Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Paige Gibbons-Backus
One hundred and fifty-six years ago this July, Americans reached a deadly point in American history in Prince William County at the Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run). When the carnage began, no one had fully prepared for the violence and tragedy that brought about 3,500 causalities within twenty-four hours. In the days following the battle, several private homes and buildings in the area transformed into hospitals where inexperienced surgeons and assistants faced horrible challenges and shortages in caring for the wounded that would reveal just how catastrophic the war would be.
Like the nation in 1861, the locations of the various hospitals marked a division between North and South. For the Union Army, many of the hospitals were located on the northern side of the battlefield, spanning east towards Centreville as the army retreated to Washington D.C. A few of the more well-known Union hospitals included Sudley Methodist Church, where the sanctuary was cleared and the pulpit converted into a surgery table due to a lack of prepared space. A local reporter, William Croffut, recorded that it was a “sickening spectacle…the pulpit had the appearance of a drug store…” The church floors were so overcrowded with wounded “…that it was difficult to get across by stepping carefully”. When the building overflowed with wounded, the patients spilled into the neighboring John Thornberry House and wheelwright shop.
Another Union hospital of First Manassas was the Henry Matthew House—known today as the Stone House. Due to its location in the middle of the battlefield, the Stone House was not used as a primary hospital. However, there were still a few Union soldiers hastily treated there by inexperienced surgeons with limited supplies that would later be captured by Confederate troops. An unnamed Confederate soldier later remembered:
In this building were thirty-two wounded, many of them dreadfully mangled by cannon shot. There was but a single surgeon, and he was young and apparently inefficient. Men lay on the floor with their clotted wounds still undressed. Some had died and not been removed.
Other homes used as Union Army hospitals included the Martin & Edgar Matthew House on Matthews Hill, the Dogen House, and the Mrs. Spindle House and the Stone Church across Bull Run in Centreville.
For the Confederate Army, many hospitals were on the south side of the battlefield, spanning towards the Manassas Junction and west towards the town of Haymarket. Today, many of these hospitals were in homes, such as Pittsylvania, the Conrad House, Hazel Plain, Willow Green, and Rosemont, and the structures have been lost through destruction or development. The famously unlucky Wilmer McLean saw his property commandeered by the armies at both the beginning and end of Civil War and had his barn converted into a hospital in July 1861. The surviving St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Haymarket, Virginia, housed many soldiers as they worked their way west to Charlottesville for full recovery. Many of the soldiers who did not survive were interred in the church’s historic cemetery. There were so many wounded soldiers that some hospitals utilized by the Confederates were simple fields, illustrating to the unlucky patients the Confederate Army’s lack of supplies, space, and preparation.
Close to the front lines, many wounded Confederate soldiers, including General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had their wounds treated in the fields near a small stream called Holkums Branch. Dr. Hunter McGuire treated Jackson’s wounded thumb, later remembering, “I determined to save the finger if possible.” This aid station, located along the route that most Confederate reinforcements took to arrive on the battlefield, proved to be a harsh introduction to war for many new recruits. One cavalryman remarked, ““the prayers, curses, the screams, the blood, the flies, the sickening stench of this horrible little valley were too much for the stomachs of the men, and all along the column, leaning over the pommels of their saddles, they could be seen in the ecstasies of protest”.
A few hundred yards from Holkum’s Branch sat Portici, perhaps one of the best-documented field hospitals of First Manassas. Several accounts remarked the medical scene at the Lewis family home turned hospital, and it was a horrifying and sickening site. Fanny Ricketts, who visited the hospital to look after her husband, James B. Ricketts, recorded in her diary:
Oh nothing, no words…can describe the horrors around me. Two men dead and covered with blood were carried down the stairs as I waited to let them pass. On a table in the open hall a man was undergoing an amputation of the leg. At the foot of the stairs two bloody legs lay and through all that I went to my husband…I found my dear husband lying on a hospital stretcher still covered with blood!
A member of the Rockbridge Artillery recollected trying to find water after an evening rain near the hospital, but “the water which we hoped to get from the roof of the Lewis House had been stained by blood which oozed from the several limbs which the surgeons had thrown out on a part of the roof”.
Further down the road, a Confederate Hospital Steward, Dr. E.A. Craighill remembered, “we established a temporary hospital at a farm house about a half a mile in the rear from the battlefield owned by a Mr. Pringle whose house was full of dead and wounded”. Unique to some of the other hospitals in the area, the Pringle family stayed in the house while it was used until the end of August. Forced to live out of one room in the house, with as much furniture as they could fit in that room, the Pringles endured horrors of war that many more would face, with personal property damaged, food and supplies taken, and even lives destroyed.
The Battle of First Manassas was just the beginning of four long years of war that would result in more than 700,000 deaths. One of the devastating events in this nation’s history, the effects of the war are still felt today. However, there is a silver lining. While medical staff at the beginning of the faced unimaginable circumstances like little supplies, unpreparedness, and a lack of modern medical knowledge, these mass casualties created an opportunity for new procedures to be found, discoveries to be made, and inventions to be created. By the war’s end, more inventions were made in four years than the 150 years previous, and is this event that pushes us into the modern and effective medicine that we take for granted today.
Are you interested in learning more about the aftermath of the Battle of First Manassas? Join us at Ben Lomond Historic Site the weekend of July 22-23rd for our Aftermath of First Manassas Civil War Weekend. Visit the site around the 156th anniversary of the battle and learn from historians and Civil War re-enactors how soldiers were treated during the Civil War and how the conditions of these hospitals differ from the hospitals we have today. The weekend will consist of demonstrations, tours, children’s activities, and a special evening program recreating the hospital on Saturday evening from 6:30-8:30pm. The event will be open to the public 10am-4pm and 6:30-8:30pm Saturday and 10am-3pm on Sunday. Admission is $5 per person during the day and $10 per person for the evening tours. Ben Lomond Historic Site is located at 10321 Sudley Manor Drive, Manassas, VA 20109. For more information or evening tour reservations, please call 703-367-7872.