Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wounded at Fort Meigs

An excerpt from my book project regarding treatment of wounded in the aftermath of the siege of Fort Meigs:

The Camp

In the days after the siege was lifted at Fort Meigs, soldiers spent most of their time putting up tents, erecting shelter for the wounded and burying the dead. There were at least 189 wounded men. For days during the bombardment these men had lay in the open, lacking shelter from both the rain and enemy shells. Now the guns were removed from the blockhouses, and the wounded were carried in. When floor space ran out, canvas tents were placed around the buildings for makeshift hospitals. A muster roll of the garrison that month listed only two surgeons and four surgeons mates present for duty. Even this small medical staff was unskilled and inexperienced. Captain Wood wrote that the Northwest Army medicos were “a young, inexperienced set of men, with nothing but the title of surgeon to recommend them, or to give them a claim to employment, and the principal part of them had been picked up here and there among the militia, wherever a person could be found with a lancet in his pocket.”

In the Petersburg Volunteers, Private Alfred Lorraine's company, 31 men had been wounded during the siege--of whom six would die of their injuries in the coming days. As he and his messmates visited their comrades in the hospitals, Lorraine noticed what may have been a case of shell shock in one of the experienced officers of the army: “in consequence of the irritation of his nerves by the roar of artillery, the bursting of bombs, the pain of his wounds, and his feverish condition, he had become as timid and as peevish as a child, and was constantly apprehensive of being torn to pieces by a cannon-ball.”

Private Jack Shore, a merchant captain and cousin of General Harrison, had been wounded by a small splinter when the cannon he was serving on was dismounted. “The wound was considered unimportant, and was slightly bandaged. However, in a few hours it became distressingly painful, and he retired to the hospital.” The man was stricken with the bacteria  Clostridium tetani—tetanus, colloquially known as lockjaw. 

A contagion that naturally occurs in soil, tetanus is usually contracted through deep wounds—such as those received from shell fragments or  debris during the artillery bombardment of the fort.1 As the infection develops, the bacteria produce a toxin called tetanospasmin which blocks signals from the central nervous system to the muscles. The patient is stricken with severe muscle spasms, powerful enough to tear muscles or even fracture the spine. The spasms can also block air passages, causing brain damage or asphyxiation. According to modern statistics, one in four untreated cases of tetanus result in death. 

For the early 19th century soldiers at Fort Meigs, survival was even less likely: “He was now suffering in the last stage of lock-jaw. In his spasmodic agony, the smoke of his torment literally rose in a mist from his blanket.” Major Amos Stoddard, who had been lightly wounded by a shell fragment on the first day of the bombardment, contracted tetanus and finally died on May 11. Like most officers and enlisted men who died on campaign, Stoddard's effects were sold off to raise money for his next-of-kin. The Major himself was buried near the Grand Battery where he had been wounded, although the exact location is still unclear.

Shortly after the British departure, the garrison sent out a scouting party to search the enemy campsite and the neighborhood of Dudley's defeat. They found fresh graves as well as unburied corpses near the “slaughter pen” at Fort Miami. Although the British had reported making a clean and unchallenged getaway, the campsite was littered with “a huge quantity of shot and shells” as well as an entire sling carriage—a wheeled carrier for large artillery barrels. Forty-five of Dudley's men were found dead, missing their scalps. The colonel's mutilated body was found nearby.

More than dead men had lingered in the wake of the British retreat: on May 14 three British soldiers came into the fort. “They state that the British left them behind, but I expect that they have deserted, but don't like to own it.” Other parties scoured the woods to recover cannon balls thrown by the fort's guns. Cushing and a dozen of his soldiers on one such errand encountered a surviving Kentuckian-- “...a man came to us who was taken by the Indians on the day of the battle; he was taken to Brownstown and he and one other made their escape from that place, but the other got shot at the River Raisin by an Indian.” The garrison's patrols continued to find bodies from the fight for several weeks afterward.