General Hancock’s Tourniquet at Gettysburg

General Hancock wounded at Gettysburg and carried off the field (Illustration from “Life of Hancock” published in the 1880’s)

General Stannard stood over him as we laid him upon the ground, and opened his clothing where he indicated by a movement of his hand that he was hurt, a ragged hole, an inch or more in diameter, from which the blood was pouring profusely, was disclosed in the upper part and on the right side of his thigh. He was naturally in some alarm for his life.

“Don’t let me bleed to death,” he said. “Get something around it quick.” Stannard had whipped out his handkerchief, and as I helped to pass it around General Hancock’s leg I saw that the blood, being of dark color and coming in jets, could not be from an artery, and I said, to him, “This is not arterial blood, General; you will not bleed to death.” From my use of the surgical term he took me for a surgeon and replied, with a sigh of relief: “That’s good; thank you for that Doctor.” We tightened the ligature by twisting it with the barrel of a pistol, and soon stopped the flow of blood.[i]

Halt right there in this account of Union General Winfield S. Hancock’s wounding on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. Handkerchief and pistol barrel to make a tourniquet? Not only is it unique and apparently effective, but how was it possible? I’ve “bandaged” in scenarios at reenactment field hospitals with the 1860’s techniques, and it takes a lot more cloth to go around arms, legs, and torsos than one might think, even if the man is “typical soldier” height and weight. That had to be a pretty large handkerchief to wrap around the upper thigh and have enough to tie to tourniquet.

While I didn’t doubt the core facts of Lieutenant George Benedict’s account, I had questions about the details and decided to do a little research and hands-on testing.

First, how large was that handkerchief? I’m familiar with ladies’ handkerchiefs from the era which usually averaged around 15 inches on each side. That wasn’t going to work in this historical account, so it was time to learn about men’s handkerchiefs. Southern Union Mills — a living history sutler reproducing items from original artifacts — offered a lot of data from original Civil War handkerchiefs. Here’s a list of the men who carried the handkerchiefs, what the pocket squares were made of, and the sizes:

  • Silas Byrd, 10th Virginia Cavalry – Cotton, 18×24 inches
  • Norman Hasting, 45th Massachusetts Infantry – Cotton, 26×22 inches
  • John W. Ettinger, 87th Pennsylvania Infantry – Cotton, 15.5×15.5 inches
  • Horace Squier, Union, Regiment not known – Cotton, 28×32 inches
  • Cyrus Dennis, 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry – Cotton, 29×29 inches
  • Ira L. Lindsey, 25th Massachusetts – Cotton, 24×16 inches
  • Thomas J. Jackson, Confederate Second Corps – Corded Linen, 17×17 inches
  • Unknown Illinois soldier – Cotton, 35×30
  • “Bertrand Handkerchief” – Cotton, 31×25 inches
  • Union Cavalryman at Gettysburg – Silk, 27×23.5 inches
  • Unknown Soldier – Cotton, 18×19 inches
  • Eugene Broaddus, 9th Virginia Cavalry – Cotton, 27×27 inches
  • Israel Taylor McCowen, 12th Ohio Infantry – Silk, 19×24 inches
  • Millet Thompson, 13th New Hampshire Infantry – Cotton, 18×16 inches
  • Gilbert Perry Gordy, 3rd Georgia Cavalry – Cotton, 22×18 inches
  • C. Wyatt, Gid Nelson Light Artillery – Cotton, 31×25 inches
  • Selden, Confederate – Cotton, 28×23 inches[ii]

Clearly, much larger than I would have guessed… Next. Putting it to the test. I had some cotton fabric that I was willing to cut for the experiment and decided to go with 29×29 since that seemed somewhat “middle of the road” with the data I’d found.

Then I called one of my brothers. He’s used to odd research requests by now. “Please take a measuring tape, wrap it around your upper thigh, and tell me the measurement.” According to the mid-20’s active and fit brother, the measurement is 24 inches. Now, Winfield Hancock was 39, but from primary source descriptions and photos, he was still fit and lean at Gettysburg. (He put on weight after Gettysburg and the wounding). Hancock probably would not be an exact physical match to my brother, but they are basically the same height so that’s a start. Comparing the 24” measurement with a men’s clothing sizing chart, that would be approximately an XL size in modern clothing. Biographical documentations claim that Winfield Hancock was 6’2” and looking at his early war photo, he’s probably a XL clothing size. I decided to go with the 24” measurement. Lacking an assistant to help with the project on a snowy weekend, I decided to find the approximate measurement on my own leg and started “tourniquetting.”

Winfield Scott Hancock, Civil War era

(Please note: if you try medical experiments like this or living history scenarios, don’t actually twist the tourniquet properly and don’t leave it on long. And please get first aid training to know when to use a tourniquet in the situation of an injury; they are dangerous when not used properly, but can be life-saving under certain circumstances.)

An 1851 Navy Colt Pistol has a diameter of 0.634 inches at the end of the barrel.[iii] While we don’t know exactly what type of pistol the officers used in their Gettysburg tourniquet, the 1851 Navy Colt was a common weapon, and it will work for a measurement. I don’t have that type of pistol, but I do have a wooden pistol and the barrel diameter wasn’t too far off the measurement. Close enough!

The pistol has been insert and one twist carefully made

And voila, tourniquet created. There was plenty of fabric when I prepped the “handkerchief” on the diagonal and it would work if the cloth was a little smaller or if the leg was a little larger.

I loosened the tied cloth a little so that I could put a twist in it safely. The tightness still hurt, and I was reminded of the pain that is described in some primary sources when the tourniquets were placed for the first time or left after operations. In the real scenario, they would have kept twisting the pistol to control the blood flow. Someone would have needed to hold the pistol in place or they could have tied it in place as well.

A different angle to see the tourniquet and the first twist.

Hands-on history is one of my favorites, and this short project taught me to reevaluate my impressions of men’s clothing accessories while it emphasized the creative solutions that were used in bloody moments of necessity on Civil War battlefields.

Back to the historical narrative… General Hancock refused to moved from the battlefield until he knew the attack (Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge) had been repulsed. When the fighting ended on that hot afternoon near Gettysburg, the general was taken by stretcher and ambulance to a field hospital. He journeyed through Pennsylvania to Philadelphia and then Norristown to convalesce. The details and treatment of his wound are worth studying for those interested in medical history, but I will save that for more serious post.

Several months after Gettysburg, Hancock met George Benedict in Washington City and recognized him as the officer who had helped with the first aid tourniquet. The general also later sent a written letter of thanks to Benedict, saying, “”I have reason to remember you and Colonel Hooker on that field, for to you I am indebted for your kindly aid in assisting me from my horse when I was struck and about to fall to the ground, and that incident is of course indelibly impressed upon my memory.”

Due to the quick thinking of several officers, General Hancock’s bleeding wound was tourniquetted with a large handkerchief and the barrel of a pistol. Though his inspiring ride along his II Corps lines ended with his wounding, the quick first aid allowed him to stay conscious and on the battlefield until the Union line was restored and the surviving Confederates retreated.

Sources:

[i] George G. Benedict, Army Life in Virginia, (Burlington, 1895). Pages 183-184. Accessed through Archive.org on January 14, 2022.

[ii] Southern Union Mills, Handkerchiefs https://www.southunionmills.com/handkerchiefs/ Accessed on January 14, 2022.

[iii] The Colt Forum, Discussion Thread about 1851 gun dimensions. https://www.coltforum.com/threads/original-1851-navy-barrel-dimension.281193/ Accessed on January 14, 2022.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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15 Responses to General Hancock’s Tourniquet at Gettysburg

  1. Fascinating post. I had known about the tourniquet controlling Hancock’s bleeding at Gettysburg. But to have someone explain, with pictures, how that worked on the upper thigh in practice was very educational. I was glad to see you include the caution that uncontrolled tourniqueting can be dangerous.

    • Absolutely. I’m lucky that my dad had a long career in emergency medicine and he taught me a lot about first aid. There is a time to tourniquet and a time not to tourniquet and knowing the difference is key. That say, I do think – based the information we have – that the tourniquet was probably best for Hancock’s situation at Gettysburg. They would’ve used it to control and slow the bleed, not to cut off circulation (as in the case of amputation).

  2. Frank Schimberg says:

    Your story brings to mind a lesson taught in basic training in 1966. Once a tourniquet is applied and bleeding stops, leave it alone until medical personnel are able to deal with. Releasing it may cause a bleed out.

    • Exactly. In the continuation of George Benedict’s account, he claims that when a surgeon arrived, he removed the handkerchief tourniquet and examined the wound there on the battlefield. That is a bit alarming from a first aid perspective! However, they would not have had to tourniquet to stop all blood flow (like in the case of an amputation) so perhaps by that point the bleeding was more controlled or it was just loosened for the examination.

  3. Janet Chase says:

    Wonder detective work on your part. Another example of bringing the Civil War experience into the present. Thank you.

  4. Ed Lowe says:

    And now the rest of the story! Fascinating description here. Very much enjoyed it.

  5. Meg Groeling says:

    I consider the folks at Southern Union Mills to be “Sutlers of Note.” https://emergingcivilwar.com/2015/10/02/sutlers-of-note/

  6. Bob LaPolla says:

    i will look forward to reading more gory details of Hancock’s wounding. what was the path of the ball? what tissues were damaged? Did he have surgical repair? Why did it not heal? i just finished Through the Fire abour Joshua Chamberlain which contains a detailed description of Chamberlain’s wound at Petersburg. It also never healed properly and he was bothered by a fistula (a hole in his penis) that caused him misery for the rest of his life.

    • mark harnitchek says:

      i believe this wound, little known outside his immediate family and friends, eventually killed him 1914 — pneumonia caused by complications from an infection from this wound.

    • I’m working on it. Slowly and surely. I’ll probably have a chat with my dad who had a career in emergency medicine to talk about some of the immediate effects of Hancock’s injury as part of the research process. It’s not *quite* as terrible as Chamberlain’s, but it’s still grisly. You’re warned!

      • Jackie Greer says:

        Can’t wait. The report of how they found the remaining ‘schraplnel’ about 3 months later, is not for the faint of heart.

  7. Jon Tracey says:

    Experimental archaeology at its finest!

  8. Kevin R. says:

    Thank you Sarah. I find your posts absolute must reads and love the enthusiasm and hands on approach you bring (i.e. your cooking stories recently.). I’ve wondered how painful a tourniquet was at the time; I would assume there would be some shock/adrenaline from the wound that would assist. Interesting story!

  9. uthistory2013Ar says:

    Was it Hancock’s right or left thigh? I’m confused by Benedict’s description of the blood emanating from the wound, “I saw that the blood, being of dark color and coming in jets, could not be from an artery, …” I thought those exact conditions DID indicate arterial blood. Or is arterial blood described as more of a “bright red color” instead? The “coming in jets” certainly does indicate an artery is involved, at least that’s what I remember from my Boy Scout First Aid lore. Is it true that the prolonged pain and infection Hancock suffered was caused by a metal nail and/or some wood that was blasted from his saddle’s pommel into the wound? And that Hancock had to straddle a saddle in his sickroom so a doctor could probe the wound and pull out the invasive “missiles”?

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