Wartime illness

Union Field Hospital 5th Corps SCH, Va. 12 May 1864 Forbes 20692r_2
Union Army field hospital, 5th Corps, Spotsylvania, Va. 12 May 1864 by Edwin Forbes. Source: Library of Congress

My ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s unit — the 6th NY Heavy Artillery — was attached to the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps from May to July 1864.

Leaving the bloody fields of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Union forces trekked through difficult Virginia terrain in relentless pursuit of the Confederate Army — engaging in skirmishes and battles all along the way at Harris Farm, North Anna, Totopotomoy and Cold Harbor.

The march to Cold Harbor was one of the worst — kicking up ankle-deep dust that choked off the air, darkened the sun and coated bone-tired Union troops from head to toe in a ghostly residue as they trudged past the decaying carcasses of dead cavalry horses.

Sometime during those grueling days in May, the fighting, the marching and the exhaustion took their toll. My great, great grandfather — along with a large number of his comrades — collapsed on the march to Cold Harbor.

Arthur says he “gave out” and was “attacked with pain & difficulty of breathing in left side in cardiac region,”  according to doctors’ notes in his pension file — sick enough to be “sent to hospital” by his regiment, joining the steady flow of ill and wounded Union soldiers evacuated from the Overland Campaign battlefields.

I feel grateful that by 1864 an ambulance corps, field hospitals and general hospitals were set up to rescue and treat wartime casualties. Their presence and the timing of his illness — coming as it did before the deadly confrontation at Cold Harbor — may very well have saved my ancestor’s life.

But, as I would later discover, Arthur’s wartime illness continued to affect his health through the remainder of the Civil War and long after.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

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