Bullets whistled around Dr. Cobb in a Gettysburg hospital: Part II

Searching for wounded comrades in night-darkened woods, a Union soldier holds aloft a torch as his companion checks a fallen soldier for signs of life. Shortly after the 4th Maine Infantry started fighting at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, casualties began arriving at the brigade hospital where Dr. Albion Cobb was on duty. (Harper's Weekly)

Searching for wounded comrades in night-darkened woods, a Union soldier holds aloft a torch as his companion checks a fallen soldier for signs of life. Shortly after the 4th Maine Infantry started fighting at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, casualties began arriving at the brigade hospital where Dr. Albion Cobb was on duty. (Harper’s Weekly)

No matter how poorly their assistant surgeon felt, the 4th Maine boys left their camp near Gum Spring and marched north “to the mouth of the Monocacy River” on June 25, 1863, the ill Dr. Albion Cobb noticed as he swayed to and fro in a lurching medical wagon.

As rain muddied the roads all afternoon, the men endured “a very trying” slop, crossed the Potomac River at Edward’s Ferry, and tramped the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal tow path to where an aqueduct carried it over the tow path.

Reflecting his interest in rocks, Cobb noticed the aqueduct was “a fine solid piece of masonry.”

After spending the night camped in “a dirty and unpleasant” cornfield, the 4th Maine “plodded on through mud and rain” to Point of Rocks, then “a station on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad,” Cobb observed. The Maine lads camped nearby that night, then resumed their northward march around 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 27.

Cobb soon realized that Virginia lay behind him. Stripping farms of crops, fences, and livestock, incessant war had ravaged the central and eastern regions of the Old Dominion State. Although the moist air was “still thick and heavy,” the rain had stopped falling, and Cobb had time to study the passing terrain.

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 was the assistant surgeon of the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment during the Gettysburg Campaign. He came under fire while working at a field hospital on July 2, 1863. (Courtesy of the Collection of Janet and Bedford Hayes)

“The country is hilly, the fields of wheat are noble,” he noticed. The streams ran “clear and lively,” and water could be cranked from the wells! Retreating troops often defiled wells in Virginia so that enemy soldiers could not draw or drink the water; here in Frederick County, Maryland, well water was fresh and cool, “and altogether everything differs much from Virginia and appears much more like affairs at the north,” Cobb commented.

Then “a troop of young ladies … waving handkerchiefs and singing patriotic songs” coalesced by the roadside and welcomed the weary Union troops to Maryland. Their spirits buoyed by meeting women who cheered rather than cursed Federal soldiers, the 4th Maine lads camped that Saturday evening near Jefferson.

Onward the tramp resumed on Sunday, first to Middleton and then northeast along the National Turnpike to Frederick. Monday brought the 4th Maine lads through Taneytown, where “we were greeted … with every demonstration of joy,” the recovering Cobb said.

The regiment camped “in a beautiful oak grove” and enjoyed a last quiet day on Tuesday as “we lay in camp until afternoon.”

At the Gettysburg Seminary Museum, four mannequins depict the wounded Union soldiers deposited in the Lutheran Seminary building on July 1, 1863 and then captured by Confederate soldiers. Barns, churches, and even private homes became makeshift hospitals during and after the Battle of Gettysburg. (Brian Swartz Photo)

At the Gettysburg Seminary Museum, four mannequins depict the wounded Union soldiers deposited in the Lutheran Seminary building on July 1, 1863 and then captured by Confederate soldiers. Barns, churches, and even private homes became makeshift hospitals during and after the Battle of Gettysburg. (Brian Swartz Photo)

On the road briefly that afternoon, the 4th Maine boys endured “a violent shower of rain about the middle of our march,” Cobb said.

Rain fell into Wednesday, July 1 and left the roads “terribly muddy,” he observed as the regiment passed through Emmitsburg “and halted just out of the town.” About 8-10 miles to the north, Henry Heth and John Buford had collided on the Chambersburg Pike west of Gettysburg; couriers applied spurs to their horses and rode hard to find the Union infantry desperately needed on the battlefield.

The 4th Maine lads “pushed at a rapid rate to near Gettysburg,” arriving about 2 p.m. and deploying on picket duty, Cobb noted. “I was detailed to the ambulances and kept with them through the day.”

And the rock hound commented that “the soil here is a bluish clay containing great numbers of angular fragments of stone.”

Wounded Union soldiers (some of whom lean on crutches) and medical personnel gathered for a photograph at Camp Letterman in Gettysburg some time after the battle fought there. (Library of Congress)

Wounded Union soldiers (some of whom lean on crutches) and medical personnel gathered for a photograph at Camp Letterman in Gettysburg some time after the battle fought there. (Library of Congress)

“Pickett firing and quite severe skirmishing” awakened Cobb early on Thursday, July 2. While the 3rd Maine and sharpshooters probed Confederate positions on Seminary Ridge, the good doctor went “to the Corps hospital about a mile in the rear of the line of battle.”

The medical staff tended to the arriving wounded “for some five or six hours when we found shot and shell falling all about us,” Cobb said. “Soon … the firing drew nearer,” and “the round shot[,] shell and musket balls rattled about us.”

A projectile struck a wounded soldier: time to go. The medical staff relocated the Corps hospital “to a barn” near the Baltimore Turnpike. Cobb stayed with his patients.

“The wounded came in in great numbers all night,” he noted later. Struck by shrapnel, Minie balls, and round shot (the last only took off an arm or a leg if a soldier was lucky), men arrived on foot, in ambulances, or on stretchers.

After sunset, lit torches illuminated the ghastly scenes that Cobb, overwhelmed by his work as were all other Union surgeons, glossed over in his diary. Working at makeshift operating tables — a house door placed across two sawhorses could suffice — set up inside the barn, surgeons probed for bullet-and-bone fragments in chest cavities and abdomens and groins, amputated shattered arms and legs, and wiped their blood-stained hands on equally blood-stained aprons before tackling the next patient.

Cobb does not indicate whether he operated on wounded men. He was ordered “to procure food and shelter for the wounded,” a task that took him farther afield by Friday, July 3. Moving the hospital to the west bank of Rock Creek provided a reliable water source; finding places to shelter the wounded from the elements meant procuring more barns and outbuildings and those homes where the residents let the human misery indoors.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Army established Camp Letterman near the town. Essentially a tent hospital, the camp quickly became the central facility for treating men wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg. This photo was taken in August 1863. (Library of Congress)

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Army established Camp Letterman near the town. Essentially a tent hospital, the camp quickly became the central facility for treating men wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg. This photo was taken in August 1863. (Library of Congress)

“There was a most violent cannonading all day” was the only reference that Cobb made about the July 3 fighting. By day’s end “the number of wounded is large,” he said.

The written evidence — only two diary-entered sentences for July 4 — suggest that work buried Cobb that day. Then Mother Nature suddenly informed the Union surgeons that a riverbank was a terrible price to site a hospital.

“Last night and this morning it rained in torrents, raising the stream on the banks of which our hospital is situated,” Cobb frantically wrote on Sunday, July 5. Rock Creek became “a raging, turbid flood” and spilled over its banks. Doctors and hospital stewards scrambled to move wounded men “almost drowning” in the flood waters.

The rain had stopped by Monday. A thief stole Cobb’s horse; obtaining permission to leave his post, Cobb looked long and hard before spying the horse “at a distance with a man upon his back.”

Cobb retrieved the horse; what happened to the thief went unmentioned.

The Corps hospital relocated to higher ground on Tuesday, July 7, yet the medical staff left some patients next to Rock Creek, which rose with a late night rain on Wednesday. Those men survived.

Starting at 1 a.m., Thursday, July 9, Cobb pulled duty in the Corps hospital. “I went the rounds of the sickest wards and witnessed a horrible amount of suffering,” he wrote afterwards.

“The wounds received in this battle are a very large proportion of them of a severe character,” Cobb said. “There have been many amputations and some re-sections” (a term referring to removing more of a patient’s shattered limb after an initial amputation).

By Wednesday, July 15, Gettysburg was “almost entirely one hospital,” Cobb observed. “Every hall, church, the Court House and almost every dwelling are full of wounded.” He had changed the dressings for many seriously wounded men and was sick himself.

On July 15, the ill Cobb “accompanied the train load of wounded to Baltimore. There were several cars of the wounded men, filling a long train” comprising “ordinary box cars.” Almost the worse for wear, most wounded soldiers survived the journey.

Cobb returned to Gettysburg on a July 16 and continued working in an Army hospital. Although the battle was a few weeks in the past, the dying continued; sometime during the night of Monday, July 27, patient J.S. Gray of the 4th Maine “died very suddenly and unexpectedly from hemorrhage,” Cobb noted.

He departed Gettysburg on Saturday, August 8, after the last patients left the Corps hospital.

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.