A Leg for Anse to Walk On

Despite all the horrors of Civil War combat, many soldiers feared a visit to a place even more loathsome than the battlefront—the field hospital. Given adequate time, a skilled doctor could perform complicated surgery to extract bullets or repair damage, but the need to rapidly attend to the long waiting lines following major battles took precedence over any ability for intensive personal care. Amputation remained the preferred method for treatment. Soldiers who feared losing their limbs concealed their injuries or refused the anesthesia that would likely leave them disfigured for life. Sergeant Anson Ryder (sometimes spelled as Rider) faced this dilemma late in the war.

Major General Horatio G. Wright ordered his Sixth Corps, to which  Ryder’s 121st New York Infantry belonged, to attack the Confederate earthworks southwest of the city of Petersburg, Virginia, on April 2, 1865. Waiting for the signal gun to inaugurate the pre-dawn assault, Anson complained to those around him, “I would rather charge than lie here in this suspense and misery.” The lone report of a cannon from Fort Fisher at 4:40 broke the stillness, and, with bayonets fixed and muskets uncapped, the 121st New York formed the second line in Colonel Joseph E. Hamblin’s brigade on the far right flank of the assault column.

During the attack a Confederate bullet struck Sergeant Ryder in the left leg six inches above the knee, fracturing the femur and lodging itself into the bone. Stretcher bearers took him back to the field hospital near the signal tower at Peebles Farm. Upon examination, the doctor regrettably informed the sergeant that amputation at that distance up the leg would likely kill him, but leaving it attached would likely do the same. Anson determined to keep his leg, even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice.

After hastily splinting the thigh, the surgeon packaged Anson up for transport to the medical facilities at City Point. Showing signs that he was well enough for additional travel, he was sent via steamer to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, a thorough exam revealed that Anson had been wise to keep his leg, though he faced a strenuous recovery.  Only slight constitutional disturbance had taken place and the quantity of discharge from the wound was moderate, but the location of the bullet could still not be found.

Armory Square Hospital, Washington, DC
Armory Square Hospital, Washington, DC

Anson stayed in the hospital over the summer as the femur firmly consolidated back around the wound. During this time he gained the friendship of the famous poet Walt Whitman who frequently visited the wounded. Through their correspondence we can trace Ryder’s road to recovery at Cedar Lake in western New York following his discharge on August 2, 1865.

“We had a grand reception at our place last week,” Anson wrote to Whitman upon his return home. Even though he was unable to dance, he beamed about the music, shaking, and fine eating enjoyed by that area’s veterans. Leaving the hospital behind was even better for his spirits: “The weather here is splendid so cool and nice and real pure country air.” Living in the nation’s capital for a short stay was too much for Anson. “Give me Cedar Lake or any other lake,” he wrote, “in preference to any city.” As for his wound, he gained strength very fast and could walk around on a crutch and cane. By October he was down to just a single cane on which he was “getting around quite lively.”

Eventually Anson Ryder gained the strength to lead around the yearly procession for Decoration Day as the parade marshal for his hometown. A medical examination in 1872 found the muscles in the back of his thigh to still be contracted, causing spasms and cramps, while the minie ball still remained in the leg. Until his death in 1919, Anson lived, as a comrade wrote, “With the Rebel bullet and the bone of his leg cemented together like old friends.”

Sergeant Anson Ryder, photographed July 25, 1865, at the Army Medical Museum
Sergeant Anson Ryder, photographed July 25, 1865, at the Army Medical Museum

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