When morning came and the Battle of Chancellorsville continued on May 4, 1863, Colonel Nelson A. Miles of the 61st New York Infantry Regiment lay on a stretcher, five miles from the burned Chancellorsville Crossroads. So far, he had narrowly escaped death twice and it remained to be seen if he could defy the surgeon’s predictions.
The previous day he had held a significant battle line, won recognition from his commanding officers, and would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. Now, he numbered among the thousands of wounded on both sides. Still an officer, he received care more quickly than many other injured, but the equalizer of looming death and pain thrust Miles into the saga of treating and evacuating the wounding as the Federal army retreated toward the river.
In later years, Miles wrote his memoirs and gave an interview, giving detailed descriptions of his wound and the journey to a field hospital and recovery. It’s the other side of the story of Miles at Chancellorsville—the injury that cut short his rallying leadership on that battlefield.
May 3, 1863: Colonel Miles rode his battle line that morning, earning admiration from his soldiers for his visible presence with them in battle. But it came with a price. A Confederate soldier from the 10th Georgia explained thirty-six years later what happened in the fateful moment: “I used a sharp-shooter’s rifle at a range of about one hundred and fifty yards. I aimed at your heart, but think the motion of the horse carried the ball a little low.”[i]
Miles explained what he felt at that moment: “While riding down the line at Chancellorsville one of the enemy’s bullets struck my metallic belt plat with great force. This caused a slight deviation as it entered the body. The result was an instant deathly sickening sensation; my sword dropped from my right hand, my scabbard and belt dropped to the left; I was completely paralyzed below the waist. My horse seemed to realize what had occurred; he stopped, turned, and walked slowly back—I holding to the pommel of the saddle with my hands.”
Dazed and hurting, Miles met a group of soldiers who eased him off the horse. With no stretchers at hand, they slung his body into a blanket and hurried to the field hospital established in the Chancellor House.” That structure had been used at General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters for the past days and also as a field hospital. Later on May 3, when fourteen year old Sue Chancellor escaped from the basement with her family and ran through the house and yard, she remembered seeing the family’s piano used as one of the operating tables and piles of amputated limbs in the yard.
At this hospital, Captain Calvin P. Fisher, a surgeon from the 148th Pennsylvania, had Miles laid on a surgery table and investigated the injury. The bullet had punctured into the abdomen, just below the naval. Fisher believed the young colonel would die and decided not to put him through additional pain by trying to remove the bullet. Miles remembered someone in the hospital “pulled a dead man off a couch to make room for me”[ii]—a bad omen since the doctors were already speculating and saying that Miles would die.
In the afternoon, a “bursting shell” set the Chancellor House on fire. Paralyzed from the waist down, Miles had to rely on others to get him to safety and away from the deadly flames. He described it simply: “I was then taken out and carried five miles on a stretcher, rested in the woods that night, and the next day was carried in an ambulance over a rough corduroy road twelve miles to a field hospital.”[iii] It was a typical journey to another field hospital, though the distances may have been longer since the Union army was retreating. Though he did not know the details of his injury at the time, Miles had shattered bone in his hip and a bullet still lodged in his body, making the journey undoubtedly torturously painful.
When he arrived at the field hospital, Miles did not receive additional medical treatment. Still declared dying, he was simply “sent to Washington.”[iv] News traveled quickly, probably aided by Miles’s rank, and his brother arrived and took him to the family home in Massachusetts. There, doctors continued to give negative opinions until, two weeks after the injury, Miles managed to move his right foot. That got the doctors’ attention, and they “concluded the bullet must be somewhere in the left side. A consultation was held.”
The surgeons decided to find the bullet and “probed for it, laying the bone of my hip bare. They found the bone broken and took out nine pieces, leaving one which they failed to find. They found the bullet several inches further down than these pieces of broken bone.”[v] The bullet was removed from the “strong muscles of the left leg”[vi] and sense of feeling returned, suggesting that it had been seriously damaging nerves.
Several weeks later as the Confederates invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania, Miles “left my home, scarcely able to walk with a crutch, and tried to return to the field of duty, but found it impossible. I went to Harrisburg, where my former corps commander, Major-General Couch, was then organizing the militia of the State and such volunteers as could be rapidly gathered to occupy the passes in the mountains and other important positions, to retard, if possible, the advance of Lee’s army….” Though disappointed that he missed the Battle of Gettysburg, Miles had to wait for his leg and hip to fully heal before returning to the field. “When I had recovered sufficiently for field service I rejoined my command, then located near the Rappahannock River, Virginia, and found the morale of the army changed for the better.”
9,762 Union soldiers were wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville and 8,700 Confederate fell injured. Colonel Miles was just one officer in the thousands of wounded, but taking a closer look at his wound and medical experience tells the other side of his story in that battle. It also illustrates the facts of Civil War medical practices for rapid evacuation by stretcher and ambulance and a triage system that prioritized the wounded who were believed to have the best chance of survival.
[i] Miles, Nelson. Serving the republic: memoirs of the civil and military life. Accessed online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b69357&view=1up&seq=82
[v] DeMontravel, Peter R. A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925. (Kent State University Press, 1998.)
[vi] Miles, Nelson. Serving the republic: memoirs of the civil and military life. Accessed online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b69357&view=1up&seq=82