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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Wounded on the Field of Battle

Lt. M.W. Bates served with the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry during the Battle of Bentonville. The 21st Michigan, one of three regiments in Col. George P. Buell's brigade of the Union's Fourteenth Army Corps, was among the first to encounter the main Confederate line during the battle. After a futile attempt to assault the Confederate line, during which the 21st Michigan suffered heavy casualties, Lieutenant Bates observed one of the first field hospitals established on the battlefield being evacuated to the rear:

Hospital quarters had been established on the bank of the small stream in our rear, the nearness to the line, and falling mini balls compelled its removal. When the ambulance came up to take in the wounded, the driver became demoralized and jumped from his seat to cut the traces and fly, Dr. Avery drew his revolver and held the driver to his work, and got off safely.

Later in the day, the Confederate army counterattacked the Union lines, and Bates's brigade was broken and routed. Bates was wounded during this attack, and eventually carried to the Fourteenth Army Corps field hospital located in and around the Harper House. The following account details Bates's experiences after his wounding. The specific nature of Bates's wound is not known, but we may assume from the comments of the surgeons that the wound was serious.

It was now about three o'clock....We could see their skirmishers thrown far out on our left in the open field, and soon the Confederates swarmed over their works.

As far as we could see on both right and left, they were coming in unbroken lines....We held our position, keeping up a continuous and rapid fire, until we could plainly see their trap closing around us as they enveloped our flanks and subjected them [our flanks] to their fire. It was impossible to maintain our position and Gen. Buell reluctantly gave the order to fall back fighting as we retreated.

[There] was a low wet place through which we passed, then turned again for a last stand....It soon became apparent to us, that we could not hold our position, and we began to fall back into the open field on higher ground...as the rebels broke through the woods in perfect line and yelling like demons. Lt. Sears of [Company] H and [myself], waited where we made our last stand until the colors and the last of our men had started, we could not have been over ten rods from the rebel lines when they fired their first volley and [I] fell. Sears helped [me] to [my] feet, but [I] could not stand and falling again, began to crawl off with a sickening dread of being captured, fainting and craving water. Two of our men passing just then, lifted [me] between them, carried [me] to a fence corner just behind the guns, and laid [me] down.

How long I lay in that fence corner I do not know, or when I was removed. The next morning I found myself lying on my back in a tent filled with wounded men, the one next to me on my left dead. Our surgeon, Dr. Goodale, was looking at me, and with a cheery 'good morning,' wanted to know how I felt. I don't know what answer I made him, I was conscious that I was in a critical condition, and thought of my dear ones at home, thankful that I still had a fighting chance for life.

During that forenoon my brother hobbled in to the tent to see me, and I think every one of the line officers able to get there, also Dr. Avery, in company with the Corps surgeon, who, after looking at me, and inquiring of Dr. Goodale what he was doing for me, remarked 'nothing more can be done for him.' I knew my chances were slim, and after my friends had gone out of the tent, I heard some of them saying they would have to leave me there and I remember recording a vow that I would not fill a North Carolina grave then, and I think that resolution saved me.

How long I lay in that tent I cannot tell, I think all that day and the next night. I remember being placed in an ambulance with Lieut. Lyon, lying flat on the bottom side by side, for a ride of twenty miles to Goldsboro. To you who know the condition of the roads at the time and place, any description of that ride is unnecessary, the army had passed over it with the artillery and wagon trains, it was much of the way corduroyed [covered with logs laid across the road], the high water having misplaced many of the logs, our ambulance dropped through between them striking on the axle forcing us both with a bump against the head board, and then as the hind wheels followed, our heads striking the foot board, then a side lurch shaking up from side to side and against each other all that weary day and far into the night. May I never have another such ride. We remained in Goldsboro until well enough to be moved to New York.
(Bates was carried by rail to Morehead City, then by boat to New York.)

Questions for Reading 3

1. How did the ambulance driver observed by Lt. Bates and Dr. Avery behave under fire? Were each of these men acting within the guidelines established in the Letterman Plan for the conduct of medical officers and personnel?

2. What response did Dr. Goodale give when asked about Lt. Bates's condition? Why did the surgeon make this statement? Why do you think surgeons did not attempt to operate on severely wounded patients?

3. Lt. Bates survived his wounds, even though they were thought to be fatal. To what does Bates attribute his survival? Do you think it is possible to evaluate the accuracy of his belief?

Compiled from Lt. M.W. Bates Glimpses of the Nation's Struggle: Papers Read Before the Minnesota Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1897-1902 (St. Paul, Minnesota: Review Publishing Company, 1903), 146-151.

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