The final drama of the Battle of Gettysburg was an ill-fated Union cavalry assault launched against the extreme right of the Confederate lines. It was likely during this fight on July 3rd that twenty-three year-old Lieutenant J.P. Breedlove, of the 4th Alabama, received his wound. A Minié ball entered the right side of his abdomen just above the inguinal ligament (approximately where the seated man above has an entry wound in his front) and traveled downward, severing part of Breedlove’s large intestine before exiting his body. As terrible as this wound was, Breedlove could count himself lucky. From experience, many surgeons knew wounds of the large intestine to be less fatal than wounds of the small intestine. One of the reasons for this higher rate of survival was the relative infrequency with which large intestine wounds became infected. Breedlove’s own experience seems to confirm this, for despite feces escaping from his wound, it healed steadily with only simple dressings for treatment. With this said, however, his wound had not healed over until well into November, some four months after Gettysburg, and was serious enough to necessitate him being left behind at the close of the battle.
With the devastating repulse of Pickett’s Charge, the Army of Northern Virginia was left in a precarious position. Though the Army of the Potomac had been badly worn down during three days of fighting, the specter of it mounting a counterattack remained. General Robert E. Lee had to get his army back across the Potomac River as quickly as possible in order to effectively disengage the enemy. To accomplish this, any man wounded too seriously to travel in a wagon train had to be left behind – Breedlove and some 5,000 other Confederates all told.
The Army of the Potomac was ill prepared to deal with the medical situation in the wake of the battle. In addition to the Confederate wounded that had been left behind, there were some 14,500 wounded Union soldiers. The medical director of the army, Dr. Jonathon Letterman, had devised a streamlined system for rapid treatment that called for ambulances, aid stations, division hospitals, and medical officers charged with overseeing the entire operation. The Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 had been an example of how well the system could work as long as the necessary materials were at hand. Much to Letterman’s frustration at Gettysburg, however, Union commander George Meade had ordered all wagon trains (excepting those containing ammunition) far to the rear as a precaution against capture. The medical supply train ended up in the vicinity of Westminster, Maryland, some twenty miles from Gettysburg. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, with so many thousands wounded and the need so great, crucial medical supplies were lacking. Possibly the most sorely missed items were canvas tents, which might have sheltered men – especially new amputees – from the downpours of July 4th and 5th. Many of the men who had just undergone major surgical procedures, as well as many other wounded men, lay on the ground without any sort of protection.
After Lieutenant Breedlove sustained his wound, he was taken to the Lutheran Theological Seminary for treatment. He may have been more fortunate than other wounded men in that the hours of pouring rain on the day after the battle may have found him inside and sheltered (not, however, if he had been laid in the basement, which flooded), but he did not avoid the consequences of the out-of-reach medical supplies. Union surgeons had been treating 1st Corps victims since July 1st at the Seminary, but when the Confederates – ill-supplied themselves – withdrew, they confiscated the already limited quantity of medical materials from the Union surgeons. With no means of replacing what was lost, their capacity to treat the wounded suffered accordingly. Surgeon Abraham Haines, treating men of the Iron Brigade’s 19th Indiana, didn’t have so much as a lamp under which to operate. Haines had to break into a nearby house and fashion one out of a can, some lard, and a wick cut from a sheet. Later, when he needed more bandages, he had to break into another house for more bed sheets.
Shortages of medical supplies were not the only difficulties faced by wounded men and their caregivers; there was a shortage of trained hospital staff as well. Even with the townspeople and other volunteers who had begun to trickle in, it was not easy to provide a favorable caregiver to patient ratio with so many wounded. To make matters worse, the Army of Potomac took the majority of its surgeons and doctors with it when it withdrew on July 6th to pursue Lee’s army; another major battle and the need for a sizable medical staff were very real possibilities. Only 106 of the 650 Union doctors and surgeons who had to been treating the wounded, a mere sixteen percent, were left behind at Gettysburg.
Even though Breedlove found himself at a Union hospital, the majority of wounded left by Lee were initially treated at Confederate field hospitals staffed by Confederate medical personnel. (Breedlove was one of only a few Confederate wounded treated at the Seminary in the battle’s immediate aftermath, which probably made his comrades less hesitant to confiscate supplies from the Union surgeons operating there.) When the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew on the night of July 4th, a number of Confederate surgeons and attendants had been left behind. In fact, the proportion of trained Confederate medical personnel to Confederate wounded may have been better than that of Union personnel to wounded once Meade had departed. A wounded Confederate needing major surgery was probably more likely to get it in a timely fashion if he was at a Confederate hospital. This was due not only to the favorable surgeon-patient ratio but that fact that even when Union field hospitals were more fully staffed (before July 6th), Union soldiers were, understandably, given surgical priority. What the twenty-four Confederate field hospitals north and west of town were in more desperate need of were medical supplies and food. But with their wagon trains out of reach, Union captors initially had no supplies to share.
Once aid did begin to trickle in, Breedlove must have found himself under far better circumstances than many of his comrades under Confederate care. Some of the first aid to arrive, in the form of food donated from the Pennsylvania countryside, found its way to the Union hospitals, including the Seminary. Sallie Broadhead, a volunteer nurse there, described how patients under her care were blessed with “a wagonload of bread and fifty pounds of butter…sent in from the country.” In addition to Union hospitals benefitting more from this initial aid, they were also in a better position to benefit from the stockpiles of supplies that began to grow (after the July 10th reopening of the rail line to Gettysburg over Rock Creek) as a result of the efforts of the United States Sanitary Commission and United States Christian Commission. Even though there were offers extended to Confederate surgeons to help themselves to the desperately needed supplies, transportation was often an issue; U.S. Army wagons were already busy meeting the requests to Union hospitals. Considering these advantages, Breedlove was indeed luckier to find himself under Union care: he did not have a wound that required surgery, and thus remained unaffected by the continuing shortage of skilled Union medical personnel; unlike surgery, general care was administered with minimal or no preference to the uniform of the wounded man, so Breedlove probably received food and clean dressings sooner and more often t
han could be furnished had he been at a Confederate hospital.
*Breedlove’s convalescence, begun at the Seminary, finished at Baltimore’s West Building Hospital. He then suffered at the hands of Union captors, becoming one of the “Immortal 600,” enduring both ordeals at various Union prisons as well as being placed in front of Union batteries at the Siege of Charleston. The latter act was retaliation for the Confederate’s deliberate placement of Union prisoners in harm’s way as Charleston was shelled.
The Union cavalry assault against the Confederate right flank on July 3rd, also the strategic situation after the battle:
Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
The plight of the wounded and relief operations:
Coco, Gregory A., A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1-November 20, 1863. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988.
Patterson, Gerard A., Debris of Battle: The Wounded of Gettysburg. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.
The description of Lieutenant J.P. Breedlove’s wounding and treatment was found in the Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War: Volume IX, on pages 81 through 82.