By Thomas Skaggs
Case — Private William Furlong, Co. G, 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, aged 33 years, was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st, 1863, by a fragment of shell, which struck the external angular process of the frontal bone and carried away the left superollinary ridge. The wound was about one and a half inches in width and four inches in length. He was insensible only for a short time, and, considering the serious nature of the injury it us remarkable that he walked with his companions to a sand-bank, and actually dug therefrom, with his own hand, the fragments of the shell which inflicted the injury. He received little or no treatment until July 16th, when he was admitted to Cotton Factory Hospital, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Tepid water was injected into the wound and several spiculae of bone were removed from the substance of the brain. One piece, however, was not removed and still remains, as it was feared that hemorrhage would follow; besides, the conscious condition of the patient did not warrant further interference. The pulse throughout remained normal, and sleep natural. On August 10th, the patient was cheerful, and healthy granulations had commenced. There was considerable tumefacation of the left eye, and inability to move eyelids. On forcibly opening them the pupil was found dilated; the intellect was unimpaired. On August 18th, the pulsations of the brain were still manifest, although granulations were nicely closing the wound. During August and September, scales and spiculae of bone which were forced to the surface by the granulations, were removed. He was discharged on September 14th, 1863. He is not a pensioner. The case is reported by Acting Assistant Surgeon Lewis Post.
The casualty lists from the battle of Gettysburg were unprecedented to that point in American history. Thousands of men died in a small town in south central Pennsylvania.The massive loss of life on July 1st through the 3rd can be attributed to many factors – poor tactics and new military technologies have often been put forth as catalysts for the massive bloodshed during those three hot days in 1863. While statistics reflect the great loss of life, individual stories like that of Private William Furlong of the 153rd Pennsylvania put a human face on the catastrophe. For many, Gettysburg was just a name on a list of many battles. For the civilians who lived in Gettysburg, their town had been changed into a massive field hospital catering to thousands of injured soldiers. For Private Furlong, Gettysburg was a moment that forever altered his life.
Furlong, aged 33 years, was one of the soldiers who would not be rejoining General George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac for their march toward Richmond. Furlong fought with the XI Corps under General Oliver O. Howard. On July 1st, he received a shell fragment to the forehead. Amazingly, with the aid of his comrades, he walked to a sand-bank, and proceeded to dig out the shell fragments from the wound. While the rest of the XI Corps retreated to Cemetery Hill, Furlong’s movements are a mystery. The surgeon writing the report was unsure of his patient’s proceedings after receiving the wound. The next time Furlong appears in the records is when he was admitted to Cotton Factory Hospital, in Harrisburg on July 16th.
It would be astonishing if Private Furlong had received such a grievous injury and had no surgical assistance until fifteen days after the wounding. Perhaps the Private had a fear of surgeons, or he may have had assistance that was unrecorded. Regardless, upon reaching Harrisburg he was in good condition for having recently received such a grievous wound. Assistant Surgeon Lewis Post, who reported the incident, indicates that while the patient’s intellect was undamaged, his pupils were dilated and the brain had a peculiar pulse. Furlong, after two months, was discharged from service on September 14th, 1863.
After his discharge, Furlong presumably returned to his home in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where he had enlisted. Private Furlong’s story is a miraculous testament to the durability of the human body. Tens of thousands of soldiers were wounded during the American Civil War and many of them returned to civilian life in a capacity similar to that before the war. Others were not so lucky. Private Edward Powers of the 11th New Jersey Volunteers was hit by a conoidal (minie) ball in the frontal bone along the hair line. It remained lodged there until removed at the Seminary Hospital in Gettysburg. Although Powers was returned to duty on October 2nd, 1863, it was noted that he was suffered lasting effects from the wound—headache, dizziness, inability to stoop, and impaired memory and intellect.
Powers and Furlong prove that the human body is a powerful entity. However, their story is one shared by thousands of others who received wounds across the many battlefields of the Civil War. The word “Gettysburg” conjures images of Pickett’s Charge and Little Round Top, where men struggled to kill one another; it should just as automatically conjure images of the sprawling hospitals where individuals worked tirelessly to save the fallen. The facilities of the civilians of Gettysburg and many towns around it, their facilities were filled with the dead and the wounded. Their lives became inexorably entwined with the fates of the men from the states who fought there. A colossal effort to treat the wounded soldiers and heal the hearts of those who lost loved ones dominated the town for months after the battle. Sometimes the greatest heroes are those who clean up the ruins left by war, and those who must redefine their identity after suffering wounds, as Privates Furlong and Powers were forced to do.
For further reading see The Medical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865). (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870) at the Special Collections section in Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg Pennsylvania.