The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the bloodiest war in American history. The soldiers who fought there were young and sick most of the time, and, perhaps unbeknownst to the population at home, scared. Modern medicine was still in its infancy. They witnessed horrors and endured hardships that we as a modern audience cannot dare to understand. During the Battle of Gettysburg, the average Union mortality from gunshot wounds to the chest was 62% and 87% for abdominal wounds. By contrast, only approximately 3% of all American wounded failed to survive in World War II. Soldiers of both the Federal and Confederate armies, then, had perfectly good reasons to be afraid. Charles E. Goddard, a soldier in Company K of the 1st Minnesota Regiment, certainly experienced horror at Gettysburg. His regiment is best known for its engagement on July 2, 1863, when the men prevented the Confederates from pushing the Union line off of Cemetery Ridge and bought time in which other forces were brought up. During their stand, 215 of the 263 men suffered casualties and their unit’s flag fell and rose five times. Their 82% casualty rate stands as the highest loss by any surviving military unit in American history during a single engagement.
Goddard expressed the fear and horror he experienced in a letter he sent to his mother the day after the battle ended. It reads:
We have engaged the enemy again but this time in a free country and our company as well as the regt has suffered much Ely and myself are bothe wounded. Ely through the side and myself through the leg and the shoulder. I do not know where Ely is this morning…very dangerous. I am not dangerously wounded, feel first rate and i would like you to give yourself no uneasiness on my account, nor do I think there is any need of Mrs Ely worrying about her son I have not seen him for I am not able to help myself on account of my leg or I would have gone to his assistance, he was fetched off the field and brought to the hospital where I was and then the hospital was moved again and I have not seen him since… Well mother good bye don’t be so foolish as to come down here and worry about me for I am getting along fine don’t let anybody see this letter but if they want to know if any of their friends are wounded you can tell them. The Chaplain will make out an official report and then the people of Minn. will know the true story. C.E. Goddard
This account seems rather peculiar in the sense that the diction and tone appear to suggest that Charles, at this time only just turned eighteen years old, was afraid of something. Even though he says he feels “first rate,” phrases such as “very dangerous” and “the people of Minn. will know the true story” indicate otherwise. Goddard also emphasizes that his mother keep the letter a secret, suggesting that there is something to hide. But what? He sounds too cautious and his reassurances about his health are grossly exaggerated. He had been sick with dysentery since the beginning of the war and the wound in his thigh was so close to a main artery that too much exertion might cause it to bleed and, if away from the hospital, he could have died from blood loss. In fact, his wound did not heal completely but he managed to complete his three year enlistment (he was mustered out on 5 May 1864). Therefore, he had no grounds to tell his mother not to worry since, especially only two days after receiving his wounds. He would have been in deplorable shape. Even if his wounds had not yet been infected, his situation in relation to Civil War medicine would imply that he would have to endure many hardships on the road to recovery. Then why did he write in this way? From what was he hiding? Or from whom?
Conditions at the Gettysburg hospitals were anything but exemplary. D.G. Brinton, a surgeon at the battle, noted that “On the 4th of July, which in its surroundings gloomy enough, was enlivened by our belief that we had gained a victory, the number in the hospital was 1000.” Though the news of victory must have lifted their spirits, the copious number of wounded and dying soldiers flowing into the hospitals not only provided a constant reminder of the despair and horror of war but infiltrated the air with the stench of infected wounds and dead flesh. Surely this atmosphere was enough to negate or dampen the joy of victory. During the three days of the battle, 21,000 wounded soldiers were brought into various hospitals at a time when most medical officers were moving on with the army. This left the remaining medical personnel each with approximately 900 cases on his hands; obviously very little attention could be paid to each person. It may be that Charles knew that the Union army medical personnel would soon be departing the battlefield, leaving a majority of the wounded without adequate medical attention. Could this have been what Charles was attempting to hide from his mother back home?
In 1918, W.W. Keen, a surgeon during the war, looked back on the archaic medicinal practices and noted that “we operated in old blood-stained and often pus-stained coats…with undisinfected hands…we used undisinfected instruments…and marine sponges which had been used in prior pus cases and only washed with tap water.” By today’s standards, this is absolutely unheard of, even for field hospitals. Despite the fact that people in the 1860s knew of nothing else, perhaps Charles was trying to quell his own fears about his situation by emphatically reassuring his mother of his safe condition. If he repeated it often enough and told his family, then maybe it would become true. Maybe this was a way for him to escape the rotten stench and, surely, the mind-numbing pain of the hospital. He told his mother that he was alright, that he was not badly wounded, that she shouldn’t worry about him. He would then have to keep a brave face and push through the recovery for her so as not to let her down or let on that he lied. Since he enlisted at the age of 16 (something not allowed at the time. The youngest a soldier could enlist was 17 with parents’ permission or 18 without but Charles lied about his age and ignored his mother’s opposition to him joining the army), perhaps he felt guilty about defying his mother’s wishes and, in the process, getting badly wounded. He knew that joining the 1st Minnesota was his choice and, if he were to die, it would devastate his mother. He was the only child from her first marriage to survive to adulthood and, if he died, he would reopen painful wounds from the past, allowing memories of lost children to resurface. Therefore he had to lie to protect her.
In the end, Charles E Goddard pulled through. His mother eventually came down to stay with him in the hospital (after he was transferred to Philadelphia) and take care of him. He finished out his three years in the Union army and, some speculate, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though this assertion is not supported by hard facts. He passed away on 9 December 1868 at the age of 23. Surely there were many letters such as the one that Charles wrote to his mother on the 4 July
1863 from the bed of a field hospital. Yet his words, so full of overzealous and translucent courage and assurance, leave an unnaturally haunting chill. Those were words written by a boy who, not two months before, became a legal adult. Like so many before and after him, he fell victim to the brutality that was war and medicine in the 1860s and his letter, whether necessitated by love or fear, is a testament to the hardships of soldiers throughout the four years of the American Civil War.
For Further Reading:
Bloom, Robert L. “We Never Expected A Battle: The Civilians at Gettysburg, 1863,” Pennsylvania History, October 1988.
Flannery, Michael A. “Civil War Medicine: Approaches for Teaching,” OAH Magazine of History, September 2005.
Thompson, D.G. Brinton. “From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg, A Doctor’s Diary,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1965.
Charles Goddard: Charles E. Goddard’s Letters. July, 1863