Broken in Battle, Part I: A Most Singular Death

Antietam-DunkerAudiences know the battle of Antietam best for its grim distinction of being the bloodiest day in American history. Between the early morning and late afternoon hours of September 17, 1862, 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or went missing. Individual stories can become lost in the sheer scale of the engagement; lists of names render faceless those killed. Numerous historians have countered this trend of anonymity by recounting the tales of the brothers, fathers, and friends struck down in the fields and in the woods of western Maryland. I, too, am compelled by the stories of individual soldiers; in particular, those personally affected by the fight. Therefore, this is the first in a series of posts that will explore those mentally broken, or terribly shaken, by the battle.

The American Civil War came at great personal costs and many veterans struggled with long-term traumas—both mental and physical—inflicted by the struggle. Today I turn to Surgeon William James Harrison White, whose story I found through my friend Michael Galloway. “Emerging Civil War” author Kevin Pawlak helped locate White in the battle’s broader context. White was killed at Antietam, yet the circumstances of his death were, as Surgeon General of the Army William A. Hammond contended, “most singular.”[i]

A graduate of the Columbian College Medical School, White received his appointment as Assistant Surgeon on March 12, 1850.[ii] He spent time in Texas, New Mexico, and Virginia, among other places, between 1850 and 1860. By the secession winter of 1861, White served in Washington, D. C., as part of the Surgeon General’s Office. He worked at the city’s infirmary and examined candidates aspiring to be army surgeons. In June of 1862, he received the rank of Major and was sent to the front to serve as Medical Director of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s VI Corps.[iii] He seemed to be friendly and was well regarded. According to one article, White was “Amiable in disposition.” Moreover, he was quite capable. Of “talents and integrity unquestioned, Surgeon WHITE performed every duty which devolved upon him during a service of more than twelve years, to the entire satisfaction of this Department.”[iv] White’s qualities suggested him as an ideal candidate for service on the front lines; yet, the battles of the Civil War tested even the most prepared.

In the early morning hours of September 17,1862, Union and Confederate forces vied for control of the Dunker Church plateau. By mid-morning, the fighting had immortalized D. R. Miller’s cornfield. Troops now clashed in the West Woods. Around 10:00 am, Confederate Brig. Gen. John G. Walker’s Division swarmed around the West Woods. The situation had become desperate and Walker launched two separate attacks. Around noon, Walker’s troops, “not content with the possession of the woods, dashed forward in gallant style, crossed the open fields beyond,” and began driving the Federal forces back toward the Mumma Farm.[v] Franklin’s Corps arrived at this critical moment of collapse. Union and Confederate forces clashed in furious fighting.

Like many of the men on the field that day, Surgeon White had never before witnessed a battle on this scale. Undaunted, he began “superintending the care and removal of the wounded.”[vi] The scene must have been horrendous: shattered bones, bleeding wounds, and dying men. White and his staff were entirely responsible for the soldiers’ care and recovery. The doctors and their assistants worked at a frenetic pace; the atmosphere must have been chaotic. After a lull in the fighting something went terribly wrong.

According to an account in The New York Times, White “rode up to Gen. FRANKLIN and said ‘General, if you will give me a regiment of men I will clear those woods of rebels,’ pointing to a piece of woods on his right in which was stationed a very large force of rebels.” The medical doctor tried to turn military officer. The seasoned Franklin responded, “fifty regiments would be unable to dislodge the enemy from the position, and that it would be useless to attempt the experiment.”[vii] White’s behavior had become curious.

Nineteenth-Century soldiers, like their Twenty-First Century counterparts, responded to battle in a variety of ways as some men projected bravery while others exhibited bewilderment.[viii] Surgeon White embraced both qualities at the Battle of Antietam. He turned to Franklin and reportedly said, “If you will not give me the men to take those woods, I will go and take them myself.”[ix] He then took off at a rapid gait. He got to within approximately one hundred yards of the Confederates when they opened fire at the lone rider. One ball entered his forehead and another hit his chest. White was killed instantly.

Why did Surgeon White make such a quixotic charge? The newspaper article contended that he had been overwhelmed by the battle’s excitement, which, in turn, “produced a species of temporary insanity.”[x] That particular term, temporary insanity, had only recently gained notoriety in the 1859 trial of Daniel Sickles who was acquitted on those grounded for murdering his wife’s lover. Its employment by The New York Times demonstrates the ambiguities engendered by White’s actions. Combat psychologically scarred Civil War soldiers. Nineteenth-Century doctors, historian Barbara Gannon explains, “understood that veterans experienced mental anguish related to their wartime service even if they did not fully understand it.”[xi] Clearly distressed by what he had witnessed, White had become battle fatigued and, possibly, mentally broken. His behavior had become erratic and his senses deranged. The newspaper reporter could only conjecture that White had gone temporarily mad. Nineteenth-Century Americans were still grappling to comprehend the consequences of their civil war.

Curiously, the account of White’s death changed in the postwar era. According to an official history of the U.S. Army’s Medical Department, White was “riding in company with General Franklin and others, somewhat in advance of the line of battle, when a volley was fired from a neighboring clump of woods, by which he was instantly killed.”[xii] White’s death suddenly became typical and therefore anonymous. It is unclear if this rendering was a deliberate obfuscation of White’s mental breakdown or the consequence of an uninformed writer. I hazard to conjecture but my suspicion is that the former is the case. Romanticized scenes of war were pervasive, especially in the press. Only soldiers’ accounts and pension files confronted the fact that “the terror of this unprecedented war long outlived the stacking of arms at Appomattox,” writes historian Brian Matthew Jordon.[xiii] White’s tidy end did not demand a discussion of war’s psychological toll.

I recently walked the grounds between the Dunker Church and the Mumma Farm. I’ve been visiting the Antietam National Battlefield since I was a child but, remarkably, the landscape changes upon each visit. This particular day I thought about Surgeon William James Harrison White. I considered the strains of his position and the whirlwind of battle that engulfed and eventually consumed him. The words of famed Army Surgeon Maj. Jonathan Letterman floated through my mind. White “was a skillful surgeon, a gallant officer, and a gentleman whose deportment was kind and courteous to all who had intercourse with him. These admirable traits together with his familiarity with the medical affairs of that Corps, made his loss deeply to be deplored, and especially on that day.”[xiv] Surgeon White is at once one of the 23,000 causalities and a single story, a single death. His fate at Antietam spoke to me because of its circumstances. It was, indeed, a “most singular” death but also representative of the fate of thousands who succumbed to the strains of war.


[i] “Surgeon-General’s Office,” 12 October 1862, The New York Times.

[ii] H. L. Hodgkins, Historical Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates of the Columbian University, Washington, D.C., 1821-1891 (Washington: Byron S. Adams, Printer, 1891), 107 and Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903, vol. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), 1029.

[iii] Harvey E. Brown, The Medical Department of the United States Army From 1775 to 1873 (Washington, D.C.: Surgeon General’s Office, 1873), 229 and Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, vol. 1, 1029.

[iv] “Surgeon-General’s Office,” 12 October 1862, The New York Times.

[v] John G. Walker, 14 October 1862, U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols., series I, vol. XIX, part 1, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), 914 and 915, respectively.

[vi] Brown, The Medical Department of the United States Army From 1775 to 1873, 228.

[vii] “Surgeon-General’s Office,” 12 October 1862, The New York Times.

[viii] Civil War soldiers’ response to battle is the subject of a heated historiographical debate currently. For an introduction to these discussions see, Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented?: The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 3, no. 2 (June 2013) and Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 4 (December 2014).

[ix] “Surgeon-General’s Office,” 12 October 1862, The New York Times.

[x] “Surgeon-General’s Office,” 12 October 1862, The New York Times.

[xi] Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 137.

[xii] Brown, The Medical Department of the United States Army From 1775 to 1873, 228.

[xiii] Brian Matthew Jordon, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 3.

[xiv] Brown, The Medical Department of the United States Army From 1775 to 1873, 228.

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