First, at the risk of sounding like and Oscar winner, I’d like to thank Andy Scanlan and Michael Schaffner for their hard work and research to help me put together another ad-hoc-spital for the Columbia Rifles.
Also, Kevin O’Beirne of the Columbia Rifles and Michael “Dusty” Chapman of the Stonewall Brigade for working with the CWPT to allow us to do this event in the first place. They are the major organizers for this event. I was just another participant. So far as we know, this was the first time in a hundred forty-some odd years that two opposing forces met on this field
I don’t think you will be reading a blow-by-blow review for several reasons –
• The event was cancelled Saturday night due to the increasing cold and wet.
• You’d only get the hospital’s point-of-view, which is not that much.
Also, photos are not immediately available. Select photographers were detailed to the event to take discreet pictures so as not to ruin our period moments. Hence I did not bring my infamous digital camera like I typically do. Once pictures are released I will post them on my Facebook.
The hospital (correctly-termed a “field dressing station”) set up in a large barn on the property not too far from the forward posts for the Federal picket line. The barn was not here at the time of the Fredericksburg battle in December of 1862. Nor would a field dressing station actually be that close to the shooting lines.
“Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars.”
Groucho Marx, You Bet Your Life
The magic word for the weekend was “adapt”. Adapt to a barn that had more holes and leaks in it than the CIA. Adapt with the limited resources we had available – canvas flies and tent pieces and non-period hay bales to set up shelter for the patients and us. Learn to ignore the modern stuff surrounding the preserved battlefield (which is why it’s important to save it in the first place.) That included the one-hundred car trains that roared through on a regular schedule.
Friday night I arrived at the barn and unloaded my stuff. Scanlan and Schaffner had already arrived previously, so we took some time to backslap and show off what we had contributed to the impression. Schaffner had put together a small San Comm box filled with biscuits, condensed milk, wine (yes, real wine) and a few other sundries to feed us and any patients we received. He replaced the modern label with a period Italian label. I brought two pounds of farina, which is the “ancestor” of cream of wheat.
Part of the upside/downside of medical reenacting is the accumulation of some real esoteric trivia. The problem is that the trivia is so obscure that to discuss it with others not as familiar with it might not be the most beneficial thing in the world. I discovered I can put my comrades to sleep discussing the finer points of bandaging and leech maintenance.
Friday night saw misty rain, occasioned by cloudbursts and even a few lightning javelin throws from Zeus himself. The morning dawned in a similar manner, though it cleared up over the course of the day. We did not get off totally scot-free; the rain left only because of high winds gusting through the barn, rattling the not-so-authentic loosened metal roof plates and swirling dust all over everything else. The barn’s design and location made it a wind tunnel. A lot of our time was wasted chasing bits and pieces of paperwork or loose stuff that the wind thought would be cute to swipe.
We spent part of Saturday morning setting up the barn to receive patients as efficiently as possible. Historically we would only receive seven casualties over the course of the weekend, as seven was the number of casualties the 11th NJ took when it arrived onsite for picket/sentinel duties.
We spread some hay in an area of the barn least likely to be affected by the weather., and tried to cut down on drafts by hanging canvas flies across openings. We also built an L-shaped “hay bale” wall to turn into an operating theatre. One, I hoped it would cut down on the wind, and two, I wanted to keep the surgical area separate from the patient recovery area in order not to cause consternation. I also wanted to use the Spielberg version of creepiness – hearing our dialogue, certain sound effects and barely able to see over our shoulders, plus the patient’s fetid imagination, should provide enough weirding out that I don’t need to use fake blood or rubber limbs to shock and/or gross out. The threat of violent action is often more terrifying than the violence itself. If you don’t believe it, watch Jurassic Parkor Schindler’s List.
For the sake of speed and clarity please understand that the wounds you read about are all fake, all the surgery was fake and we were all acting. Each soldier was issued a “fate card”, which explained whether or not he was hit during the event, and how to act if he did. All patients were to remain separated from their companies so their comrades might feel their “loss”. If a patient “expired”, he was free to leave the event or be “recycled” as a medical orderly or something similar.
Michael Schaffner set up the paperwork necessary to keep track of each patient’s equipment and what medicinal resources were used on him. We were a Massachusetts medical team, and these were New Jersey patients, so we started making vouchers to bill NJ for the use of Mass. materials. Anal? Sort of, but remember that during the War the State sometimes trumped Federal. All of my medical supplies had been “issued’ to me by the Commonwealth. If they are unaccounted for, then I get dinged on my next paycheck. We will work on out-of-state patients, but that state will be billed. Insurance companies must be rubbing their hands together in delight over this one.
The first patient came in with a groin wound. He explained that he felt a hit on the belt buckle, and something shot down the groin area. I reassured him all his works were still where they should be, and I sedated him and went to work stitching the wound. It sounded like he had been hit by a weird ricochet near-miss, which was very common on the line. Often soldiers might be knocked down or hit by a spent round or a ricochet, and the shock of being hit caused them to panic, even if they took no more damage than a bruise at the area of impact. Please see the article “Kicking and Screaming Like Dervishes in Our Ranks”, by Kevin O’Beirne for more information, augmented by original sources.
The second patient arrived with a gut wound. Gut wounds tended to be lethal in the 1860s, because of peritonitis (bowel contents spilling into the general abdominal area) and multiple holes in intestines, all repaired with septic instruments. Most reenactor surgeons will just set them aside with some “opium” and not even try, which gives the impression surgeons knew nothing about the abdominal area and how to work in there. This is, of course, hooey. Surgeons had different levels of experience in abdominal wounds, but they’d be familiar. “Business” was light for us, so I decided to take a crack at his belly and see if I could relieve the pain. We gave him some laudanum to ease his resistance to breathing chloroform, then anesthetized him. I plunged into the belly, suturing a damaged artery and pulling a leadworks out of his gut. I closed as many holes as I could see, but with all that leaking blood it was hard to see, even with the sponges soaking up the excess. I really need one of those irrigation syringes.
We gave him a couple of opium pills to ease his pain, but he still said it hurt over the next few hours. I wondered if perhaps while not an opium fiend, at some point he had developed some sort of tolerance for opium and required more than the usual amount for the same level of pain. I was reluctant to give him more – one of those OD things, you know – and euthanizing goes against the Hippocratic Oath.
Patient Three arrived with a hit to the shoulder. Shoulder wounds are plain messy. Several different bones, fistfuls of nerves and blood vessels converge and disperse, and to be hit here is asking for permanent disability. (This is why cavalrymen aim to break infantrymen’s right collarbones with their sabers in close combat.)
We put him on the table, put him under and I went to work. I was able to extract the ball and suture the worst of it. I think the clavicle might have had a greenstick fracture, but my biggest concern was the possibility that the axillary nerve might have been damaged.
We received about a hundred visitors throughout the day. I regret to say some of them got a little too-heavy a dose of how a hospital might sound. I put the gut wound patient back on the table and re-opened him. I found another leaky blood vessel and a couple more holes in the intestines I missed. Even after that, he still had residual pain! We gave him half a gill of red wine, because I feared that more opium was going to kill him, and the liquid would be easier on his belly than pills.
The weather changed from scudding clouds and high winds to blacker clouds and less winds. Right on schedule a deluge hit us full force. I was forced to have the patients break character and brace themselves for the storm.