Saturday, January 10, 2009
SURGEON OF THE 96TH P.V.I. DR. D. WEBSTER BLAND
Following is a letter written by the Surgeon of the 96th P.V.I. Dr. D. Webster Bland to his friend in Schuylkill Haven, Dr. Koehler. It is in turn given to the Pottsville Miners Journal. The letter descripes the action the 96th took part in near Rappahannock Station on November 7, 1863.
This is one of the finest letters written about a battle that I have ever come across. One can almost hear the sounds and sights of the battle.
Headquarters 96th Reg. P.V.
Camp Near Brandy Station, Va. Nov. 13, 1863
LATE FIGHT ON THE RAPPAHANNOCK
My Dear Doctor and Family, As you are doubtless aware of the late fight of the noble old 6th Corps, I hasten to write you a letter, not only to give you an account of the battle, but as an answer to your last, that was handed to me today after my return from Washington.
On last Saturday morning we broke camp near Warrenton, and took up the line of march for Rappahannock Station. The day was clear and cool, and a bracing air. The distance marched was nearly fourteen miles. The orders were to take possession of the Station and go into camp. We reached the point designated about 2 p.m. The troops were halted in the woods in line of battle.
A line of skirmishers deployed to the front. No one was suspicious of an engagement until we observed the line of pickets of the enemy. Things now looked ominous. We soon realized there was hot work before us and in order to accesses the station a battle must be made. Strategy was immediately commenced. The corps was arraigned in battle array, the first division resting on the railroad and their followed the second and third divisions to their respective positions. Artillery was ordered to the front. I at once set about organizing my field hospital, and collecting the detail of medical officers. This was no ordinary duty, as houses and barns are not to be observed within miles of each other.
Having succeeded in securing a comfortable house which for a time was rather unpleasantly situated, we were in readiness to receive the unfortunate wounded. Profound silence reigning for a time along the line, I rode down the line in search of information, and to observe the work before our brave boys. On my way I overtook General Wright, who that day was in command of the Corps. Upon exchanging the compliments of the day, he laughed, and at the same time remarking, “We shall have some fun in few moments”. Sure enough such were the indications. The line of skirmishers were ordered to advance. The column of infantry were in line of battle. The sight was magnificently grand. The clear blue sky, the clear cold air that nerved every man to action, rendered the picture one for an artist.
Steadily forward went the line of skirmishers, and as rapidly did the enemy’s line retire until they fell within the limits of their rifle pits. Rapid firing now commenced along the whole line of skirmishers, Pop, Pop went the muskets when all at once the boom of the cannon was heard, which announced that a battle had begun.
There was hurrying to and fro. “The rattle of musketry continued and increased. The roar of might guns shook the earth from “turret to foundation of stone”. Ambulances were going in long lines to the hospital, flags were waving from different parts of the field, orderlies were galloping in every direction, and still the war of destruction went on.
The wounded were coming in rapidly, and mostly from our own division. It was fast growing dark. The fire belched from the cannons mouths, illuminating the heavens by their flash, while the fuse of the shell fled through the air lighting rapidity, resembling meteors in their fall. The flash of musketry could be distinguished. Up to this time we had been gaining ground, when the order was given for a charge upon the rifle pits and fort. The men may have surveyed the work for the moment, but did not falter. The 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin, supported by the 119th and 49th Regt’s P.V., on the left, while the 5th Maine and the 121st New York supported by the 95th and 96th P.V. charged on the centre. One wild shout rent the night air, and these gallant boys went forward to conquer or die. They were victorious beyond expression, but their comrades covered their pathway with their bodies. The fort with seven guns and the rifle pits nearly one mile in length were taken.
Night had now thrown her sable mantle over mother earth, and over the honored dead that were strewn over the ground. It was so dark that friend and foe could only recognize each other by coming in contact. The fight inside of the fort was severe. Bayonet wounds and contused heads were admitted into the hospital. In one case a rebel officer who refused to surrender, his brains were scattered to the four winds of heaven by a powerful blow fro a musket.
The gallant 96th, ever true to her colors and her hard earned prestige, were prominent in the fight. Under the leadership of the dashing Col. Lessig, we took and held the enemy’s bridge, and were first to cross the river capturing two prisoners and killing one, who refused to halt. We had only one man wounded by a shell, Our escape was indeed a miracle.
By ten o’clock at night we had nearly two hundred wounded in our charge. The surgeons were busy at work among the wounded. Many amputations were performed, and many were allowed to become secondary cases.
Among the wounded were many serious cases. Many of them died during the night, quite a large number will never recover from their wounds.
The brunt of the fight was sustained by the 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin Regiments belonging to the third brigade, commanded by General Russel. Our forces captured about two hundred more prisoners than we had, men engaged, this at least proving that we are equal, if not superior in our metal.
Sunday morning broke upon us in all its brilliancy. The order was given for an advance. We were tired being up all night and busy with the wounded. At 10 a.m. I received orders from the Corps headquarters to load the wounded and proceed to Washington, taking with me what assistance I required. I left the hospital with seventy ambulances at 11 a.m. and reached the junction at 3 p.m. At 4:50 we were on our way to Washington, where we arrived at midnight. The ride was tedious and cold. Eight of the seriously wounded died before we reached Washington. By Monday morning at daylight I had the wounded all sent to their respective hospitals, and at 5 a.m. I was snugly ensconced in bed at the National Hotel.
I do not know how beautiful, nor how powerful language could express the pleasure I realized upon creeping between two cleans sheets, but one thing is certain, It was a luxury. I soon fell asleep, and when waking found myself too late for the first breakfast, consequently came in at 10 ½ A.M. rather a fashionable hour for a soldier.
I “riz” dressed, took a little wash, went down to breakfast, and oh ye Gods! If I ever astonished my stomach, I did that morning. I applied a perfect poultices of good buckwheat cakes, broiled steak, and so on. Heavens, what a luxury! A breakfast that I would have often given ten dollars for. I then went in to the boot black, from thence to the barber, had a shave, a smattering of pomatum, and then struck a line for the bath. Did I say a Bath? The Metropolitan furnishes the ablution tub, and good style. I for the first time in more than two years, stood a la Adam, in a tub filled with warm water. It was grand-perfectly elegant. This over, I called at General Martindale’s office for a carte Blanche during the stay in the city. I then called upon Doctor Sheldon and reported the condition and number of wounded, which met with his approbation.
I appreciated the indulgence in my getting to Washington, and determined to prepare my stomach for a good dinner. At 4 ½ P.M. we went to the table and at 6 ¼ we vacated our seats. We astonished the guests, nonplussed the waiters, and almost killed ourselves.
On Tuesday morning we bid adieu to the city of magnificent distances, and after partaking of inconveniences we arrived safe at our respective camps in the vicinity of Brandy Station.
On my return I had the pleasure of meeting and caring for the reputable Dr. MacGouan, of world wide notoriety as a traveler and explorer. He is a polished gentleman in every respect.
The weather has been intensely cold during the past few days, but since the little visitation of snow seems to have moderated.
We may in all probability, remain here for a week, or ten days. The indications are that Acquia Creek will be the next depot of supplies.
The enemy had already erected winter quarters at this point, which we are now being burned by our men.
General Bartlett has assumed command of a division in the 5th Corps and Richards has gone with him.
Dr. D.W. Bland
After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies drifted south and for three months sparred with one another on the rolling plains of northern Virginia. Little was accomplished, however, and in late October General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Confederate army behind the Rappahannock River, a line he hoped to maintain throughout the winter.
A single pontoon bridge at the town of Rappahannock Station was the only connection Lee retained with the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting on two redoubts and connecting trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position.
The bridgehead was an integral part of Lee's strategy to defend the Rappahannock River line. As he later explained, by holding the bridgehead he could "threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part." The Union Army of the Potomac's commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, divided his forces just as Lee expected. He ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to attack the Confederate position at Rappahannock Station while Maj. Gen. William H. French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly's Ford. Once both Sedgwick and French were safely across the river, the reunited army would proceed to Brandy Station.
The operation went according to plan. Shortly after noon on November 7, French drove back Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and crossed the river. As he did so, Sedgwick advanced toward Rappahannock Station. Lee learned of these developments sometime after noon and immediately put his troops in motion to meet the enemy. His plan was to resist Sedgwick with a small force at Rappahannock Station while attacking French at Kelly's Ford with the larger part of his army. The success of the plan depended on his ability to maintain the Rappahannock Station bridgehead until French was defeated.
Sedgwick first engaged the Confederates at 3 p.m. when Maj. Gen. Albion P. Howe's division of the VI Corps drove in Confederate skirmishers and seized a range of high ground three-quarters of a mile from the river. Howe placed Union batteries on these hills that pounded the enemy earthworks with a "rapid and vigorous" fire. Confederate guns across the river returned the fire, but with little effect.
Maj. Gen. Jubal Early's division occupied the bridgehead defenses that day. Early posted Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays's Louisiana brigade and Captain Charles A. Green's four gun Louisiana Guard Artillery in the works and at 4:30 p.m. reinforced them with three North Carolina regiments led by Colonel Archibald Godwin. The addition of Godwin's troops increased the number of Confederate defenders at the bridgehead to nearly 2,000.
Sedgwick continued shelling the Confederates throughout the late afternoon, but otherwise he showed no disposition to attack. As the day drew to a close, Lee became convinced that the movement against the bridgehead was merely a feint to cover French's crossing farther downstream. He was mistaken. At dusk the shelling stopped, and Sedgwick's infantry rushed suddenly upon the works. Col. Peter Ellmaker's brigade advanced adjacent to the railroad, preceded by skirmishers of the 6th Maine Volunteers. No Union regiment gained more laurels that day nor suffered higher casualties. At the command "Forward, double-quick!" they surged over the Confederate works and engaged Hays's men in hand-to-hand combat. Without assistance, the 6th Maine breached the Confederate line and planted its flags on the parapet of the easternmost redoubt. Moments later the 5th Wisconsin swarmed over the walls of the western redoubt, likewise wresting it from Confederate control.
On the right, Union forces achieved comparable success. Just minutes after Ellmaker's brigade penetrated Hays's line, Col. Emory Upton's brigade overran Godwin's position. Upton reformed his lines inside the Confederate works and sent a portion of the 121st New York to seize the pontoon bridge, while the rest of his command wheeled right to attack the confused Confederate horde now massed at the lower end of the bridgehead.
Confederate resistance dissolved as hundreds of soldiers threw down their arms and surrendered. Others sought to gain the opposite shore by swimming the icy river or by running the gauntlet of Union rifle fire at the bridge. Confederate troops south of the Rappahannock looked on hopelessly as Union soldiers herded their comrades to the rear as prisoners of war.
In all, 1,670 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured in the brief struggle, more than eighty percent of those engaged. Union casualty figures, by contrast, were small: 419 in all.
D. WEBSTER BLAND.
Dr. Bland was commissioned Surgeon, October 12, 1861, by Governor Curtin, and assigned to duty with the 96th Penna. Regiment, by order of Surgeon-General Henry R. Smith. He reported for duty, October 19. and arrived in Washington, November 11. On the 25th of November the Regiment was assigned to the Brigade of Gen. H. Slocum, and remained in camp during the winter of 1861-2. In January, 1862, Dr. Bland was
detailed by order of Gen. Franklin, as a member of a Medical Examining Board, to examine recruits. At the Battle of West Point, May 7, 1862, Dr. Bland was detailed as an assistant to Dr. Frank Hamilton for operative duties. He was with the Regiment during the memorable seven days before Richmond, sharing the hardships incident to that campaign. He was present at the Battles of Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill, White Oak Swamp, Charles City Cross Roads, Chick hominy, Glendale, Smith's Farm, and Malvern Hill. He was on the Peninsula during July and part of August, and at Second Bull Run, Crampton's Pass and Antietam. At the First Battle of Fredericksburg he was detailed as one of the operating surgeons of the 1st Division, 6th Corps. He was present at Gen. Burnside's move, January, 18(at Second Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. After the latter engagement he was detailed to take four hundred wounded to Washington. After his return he was placed in charge of flag of truce at the Lacey House, to receive
our wounded that had been left in the hands of the enemy. In May, 1863, Dr. Bland
was appointed Acting Medical Director of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, Gen. Brooks, of the field hospital of which he was Surgeon-in-Chief during the Gettysburg campaign. He continued Medical Director of that Division during September and October, and was President of an examining Board for admission into the Veteran Reserve Corps. He was
Surgeon-in-Chief of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, during the brilliant movement and complete victory over the enemy at Rappahannock Station, Nov. 7, 1863. On the following day he superintended the removal to Washington, of 376 wounded of his Corps. He was Surgeon-in-Chief of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, during the memorable Mine Run affair, December, 1863. Was in winter-quarters at Brandy Station, 1863-4, he was detailed as a member of examining Board of his Division, for general and special duties connected with the Medical Department. On the 12th of April, 1864, Dr. Bland was detailed by order of General Meade, as Medical Inspector of the 6th Corps, and assigned lo duty on the Staff of Gen. John Sedgwick. He was with the
Corps during the historical campaign of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and the Weldon Rail Road. On the 19th of July the Corps was ordered to Washington; Gen. Wright assumed command of the Middle Military Division, of which Department Dr. Bland was made Medical Inspector. When Gen. Wright was relieved and Gen. Sheridan took command, Dr. Bland remained Medical Inspector of the
Corps, and was present at the brilliant battles in the Shenandoah Valley. He left the field, Sept. 23, 1864, and was mustered out by reason of expiration of term of service, on the 21st of October.
Dr.Bland's Tombstone in front of the Chapel at Charles Baber Cemetery Pottsville