Monday, May 30, 2011

A Heartbreaking Civil War Diary

Because it was Memorial Day weekend, I went yesterday to the Grafton Historical Society’s rooms in the former Town Hall on the Grafton Common in our little Massachusetts town to see a Civil War display that they’ve recently posted there.  It summarized the names, ages and occupations of the 65 young men  from Grafton who died in that war.

Featured on one wall were  entries from a Civil War battlefield diary of a Grafton soldier, Jonathan P.   Stowe, who volunteered with the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, was taken prisoner on Oct. 21, 1861 at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Leesburg, VA, and kept as a prisoner at Richmond. In Feb. 1862, he was included in a group of prisoners who were returned under a flag of truce, but he continued fighting, and on 17 Sept. 1862 he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam.

Twenty three thousand soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on Sept. 17, 1862 at Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. According to the Historical Society’s exhibit,  it was “a clash between North and South that changed the course of the Civil War, helped free over four million Americans, devastated Sharpsburg and still ranks as the bloodiest one-day battle in American history…The 15th Massachusetts Infantry went into the Battle of Antietam with 606 soldiers.  318 were killed or wounded, the highest number for any Union regiment in the battle. “

I read with growing suspense the entries from Jonathan Stowe’s pocket diary that he wrote when he was wounded that day, and in the days afterward :

Sept. 17th – Wednesday. Battle. Oh horrid battle.  What sights I have seen. I am wounded!  And am afraid shall be again as shells fly past me every few seconds carrying away limbs from the trees…Am in severe pain. How the shells fly. I do sincerely hope I shall not be wounded again.
Sept 18th – Thursday.  Misery. Acute, painful misery.  How I suffered last night.  It was the most painful of anything have experienced. My leg must be broken for I cannot help myself scarcely any. I remember talking and groaning all night. Many died in calling for help ..Sergt. Johnson, who lies on the other side of the log is calling for water. Carried off the field at 10 AM by the Rebs who show much kindness but devote much time to plundering dead bodies of our men…Water very short. We suffer much.
Sept. 19th –Friday. Rained only a little. I had a rubber blanket and overcoat. Rebs retreat. Another painful night. Oh good God, a whole line of our skirmishers are coming…There are lots of us lain out…By and by our boys come along.  What lots of the 15th. Captain comes down to get the names and has coffee furnished us.—Twas the best cup I ever tasted. Dr. looks at my wounds and calls it a doubtful case. Get me on ambulance at 3 PM but do not get to the hospital till nearly dark.  Plenty of water  which gives us a chance to take down inflammation. Nurses worn out by fatigue. Placed on straw near the barn.
Sept. 20th – Saturday.  Fearful it will rain. How cheerful the boys appear.  Many must lose their arms or legs but they do not murmur…Leg amputated about noon. What sensations--used chloroform. Hope to have no bad effects. There are some dozen or more stumps near me.  Placed in barn beside J. Hughes.
Sept. 21st – Sunday. Very weak and sore…Hot weather by day cool at night. Hard to get nurses. Men beg for water. People come in from all parts of the country. Stare at us but do not find time to do anything.
Sept. 22nd – Monday. Two men died last night…How painful my stump is.  I did not know was capable of enduring so much pain. How very meager are accommodations – no chamber pots & nobody to find or rig up one.  How ludicrous for 2 score amputated men to help themselves with diarrhea.
Sept. 23rd – Tuesday.  Oh what fearful long nights. What difficulties we have to contend…Relief can hardly be found. I have at length got my limb dressed by volunteer surgeon. But never was so exhausted for want of refreshment.
Sept/ 24th—Wednesday. No entry.
Sept. 25th – Thursday. Such nights!  Why they seem infinitely longer than days. The nervous pains are killing two or three every night. All sorts of groans and pleadings… Many patients are leaving daily.  Some have gone today to H. Ferry.  I watch over J. Hughes nightly. Has had fever. Very cold last night & we are very short of clothing.  Sundown just rec’d blankets.
Sept. 26th – Friday. Very cold last night. J Hughes had shakes again last night…the cold weather may all come for the best, certainly maggots do not trouble so much and air is some purer. 4 PM J. Hughes died…O there comes Mrs. Gray with refreshments. Such a treat…I got tomatoes…just what I wanted, Have since forgotten my stump first hemorrhage- it was very copious and tho I stoutly affirmed that I would not use Brandy, was now plainly told that if not should be dead in 3 days.
Sept. 27th – Saturday. Commence taking Brandy none too soon. Dr. tells me I am dangerously ill and must take his prescription in order to change condition of blood. He is earnest & too good a man. Mr. Sloan a kind hearted chaplain telegraphs for me. Suffer continuously from position in bed.  Have to elevate my stump to prevent bleeding and be very still.
Sept. 28th – Sunday. Oh what lengths to the nights. The horrid smell from the mortifying limbs is nearly as bad as the whole we have to contend. Mrs. Lee and another lady are here daily dispensing cooked broths…They seem to employ  their whole time for us.  Move outdoors in the PM. Excessively hot.
Sept. 29th – Monday.  Slept little more comfortable last night. Got nice soups and nice light biscuit and tart also nice butter from Mrs. Lee. Also she gets me milk again this morning. How the quinine keeps me parched for water and so sleepy and foolish. Am much better off here than in barn.  10 AM my comrade died from the 18th Minn. Regt. I rec’d 4 letters from friends or home but am so boozy it takes the whole AM to read them.  Mr. Dr. Kelsey dressed my stump admirably and am quite comfortable if the quinine does not choke me to death. It is far more quiet here but begins to rain.

At 7:45 that evening, Stowe sent a telegram to J.W. Stowe as follows:  “Dangerously wounded at Hoffman’s hospital near Sharpsburg. Come instantly.”

Jonathan Stowe died on October 1 from his wound and amputation.  He had lain on the battlefield for a day without food or water and was then taken to the Nicodemus farm by Confederates where he stayed another day without medical treatment.  The cumulative effects were too much. He was 30 years old.
         I was shocked by that last paragraph—somehow I had expected that Jonathan Stowe came out of the war alive and that’s how his diary got back to Grafton.  Also, I was surprised at how kind the local ladies and even the rebel soldiers were to the wounded Union soldiers.  Most of all-- in reading how Grafton’s soldiers died—I realized that many more died of infection than bullets. If they had proper medical treatment back then, they did not need to die.

In summing up the sacrifices made by Grafton’s soldiers in the Civil War, the Historical Society posted a few lines that I thought were very eloquent:
The enormity of their choice, our choice as a nation, would not be fully understood until the brutality of the war was fully revealed. A heavy price was paid. It reverberates down through the generations to this day….They all died far, far from home in places that young school boys could only imagine during that time. But they served, many of them in multiple battles. They were and are a part of our Town’s tapestry, which includes strands of patriotism, fortitude, determination and a great desire to serve. Take a moment to thank them as you pass the Civil War monument on the Common.  We are one nation today because they served. They deserve our thanks and gratitude. Always.


Anonymous said...

Great post-- I love New York in the Spring and Fall-- not so much in the winter and summer.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this.