May 19, 2013

‘It was a brutal time’

Rachel Brown

— Dr. William Blackman opened a box of tools consisting of medical instruments, including a saw, and proceeded to tell visitors how they were used more than a century ago to amputate limbs for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.

“The Civil War was, I think, the worst period of our country’s history,” said Blackman, who was one of several demonstrators who participated in the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission’s self-guided driving tour of five historic sites featuring living history demonstrations Saturday. “It was a brutal time.”

Blackman, a member of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society and a local ophthalmologist, spoke to visitors who came to the Hamilton House as part of the tour. Other parts of the tour included a telegraph machine exhibit at the Dalton Depot restaurant, a quilting demonstration at the Blunt House, blacksmithing at the Clisby Austin House in Tunnel Hill and grist milling and other activities at Prater’s Mill in Varnell.

The surgical instruments Blackman had on display were those of Confederate Capt. Theodore Munson Shaw who had to walk back to his home in Rome after working at a hospital in Richmond, Va., during the war, he said. Transportation wasn’t readily available, and it was not uncommon for soldiers to return home on foot, he said.

Blackman said Civil War soldiers who were shot were dealt with differently depending on the extent of their injuries. If a doctor was able to do so, they would dig the bullet out of the person, patch him up as best they could and put the patients under a tree to either recuperate or die. If a major bone was broken in the shot, the patient had only a 30 percent chance of survival without amputating the broken limb but a 70 percent chance of survival if they took it off, he said.

So doctors would use chloroform to put the patient to sleep and go to work.

“That was the most common operation done in the Civil War was amputation,” Blackman said.

Jerry Trollinger, a re-enactor who typically portrays Confederate Capt. Stanley Howard of the 10th Tennessee Cavalry, a unit that was under military leader Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command, said soldiers’ diets at the time were terrible. The cavalry, he said, tended to eat whatever they could get, whether that was through stealing from the Union, shooting their own meat or scavenging the countryside.

Many of the men who joined had never been more than 20 miles from their homes, he said, and many of them joined “on a lark” to see the world. Among other things, they became spies for their units, reporting back information on the enemy’s strength and position. If a cavalryman lost his horse, it was difficult to replace. Instead of being remounted, he would often be sent to the infantry, Trollinger said.

The gear they carried was specific to their work on horseback. Their weapons typically consisted of two pistols and a shotgun. Usually only the officers carried swords, and they typically used them only to point and guide their unit, Trollinger said. Like other soldiers, they were susceptible to injury and disease.

Historian Marvin Sowder manned a tent near the Hamilton House designed to replicate the sort of facility soldiers could expect to visit in the field if they needed a medic. The Hamilton property, which covered about 1,000 acres in the 1860s, was covered by 1863 with the 800 to 1,000 members of the Kentucky Orphan Brigade, Sowder said. The Confederate supporters got their name because Kentucky was occupied by Union troops so the brigade couldn’t go back home. They instead joined themselves to Tennessee’s army.

During the winter of 1863-64, about 50,000 Confederate soldiers waited out poor weather conditions to continue the war in Whitfield County, Sowder said. There was boredom punctuated by occasional moments of fun. On a day in March, members of various Confederate troops entered combat against each other in a large-scale snowball fight.

“There was four to five inches (of snow) depending on who you talk to,” Sowder said.