“Swarming with maggots” – Assistant Surgeon Samuel Melcher and the Care of the Wounded at Wilson’s Creek

Assistant Surgeon Samuel Melcher. Image courtesy of Thomas P. Doherty.

As the first major engagement fought west of the Mississippi River, the 1861 Battle of Wilson’s Creek (fought August 10, 1861) was known for being a particularly desperate, hard-fought battle that resulted in nearly 20% casualties on both sides. For the Federal Army of the West, who ultimately withdrew from the field of battle just southwest of Springfield, Missouri, losses were at a staggering 25%. This number included their martyred commander Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon.

While the Federal Army of the West withdrew from the battlefield to its base at Springfield and on to St. Louis, several of its surgeons remained behind to care for the wounded. One of the surgeons was Assistant Surgeon Samuel Melcher of the Fifth Missouri Infantry. His experiences were documented in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion after the war and give a detailed account of treating the wounded in the field in the wake of the battle.

“The flies were exceedingly troublesome after the battle, maggots forming in the wounds in less than an hour after dressing them, and also upon any clothing or bedding soiled by blood or pus. The wounded left on the field in the enemy’s hands were swarming with maggots when brought in. After several ineffectual attempts to extirpate these pests, I succeeded perfectly by sprinkling calomel freely over the wounded surfaces. When the sloughs separated, clean granulating surfaces were presented, and by using balsam of copaiba as a dressing, smearing the bandages with this oleoresin, I could keep the wounds free from maggots. For this purpose it is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable agents supplied by the medical department.”

Melcher’s descriptive account here reflects many soldiers’ descriptions of the environment during the battle on a hot, humid August day. The wounded suffered horrifically in these conditions – the beating sunshine, swarming insects, gruesome maggots, and pounding heat. The night before the battle, rain storms hit the Springfield area, wetting the ground and making a perfect environment for annoying insects, like mosquitoes and flies. Surgeons, like Melcher, who were first dealing with mass casualties, had to work on wounded patients in these conditions.

On top of the conditions on the ground, most of the ambulances had been left at Springfield per Lyon’s order to minimize the risk of the enemy spoiling their surprise attack at dawn on August 10. This greatly hurt the Federals’ ability to evacuate the wounded quickly and almost all the severely wounded Federal troops remained on the battlefield. [2]

As said above in his account, the surgeon had to get creative to eliminate the frustrating “pests” who were feasting upon his patients’ necrotic tissue. Calomel, or mercury chloride, was used frequently by Victorian-era physicians as a purgative and, in larger doses, as a sedative. [3] Its dangerous side effects and abuse led to the mercury-based drug being banned by the Surgeon General in 1863. However, Melcher found use for it to shoo away maggots from “slough,” or necrotic tissue.

Before bandaging the wound, Melcher removed the maggot-free slough and exposed “clean granulating surfaces.” On the dressing itself, he smeared “balsam of copaiba,” an oleoresin made of resin and essential and fatty oils. Remarkably, this oil-resin had been used in South America for two centuries before to ward off bad spirits and illness – and, most importantly for this article, as an insect repellent. No wonder Melcher called balsam of copaiba, “one of the most valuable agents supplied by the medical department.”

While treating the wounded, it was Melcher who first found out that Lyon’s body had accidentally been left behind on the field during the Federal withdrawal. At the Ray House on the eastern side of Wilson Creek, Melcher examined the corpse and escorted the fallen general back to the Federal headquarters at Springfield. From there, Lyon’s body made the trek to the railhead at Rolla and all the way back to his home state of Connecticut.

For the Southern and Federal surgeons alike who had remained on the battlefield and continued to care for the wounded in Springfield, their work continued for three months – all the way into November. At St. Louis, which was headquarters of the Department of the West, there was “so little preparation had then been made for such an event.” [4] Yet, in the coming months, St. Louis would become one of the largest hospital centers in the entire county.

The high casualty rate, horrific conditions for medical care, and the lack of mass casualty experience among surgeons made the Battle of Wilson’s Creek notorious in their eyes. Like Shiloh, which occurred that coming April, Wilson’s Creek foreshadowed the devastation and incredible sacrifice it would take to end the war. It was because of these costly early battles that both sides learned invaluable lessons of medical care for the wounded.

 

Sources:

  1. “Extracts from a Report of his Services at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. By Assistant
    Surgeon S. H. Melcher, 5th Missouri Volunteers,” in  The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870-1888), ebook.
  2. William G. Piston & Richard Hatcher, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 289.
  3. “Clara Barton and Quicksilver,” August 22, 2014, Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, accessed March 23, 2021, https://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/clara-barton-and-quicksilver/
  4. J. G. Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission, A Sketch (St. Louis, MO: R.P. Studley & Co., 1864), 5.
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4 Responses to “Swarming with maggots” – Assistant Surgeon Samuel Melcher and the Care of the Wounded at Wilson’s Creek

  1. nygiant1952 says:

    The US contribution to the worlds’ knowledge of medicine, was the evaluation and treatment of battlefield wounds.

  2. An interesting abstract of the Union surgeons post-battle. Ironically, Nathaniel Lyon was a victim of his own inept generalship. Lyon egregiously divided his command in the face of a numerically – superior enemy, at the behest of Franz Sigel, allowing Sigel to circle and post his two regiments of German volunteers southeast of the Confederate camp for a simultaneous attack. Although total surprise was attained in the attack, the Southern command held up the Lyon army group temporarily to focus on Sigel’s brigade which they quickly dispatched back to Springfield. They then turned their full attention to Lyon’s force, killing Gen. Lyon in the imbroglio, forcing the Union Army to retreat in haste all the way to Rolla.

  3. Pingback: Week In Review: March 22-28, 2021 | Emerging Civil War

  4. William Piston says:

    For additional information, see the book by Kip A. Lindberg and Thomas P. Sweeney entitled A Scene of Horrors – A Medical and Surgical History of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

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