George McClellan abandons his sick and wounded at Savage Station — Part I

During the last weeks of the Peninsula Campaign, the Army set up a large field-hospital complex at Savage Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad. Box cars carried supplies to the station and hauled away sick and wounded soldiers destined to be sent to Northern hospitals. Hundreds of Maine soldiers passed through the field hospital until its capture by Confederate troops on June 30, 1862. (Library of Congress)

During the last weeks of the Peninsula Campaign, the Army set up a large field-hospital complex at Savage Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad. Box cars carried supplies to the station and hauled away sick and wounded soldiers destined to be sent to Northern hospitals. Patients were housed in tents set up on the hillsides and in the woods on the Savage farm. Hundreds of Maine soldiers passed through the field hospital until its capture by Confederate troops on June 30, 1862. (Library of Congress)

Like a bullet-crippled Custer trooper watching Indian warriors approach him at the Little Big Horn battlefield, what did Corp. Harrison Huckins think as he watched Confederate soldiers walk toward him at Savage Station in Virginia on Monday, June 30, 1862?

The Custer trooper knew the Indians were coming to kill him; did a similar thought cross Huckins’ mind?

Born in Lubec, the 21-year-old Huckins was farming in Lubec when he joined Co. K, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, in early summer 1861. Commanded by Col. Hiram Burnham of Cherryfield, the regiment mustered into federal service on July 15 and left for Washington, D.C. two days later.

Eastport-area men filled out Co. K, led by Capt. Theodore Carey of Maine’s easternmost city. The company fought with the 6th Maine at Williamsburg, Va. in early May 1862 before marching up the Peninsula to a point west of Seven Pines by early June.

Huckins contracted typhoid fever later that month. He was transported by either ambulance or box car to Savage Station, a whistle stop on the rickety Richmond & York River Railroad connecting the Confederate capital, Richmond, to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, about 15-20 miles east of Savage Station.

While advancing his Army of the Potomac toward Richmond, George McClellan used the R&YR RR as his main supply line. Trains ran frequently every day from White House Landing west to Fair Oaks Station, the last station behind Union lines.

Approximately three miles east of Fair Oaks, the tracks ran past Savage Station (possibly not an actual building), which took its name from a Henrico County farmer named Savage, whose property abutted the tracks.

History books often identify the whistle stop as Savage’s Station, but many Official Records reports called the place Savage Station. That is the term I prefer.

The Army established a large field hospital at Savage Station, from which sick and wounded men were shipped by box car to White House Landing for ship-borne evacuation to Northern hospitals. Representing the United States Sanitary Commission, Calais nurse Isabella Fogg arrived at Savage Station in early June, perhaps a few days after the Battle of Seven Pines.

Riding in “an open freight-car loaded with barrels of beef, upon which we sat,” Bath nurse Sarah Sampson and other nurses took the R & YR Railroad to Savage Station on Friday, June 13. Later that day, Confederate cavalrymen commanded by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart attacked the railroad well to the east at Tunstall’s Station.

Lacking tools to tear up the track, the Confederates piled material on it instead. As his vanguard approached Tunstall’s, “a train of cars came thundering down from the Grand Army [of the Potomac],” Stuart said.

Probably not until the next day did Sampson learn about her potentially close call. The train crew that had brought her to Savage Station unloaded freight and passengers there, then picked up some outbound passengers, including six 11th Maine Infantry Regiment officers sent home on a recruiting expedition.

The train soon departed for White House Landing. “On its return” there, the flat car on which she had ridden earlier that day “was fired into by the rebels, and the bridge at Tunstall’s station, over which we had crossed, burned,” Sampson learned.

The Union train approaching Tunstall‘s Station “had troops on board and we prepared to attack it,” Stuart reported. Slamming aside the Confederate obstructions “without being thrown from the track” and taking heavy fire from enemy cavalrymen, the train rolled toward White House Landing.

Then “the railroad bridge over Black Creek was fired,” Stuart noted.

Middle-class housewife Sarah Sampson of Bath volunteered as a nurse when her husband went to war with the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment in 1861. She spent two weeks working at the Army's field hospital at Savage Station in Virginia in June 1862. The horrible medical conditions that she encountered there left her appalled. (Maine State Archives)

Middle-class housewife Sarah Sampson of Bath volunteered as a nurse when her husband went to war with the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment in 1861. She spent two weeks working at the Army’s field hospital at Savage Station in Virginia in June 1862. The horrible medical conditions that she encountered there left her appalled. (Maine State Archives)

The massive field-hospital complex to which the sick Harrison Huckins was sent reflected the less than benign attitude the War Department displayed toward sick and wounded men, considered truly expendable given the seemingly limitless manpower of the North.

Patients and nurses alike suffered at Savage Station “during the long, hot days of June.” Physically tough, Isabella Fogg placed “a wet towel” on her head each day before tugging on a hat; periodically moistening the towel in any available water container, she avoided the sunstroke felling even healthy men.

Casualties continued arriving at Savage Station, often faster than the trains could transport patients to White House Landing. “The number of sick here is large, alarmingly so,” Sarah Sampson realized. “We found between three and four hundred sick” in Kearney’s 3rd Division, to which the 3rd and 4th Maine infantry regiments were assigned.

“They nearly all needed a change of clothing, which we could not obtain,” Sampson told a friend in Maine. Despite the fields and pastures scattered around Savage Station, sick soldiers “had nothing under them but their blankets, not a spire of straw, and nothing to rest their poor fevered heads upon, but their leather knapsacks.”

Malnutrition stalked the sick and wounded soldiers sheltering in Sibley tents and beneath every bit of available canvas. The nurses delivered to their patients “the first corn starch and farina which they had,” Sampson described the diet she introduced to those men under her care.

“Think of typhoid fever patients (like Harrison Huckins) having nothing to eat but hard bread (hardtack). There is fault somewhere,” Sampson excoriated the unidentified senior Army commanders responsible for the patients’ care at Savage Station.

“In this hospital are the sick of the 3rd and 4th Maine,” she reported. “The patients were all so glad to see us” that “they feel gratitude for any expression of kindness.”

As the nurses worked, delirious patients “often … happily think their mother or sister has come at last and ‘thank God,’” Sampson noticed. Nurses cooled sweat-beaded foreheads with cloths soaked in spring water, held hands with the dying, and by candle light penned letters dictated by amputees.

“I can give you no idea of an every day experience” at Savage Station, Sampson wearily wrote her friend. “Yet we do so little of what should be done.”

Next week: A Calais nurse cared for her patients even as Union troops abandoned Savage Station.

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.