Union cavalry and infantry withdrawing across the river.

Wednesday passed quietly. Rumors of the June 9 fight swept the 4th Maine’s camp, especially after Maine pickets nabbed wayward Confederate cavalrymen who chatted vociferously about the battle.

An unidentified Union army doctor wears the uniform of an assistant surgeon; he also wears an Ames medical sword. After enlisting in the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment, Dr. Albion Cobb would have worn a similar uniform. (Library of Congress)

An unidentified Union army doctor wears the uniform of an assistant surgeon; he also wears an Ames medical sword. After enlisting in the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment, Dr. Albion Cobb would have worn a similar uniform. (Library of Congress)

Around 10 a.m., Tuesday, June 11, a bugler called the 4th Maine lads to break camp and prepare to march. As assistant surgeon, Cobb rode in a medical wagon and evaded the body-breaking tramp that would soon throw many patients in his direction.

By 11 a.m. the regiment was on the move in “weather [that] was most intensely hot,” Cobb noticed. Walker halted his regiment “in a clearing, near a house, about 10 or 11 P.M.” The medical staff (the chief surgeon, Cobb, and several assigned hospital stewards) “bivouacked in the edge of the woods in a very good place,” said Cobb, who had an eye for terrain, soils, and rock formations.

He was, after all, an amateur geologist.

Cobb spent early Friday morning checking out the regiment’s camp — “same geological formation as so often described,” the rock hound commented — and pouncing on the ripe strawberries he found. The 4th Maine had apparently departed around 6 a.m.; the medical staff brought up the rear.

Before long, Cobb received orders “to take the position of Surgeon of the rear guard. “The position was one of severe labor as the march was hard, the weather hot and the dust extremely oppressive.

“Great numbers of men fell out [of formation] from being chafed and having blistered feet,” Cobb said. During past campaigns, such disabled soldiers might have been left to fend for themselves — and likely as not be snatched up or murdered by Confederate guerrillas.

Now, as the different corps of the Army of the Potomac snaked north toward the Potomac River, many commanders placed empty (and infantry-guarded) wagons at the rear of the tramping columns to pick up men sickened by heat, thirst, exhaustion, and sore feet.

The 4th Maine halted about 5 p.m. “in the woods just below Bealeton’s Station” on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, Cobb noted. He informed his diary that “here the soil is a gravelly loam, full of coarse sandstone boulders. The country is rather flat,” and during “the afternoon the Blue Ridge was visible along the western horizon.”

Under the direction of a regimental surgeon (center, right, with his arm extended), Zouaves practice loading battlefield casualties into a four-wheeled ambulance, likely somewhere in Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Under the direction of a regimental surgeon (center, right, with his right arm extended), Zouaves practice loading battlefield casualties into a four-wheeled ambulance, likely somewhere in Virginia. (Library of Congress)

The 4th Maine marched two miles on Saturday, June 13 and marched up the railroad to Catlett’s Station on Sunday. “We have no idea where we are going,” admitted Cobb, who “got up quite sick” on Monday. The regiment stepped off “past 7” and halted at Bristow Station at 12:30 p.m.

The heat hammered the wool-clad Union boys. On Tuesday, June 16, the 4th Maine reached the Bull Run, but “the afternoon was intensely hot and the men fell out in multitudes,” Cobb said. Heat prostration almost claimed him, and unconscious soldiers with rising body temperatures lay in the regimental ambulances.

One unfortunate 4th Maine lad died in an ambulance on Wednesday; his friends buried him along the roadside.

On Saturday, June 20, the 4th Maine staggered into a place called Gum Spring about 11 p.m. after floundering around in “darkness [that] was most profound” and rain that fell “in torrents.” Soaked to the skin, Cobb helped start a flickering fire.

Lingering near Gum Spring until Thursday, June 25, the 4th Maine lads watched carefully for the “numerous guerrillas lurking about us,” Cobb said. Orders came to lighten the baggage consigned to the wagons; Hooker wanted the army to move faster, and every pound counted.

“Today we have given the hospital team a severe overhauling and threatened to burn some of its contents,” Cobb groused on Saturday.

Four nights later “I began … to be sick,” and on Thursday, June 25, “I was very sick indeed,” he told his diary.

Would the good doctor join the lengthening list of soldiers dropping out on the road to Gettysburg?

Next week: A Maine doctor at Gettysburg: Part II

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.