As the ill Corp. Harrison Huckins of Eastport and Co. K, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment battled for his life inside a hospital tent on Sunday, June 29, 1862, he could hear the enemy coming.
Describing himself as “being very sick with the Typhoid Fever,” Huckins lay in a tent at Savage Station, a whistle stop on the Richmond & York River Railroad in Virginia.
Assigned to the 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and the 2nd Division of Brig. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith, the 6th Maine had reached a point just a few miles from Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign.
The Army had established a massive field-hospital complex at Savage Station. Often grouped by their regiments and brigades, sick and wounded men received at least mediocre medical care. Those soldiers unfit to return to their units were shipped by rail east to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. Carried aboard steamers converted into hospital ships, patients were then evacuated to hospitals in Annapolis, Baltimore, and elsewhere.
Whether or not Huckins had been scheduled for evacuation to White House Landing is unknown. If so, he never got the chance.
When Confederate troops broke Union lines at Gaines Mill on Friday, June 27, George McClellan ordered his army to retreat south to the James River. This maneuver meant abandoning White House Landing and the railroad leading to it.
Friday’s combat sent 600-700 Union casualties to Savage Station. No matter how fast the nurses worked, more wounded men arrived as the sun set. Isabella Fogg, a Calais nurse, could not sleep that night; mules braying and dry axles screeching, ambulances rumbled into Savage Station, and soldiers bore their wounded comrades from the battlefield on their shoulders or on stretchers.
Saturday’s dawn unveiled the human detritus accumulated during the night. Fogg worked amidst the horror recalled by a Pennsylvania chaplain, Rev. James Junius Marks.
“All the open grounds around the house of Mr. Savage, all the floors of the barns and stables and outhouses were covered with a ghastly multitude, bleeding, groaning, and dying,” he said.
Bath nurse Sarah Sampson was not at Savage Station on June 28. She had gone to White House Landing in late week to round up medical supplies; while she was there, orders arrived barring the movement of medical personnel and supplies back to the war front.
Doctors, nurses, and hospital attendants flitted constantly among the men laid beneath every tree at Savage Station. Photographer James F. Gibson had accompanied Union troops on the Peninsula for his employer, Matthew Brady.
On a Saturday not yet disrupted by distant gunfire, Gibson set up his cumbersome camera near the Savage farmhouse and focused on the wounded men and their attendants filling the yard. Restricted by current technology to a slow shutter speed, Gibson caught on glass plate the “ghastly multitude” described by Marks.
The photograph would become among the more famous created during the war.
In such scenes did Isabella Fogg and other nurses work on Saturday. A trainload of wounded soldiers left for White House Landing around breakfast, and the hospital attendants gradually loaded another train with 500 casualties.
Some 11th Maine soldiers guarding the railroad bridge over the Chickahominy River noted the outbound train’s passage early on Saturday. Carrying forage for the army’s horses and mules, the same train returned across the bridge about 9:30 a.m. This was the last train to arrive from White House Landing.
Around 3,000 sick and wounded men were still at Savage Station as James Marks stepped into the telegraphic office near the railroad tracks around 10 a.m. The telegraph operator told his audience that the wires were down. “Our worst fears were now realized,” Marks admitted. “It was certain the enemy was in our rear.”
Confederate troops had captured the railroad on the east bank of the Chickahominy. Intent on withdrawing to the south, McClellan was not interested in recapturing a rail line that he was abandoning.
Isabella Fogg remained at Savage Station on Saturday. Medical personnel desperately cared for the sick and wounded, but many men went neglected without blankets, food, and medicine. As Chaplain Marks walked about the hospital complex, men begged him for help.
More wounded soldiers arrived during the day, and every building and tent — at least 300 of those — brimmed with casualties. Marks estimated that 15 to 20 men occupied each tent; with each nurse responsible for three tents, Fogg would have cared for 45 to 60 men until she was ordered to leave.
When she had time, Fogg watched the dust clouds kicked up by Union troops marching past Savage Station while en route for the James River. The tramping continued into the night. Fogg could tell the columns were moving east, away from the enemy; how long before there would be no Union troops between Savage Station and Lee’s advancing Confederates?
And what would happen to the casualties piling up in the hospital complex?
Next week: Frightened Union patients watch as their captors approach — Part III.
Sources: Corp. Harrison Huckins, Nov. 9, 1862 letter to Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. (Maine State Archives); Women of the War: their Heroism and Self-sacrifice, Frank Moore, S.S. Scranton & Co., Hartford, Conn., 1866; The Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, Rev. J.J. Marks, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1864.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.