Counting casualties

Historian John H. Nelson documents Battle of Antietam's Federal casualties, field hospitals

Historian John H. Nelson documents Battle of Antietam's Federal casualties, field hospitals

September 05, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

"The dead do lie in heaps, the wounded are coming in by the thousands. Around and in a large barn about half a mile from the spot where General Hooker engaged the enemy's left, I counted 1,250 wounded. Along the same road and within the distance of two miles, are three more hospitals, each having from 600 to 700 in them, and long trains of ambulances standing in the road waiting to discharge their bloody loads. Surgeons with hands, arms and garments covered with blood, are amputating limbs, extracting balls, and bandaging wounds of every nature in every part of the body."

- From a Sept. 18, 1862, story in the New York Tribune, as quoted in John H. Nelson's "As Grain Falls Before the Reaper"

Local historian John H. Nelson spent eight years knee-deep in death, documenting thousands of Federal casualties and dozens of field hospitals from the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history.


A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan-estimated 23,000 total casualties, including about 12,410 Union troops. It's commonly believed that every house in Sharpsburg served as a hospital for the seemingly endless flood of wounded soldiers.

Nelson, curator of the Hager House and Museum in Hagerstown, wanted to be sure.

"I wanted to alleviate my curiosity as to the accuracy of the accounting in that time period, and to pay individual tribute to the soldiers," said Nelson, 48, of Hagerstown.

He scoured original hospital registers, period newspapers, census data, regimental histories, adjutant generals' reports, state-published rosters, property use and damage claims, physicians' papers, memoirs and other sources to pinpoint the name and unit of Union soldiers killed and wounded during the Battle of Antietam and identify the homes, barns and other venues transformed into hospitals to treat the injured. When possible, Nelson listed the nature of the wound or cause of death.

His findings - including information about 12,651 Federal casualties and 120 Federal hospital sites - comprise his newly released 449-page CD-ROM, "As Grain Falls Before the Reaper." The keyword-searchable CD can be a valuable research tool for Antietam scholars and genealogists.

"You could search for the number of thigh amputations or arm wounds. You can crunch anything you want," said Nelson, a member of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation and author or co-author of 13 local history books.

Ted Alexander, historian at Antietam National Battlefield, had nothing but praise for Nelson's work.

"It's fantastic," he said. "I think it's one of the most important studies on the Maryland campaign that's come out in years. This will be an important source for years to come. It's even beyond Antietam. This is one of the most important studies of the Civil War that's been done in years."

Detective for the dead and dying

Nelson compared his research to detective work. After hunting down relevant documents, he had to cross-reference initial clues with other sources to verify the validity of his findings. It wasn't an easy task.

Nelson said he made about 100 fact-finding trips to the National Archives near Washington, D.C., and countless treks to the Military History Institute at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

"Virtually every vacation day I had over the last eight years was spent either at the National Archives or Military History Institute," he said.

Nelson's greatest challenges were misspelled names, incorrectly identified military units and companies, and illegible handwriting. German names had been Anglicized, and there were multiple spellings for the soldiers with the surname "Kelly" in the Irish Brigade, Nelson said.

"In so many ways this can be compared to a detective trying to piece together a murder mystery," he said.

Nelson had only two words for the nearly indecipherable handwriting he encountered: "Oh, my."

The historian said he was surprised at the accuracy of McClelland figures.

"He was extremely close," said Nelson, who added that we'll never know the exact number of casualties. Civil War soldiers didn't wear formal identification tags; some were blown to bits; the records of others were lost to fire.

"There are going to be discrepancies," he said. "I certainly missed a few."

'Heart-wrenching' hospitals

The book's excerpts from doctors' and wounded soldiers' firsthand accounts paint what Nelson calls a "heart-wrenching" picture of Antietam's hospitals. Union surgeon E. McDowell writes of performing secondary amputations on soldiers hospitalized at the German Reformed Church in Sharpsburg after the initial surgeon bungled the procedure, and of his dismay at losing to infection soldiers he had fought to save from battle wounds. Dr. Daniel Holt, a surgeon with the 121st New York Volunteers, described seeing "arms, legs, feet and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of a Southern sky unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work adding to the putrid mess."

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