Feverish with typhoid fever, Corp. Harrison Huckins of Co. K, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, heard the rumors circulating around him by late afternoon on Sunday, June 29, 1862.
One patient among the 2,500 to 3,000 sick and wounded Union soldiers confined to hospital tents at the large Federal field-hospital complex at Savage Station, Va., Huckins would have been fortunate if his feverish mind could not comprehend the verbal panic leaping from man to man inside his tent.
Short on wagons and ambulances to haul off his supplies and his casualties, George McClellan was abandoning both at Savage Station.
Uniformed arsonists would burn the supplies; as for the hospital patients, well, they were on their own, Pennsylvania chaplain Rev. James Junius Marks soon spread the word in his particular area of responsibility, a small hospital encompassing only 150 “sick men, some of them in a dying condition.”
Cannon fire grew louder through Sunday afternoon as Confederate troops of John Magruder pushed east; Union stragglers (including officers) passing through Savage Station spread frightening rumors, and hurting soldiers cried in apprehension.
“Through all these fearful scenes and agonizing fears” about the hospital’s abandonment, nurse Isabella Fogg of Calais “continued her labor for the sick till the last moment.” Ordered to leave, she loaded “sanitary supplies” (but no patients, per orders) into an ambulance, apparently among the last at Savage Station, and joined the southward-shuffling columns.
Her thoughts about abandoning wounded men from the 6th Maine Infantry went unspoken.
Learning from a Union general that Savage Station would be abandoned, Rev. Marks gathered the medical personnel of his hospital and as many casualties as possible around a mulberry tree. He implored those still mobile to leave with the retreating army; “I entreated the stronger to help the weaker,” he recalled.
As the Union lines contracted that torrid Sunday, a confusing late-day battle west of the hospital complex diverted retreating Union infantry — including the 6th and 7th Maine infantry regiments — to support the II Corps of Brig. Gen. Edwin Sumner. The shooting ended around 9 p.m.
Bandaged, bleeding, and feverish refugees fled Savage Station even as Union troops battled them. As the sun set, “the fight of Savage Station was made, and it was short, sharp, and decisive,” noted Maj. Thomas Hyde of the 7th Maine Infantry.
“The enemy were quickly rolled back into the woods from whence they came,” he said.
Riding from Savage Station in early evening, Marks “beheld a long, scattered line of the patients staggering away, some carrying their guns, and supporting a companion on an arm,—others tottering feebly over a staff which they appeared to have scarcely strength to lift up.”
Sick men toppled onto the road, then crawled to their hands and knees, “and stimulated by the fear of the enemy,” teetered away toward the James River, he said.
“Never had I beheld a spectacle more touching or more sad,” Marks realized.
He remained at Savage Station as “a violent thunder-storm” swept the region Sunday night. Monday, June 30 dawned “cloudless and calm,” and Marks went up on the high ground “and looked down on the main road, the [Richmond & York River] railroad, and a dark pine forest.”
The Union army had vanished; “there was no sign of … the enemy,” he noted.
Suddenly Marks spotted a Confederate soldier — apparently a scout — crouching beneath the trees about 650 feet away. Marks slipped away to his small hospital and rousted the nurses to prepare and serve breakfasts to the remaining patients.
Confederate cavalrymen emerged from the pine forest about 7 a.m. Noticing the house where Marks’s nurses were working, the Confederate drew their swords “and with a wild dash, leaping ravines and fences, they rode up to our gate.”
The Southerners’ commander confirmed Marks’s identity and his status as a chaplain. Dismounting, the Confederate “came into the house, spoke very kindly to the men, and went from room to room, assuring the sick that had no reason to fear; they should be well treated,” Marks said.
Similar scenes occurred throughout that morning as Confederate troops occupied Savage Station. Some 200 to 300 enemy soldiers remained to guard the hospital complex as the bulk of the Southern forces pursued the retreating Army of the Potomac.
Ultimately their Confederate captors pressed into service the Union doctors, nurses, and hospital stewards who had either been ordered or had volunteered to stay with the patients abandoned at Savage Station. Both sides would suffer heavy losses during the Seven Days Battles; Confederate wounded flooded into Richmond, and with that city inundated in blood and pus, wounded Union soldiers were kept at Savage Station for a while.
“I remained at the Stashion about 10 days and then was taken to Richmond whare I remaind twenty more days,” Harrison Huckins would recall in a letter written to Maine Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. on Nov. 9, 1862.
While Huckins was a prisoner in Richmond, “the news came that we were goin to be sent to our lines.” Confederate authorities saw no sense in keeping Union prisoners so sick or wounded that they would probably not fight again.
Huckins was paroled and sent “to USA General Hospital West Philadelphia,” where on Nov. 9 he was “now doing well and hope to be with my Regiment in a few days.”
Upon arriving in Union lines, he “was glad to see the Stars and Stripes once more.
“I am bound to stand by the old flag and fight until every traitor is swept from the Land to return no more[,] and then I can return to my friends at my home in Eastport and dwell in peace and happiness through life,” Huckins concluded.
Discharged for medical disability in April 1863, Huckins returned to Eastport. He went west some years later and settled down in California.
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.