Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Napoleon B. Perkins lost his leg

In Our War I tell the story of Napoleon Perkins, a soldier from Stark, N.H. Perkins was under 18, the age at which a young man could enlist without parental permission, and his mother refused to let him join. He heard that across the state line the 5th Maine Light Artillery accepted volunteers without involving parents, and off to war he went.

My focus in the Our War chapter about Perkins is what happened to him after he was wounded at Chancellorsville 150 years ago today – his medical care. He remained semi-conscious through most of his amputation and gave a remarkable account of it.

Rebel soldiers attack near the Chancellor House, Maj. Gen. Joseph
Hooker's headquarters during the battle 150 years ago.
In the book I also cover the events that led to the amputation but not in such detail as Perkins himself did in his own account.

On May 2, 1863, rebel artillery opened on Perkins’s battery at Chancellorsville. Posted near the Chancellor House, the 5th Maine Light Artillery was in the 3rd Division of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’s 1st Corps. Here is how Perkins, in a postwar narrative now available at the New Hampshire Historical Society library, described what happened to him:

“Edward Warren was about my age. We thought as much of each other as two brothers could. Whatever one got to eat, he shared with the other, and we made many plans for the future if we both got out of the service alive. . . . He was a fearless soldier, and a true friend. He and B. Frank Grover and myself had tented together for more than a year.

“[The enemy fire] was something frightful, the way their shells and canister swept our lines. . . . Whole gun teams at a single discharge of canister were piled up, ammunition chests exploding all around us. The limbs, leaves and blossoms from the apple trees were falling in all directions. I saw boys falling at the guns, and the shrieks and groans of the wounded men and horses were heartrending. . . .

Union cannons on the battlefield today.
“I saw Corporal Grover fall. He was struck in the breast with a shell, just as he had sighted the gun. He was badly torn, and mangled.

"Soon after this, my off horse was hit in the right forward leg. He commenced to struggle and was bleeding bad. Seeing Sergeant Loomis [Anson Loomis of Colebrook, N.H.] passing near me, I called to him and said, ‘My horse is hit bad.’ He said. 'Unhitch him and get a spare horse.'

“Just at this time I was struck in my right leg just above the knee. I again called to Loomis and told him I was hit. He said go to the rear. I did not then realize that I was wounded bad, for the shot did not knock me down. I was holding my near horse with my right hand, Sergeant Loomis’ horse with my left hand.

“When I attempted to walk I found I could not use my leg, but desiring to reach a piece of woods which was some distance in our rear, where I could get out of range of the Rebel fire, I thought I could make the distance on one foot. I had gone 2 or 3 rods when I came to the road which was somewhat lower than the ground alongside it. I stumbled and, attempting to catch myself with my right foot, the leg gave out at the wound and I fell forward on my face.

“By this time the leg was bleeding, and paining me severely. I began to reel. . . . After a short time, feeling some better, I turned on my side and straightened the wounded leg out as well as I could, then attempted to crawl across the road, but soon gave it up, as I was very weak and faint. I had laid there but a short time before several mounted officers and orderlies came galloping up the road and I expected the horses would crush me under their feet, but they leaped over me.

“Sergeant Loomis, seeing me fall (as soon as he could leave his gun), came to me leading his horse. He said, ‘Perkins, I will help you into the saddle and you can ride down the road to the rear.’ On making the attempt to mount, my leg hurt me so bad I began to grow faint again, and said, ‘Sergeant, I cannot do it. You will have to leave me here.’ He took me by the shoulders and drew me across the road. By this time I was burning up with thirst, and had no water in my canteen. I said, ‘Sergeant, can you give me a drink of water?’ He handed me his canteen which was nearly full, and said, ‘Keep it.’ I thanked him and took a long drink. Then he said, 'I will get a blanket and someone to help take you to the rear.' Soon he returned and said, ‘Perkins, I can’t do a thing. Sergeant Locke is dead, and he looked very sad, for Wm Locke and he were very close friends. He then returned to his gun detachment.

The ruins of the Chancellor House after the battle.
“While I was lying there, Wm Nason & Ed Witham, who drove the lead and middle team, were wounded. That left our gun team without any driver and they swung around and started for the road.

"There was a tree about three rods from where I was lying, which one of the wheels caught and stopped the horses. Soon a Rebel shot struck the ammunition chest and caused an explosion, killing all six of the horses, and for a moment I thought it killed me. But as soon as I could pull myself together, I found myself all right with the exception of being covered with sand & dust.

“One can hardly realize my feelings while lying there under that fearful Rebel fire of shot & shell. At first I was badly frightened and expected to be killed at any moment as the balls and shells were striking all around me. But after a time I became more calm, and began to realize my situation.

“Sometime before this, the rebel shells had started a fire in the woods, and a strong wind springing up, drove it over the ground where many of our wounded were lying, and it was something terrible to hear them crying for help. . . . A great number were burned to death. Perhaps on the whole it was fortunate for me that I fell where I did, for if I had succeeded in reaching the woods, I would probably have shared the same fate, for the fire swept through the place I was trying to reach.”

1 comment:

  1. Very well written. Thank you very much.