The young doctor was going back to Virginia when he believed his homestate was threatened. He had done it once before, leading a “secession movement” from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1859, taking over three hundred students with him from Pennsylvania to Richmond, Virginia. Controversy over that incident and the opportunity for employment took the rising surgeon to New Orleans for a brief period. However, as Virginia faced secession decisions and the possible march of Federal armies through the state, he left Louisiana and returned to the Shenandoah Valley and the town of Winchester.
Hunter Holmes McGuire had come back to defend his home. Anything else would have gone against his beliefs of states rights as evidenced by his post-war writings.
In the enthusiasm of the Virginia’s vote for secession rather than respond to Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, Hunter enlisted as private in the Winchester Rifles. At least one, possibly two, of his younger brothers enlisted with him. The unit marched down to Charles Town and assembled with other new units and militias from the area, forming the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. The next destination waited just a few miles away: the armory at Harper’s Ferry. Once that riverside town had been secured for Virginia and the Confederacy, the gathering troops had a few days of high revelry as they played at being soldiers.
The military fun ended quickly as trained military commanders arrived to sort out the situation and prepare troops for the single great battle that would presumably end the summer’s war in the Southerners’ favor. In later years, Hunter told his story of these events: “I went to Harper’s Ferry…as a member of Company F, Second Virginia Regiment, and soon after, for the first time in my life, I saw Jackson. At that time, he was a colonel. He was then commanding the army at Harper’s Ferry, which was known as the army of the Shenandoah.”[i]
Colonel Thomas J. Jackson arrived with some of the senior cadets from Virginia Military Institute to teach the eager volunteers a notion of military drill. Long, hot days of training followed and tested the resolve of the homeland defenders. In addition to getting the volunteers ready for marches and combat, Jackson began forming the 1st Virginia Brigade which needed competent staff for military matters, logistical geniuses to keep the brigade in the field, and medical men to look after the ill and battle wounded.
Someone in Richmond, Virginia, figured out that they had a skilled and talented, trained surgeon enlisted as a private in Company F of the 2nd Virginia and started the paperwork to get Hunter out of the ranks and into a headquarters or hospital. His hands would be more valuable to heal, rather than gripping a rifle.
Hunter later remembered reporting for duty after he was “commissioned by Governor Letcher, who then commanded the Virginia forces, as medical director of that army. When I reported to General Jackson for duty he looked at me a long time without speaking a word, and presently said: ‘You can go back to your quarters and wait there until you hear from me.’ I went back to my quarters and didn’t hear from him for a week, when one evening I was announced at dress-parade as medical director of the army. Some months afterwards, when I asked the General the cause of this delay, he said that I looked so young that he had sent to Richmond to see if there wasn’t some mistake.”[ii]
Once Jackson had been assured it was no mistake and the lanky, young fellow had advanced medical training and knowledge and that the Richmond clerks had not failed in the paperwork, a unique military partnership started. As another staff officer observed:
The interview of the evening removed from Jackson’s mind all doubt, won a confidence that was never lost, and opened the door of his heart to the coming of a new friend.
There devolved on this young surgeon an extensive and difficult work of organization. For an army, growing every day, in constant motion, and almost daily battle, there were appointments to be made, instructions given, supplies to be secured, medical train to be found, hospitals to be established, and all this with difficulties to surmount which made the task almost hopeless. To this administration he gave himself with energy, promptness, and command.[iii]
Dr. Hunter McGuire’s innovations for battlefield medicine and his insistence that captured medical personnel should be treated as non-combatants had far reaching effects beyond the Civil War. He is probably most remembered for treating General Jackson’s injuries during the Battle of Chancellorsville and caring for him until his death on May 10, 1863. Hunter remained the Medical Director of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia until its disbandment at Appomattox in 1865, when he accepted an officer’s parole.
One wonders what might have happened and how American military (and civilian) medicine might have been different if Hunter McGuire had simply stayed as a private in the 2nd Virginia Regiment. Instead, he was recruited from the ranks and told find ways to heal the weakened and battered bodies from camps and the battlefields.
[i] Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 19. “General Thomas J. Jackson. Reminiscences of the Famous Leader by Dr. Hunter McGuire, Chief Surgeon of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.” (Page 301)
[ii] Ibid., Page 301.
[iii] Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 28. “Dr. McGuire in the Army: The Tribute of Rev. James P. Smith, D.D.” (Pages 277-278)
Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal, Volume VII, 1993.
John W. Schildt. Hunter Holmes McGuire: Stonewall Jackson’s Doctor. (Shippensburg: White Mane Books, 2002).