Confederate artillery shells whistling overhead, nearby explosions shaking the damaged house in which a senior Union officer had placed a field hospital, Army surgeons amputated shattered limbs, sewed blood-spurting arteries, and, between patients, wiped blood-covered hands on blood-pocked aprons.
Sometimes Dr. Nahum P. Monroe, the senior surgeon of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, stood, blinked, and gazed briefly at the horror around him. Then another screaming patient arrived on the makeshift operating table beside which the quiet Belfast country doctor stood; speaking quietly with the hospital attendants and picking up his surgical tools, Monroe resumed his bloody work.
On Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862, Ambrose Burnside hurled his Army of the Potomac against the enemy troops entrenched along the hills behind Fredericksburg in Tidewater Virginia. The Union survivors shook and shivered as the sun sank low “that beautiful sunny day,” as Monroe described the weather.
Some 12,500 Yankees had fallen during the battle; flung across Marye’s Heights and the southern plain, blue-clad flotsam and jetsam marked the high points reached by the rising Federal tide that day.
The shooting did not cease with sunset — nor did the dying.
And Dr. Monroe worked amidst the resulting horror.
Earlier that Saturday, he had crossed the Rappahannock River with the 20th Maine, en route with its brigade to attack Marye’s Heights behind Fredericksburg. Watching his comrades pass “as they were ordered in” to charge up the long slope toward the heights, “I felt that I should never see many of them alive again, but on they went, bidding me good bye, with steady step and calm, but solemn faces,” he said.
“I was ordered to remain and assist in operating at a hospital.” Monroe turned away and searched for the field hospital, set up in a house “directly in range of the guns,” he said, and “the shells came flying over every moment.”
Although the surgeons and hospital attendants worried that an errant shell might strike the house, their patients did not; broken and bleeding, the wounded screamed, moaned, called for a mother or another close female relative, prayed, and in many cases, “died of their wounds,” Monroe realized.
He knew the day went poorly for the Army of the Potomac. Wounded “men were brought in so fast, we could find no time to a safer place for them,” and the hospital — and even Fredericksburg itself — were “soon filled with wounded from all directions and regiments.”
Surgeons triaged the wounded whenever possible. The gut shot had little chance to recover, and many soldiers suffered wounds so grievous that surgeons operated with the knowledge their work could be in vain.
Monroe remembered one such soldier, “shot through the head.” The musket ball had lodged in the man’s skull; “I removed the ball,” which “was cut nearly in two pieces,” the good doctor recalled. But the soldier “was insensible and remained so till he died.”
The sun set, the temperature plunged, and the work continued unabated in this field hospital and others scattered behind the Federal lines. For Monroe and the other doctors now working by lamp light, darkness did not lessen the incoming patient tide.
“There were some horrible sights,” Monroe wrote afterwards while processing what he saw and did that terrible mid-December weekend. The surgeons dealt with almost every conceivable wound that lead or steel could inflict on the human body. Some Union boys were “shot through the back, others in the side, the balls coming out the back,” Monroe cataloged the damage.
“There were some horrible sights,” such as one soldier who “lost both legs,” another man “both arms,” and a third soldier “with both legs and arms gone,” Monroe remembered.
He worked at the operating table until Sunday morning, then spent Monday helping remove wounded men to the Rappahannock River’s left bank. After dark “I went to my old hospital, to see some men who were dying and could not be removed,” Monroe said.
Although a mounted picket warned that Confederates “were then coming into the city,” Monroe walked quietly to the house containing the now abandoned field hospital. Inside he “found our poor fellows dead, others wounded and asleep, and in the cellar kitchen some fifteen were asleep.”
Monroe found “still more” in a “cook room.
“I aroused them just in time to escape,” he said, declining credit for saving 20-25 wounded Union soldiers from captivity.
Source: “Letter From Dr. Monroe,” Republican Journal, Friday, Jan. 2, 1863
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.