Civil War Medicine: Dr. Abner O. Shaw and the hard-on-surgeons 20th Maine

A replacement assistant surgeon for the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, Dr. Abner Ormiel Shaw is best known for helping save the life of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Petersburg. There is much more to Shaw’s story, however, and had the 20th Maine kept wearing out its medical staff, Shaw might not have been at Petersburg at all.

A Maine native, Dr. Abner O. Shaw joined the 20th Maine Infantry as an assistant surgeon. He was the first assistant surgeon to survive regimental wear and tear and be promoted to full surgeon. (Wikipedia)

Born in February 1837 in Readfield, Maine to Rev. Eaton Shaw (a Methodist preacher) and Mary Roberts Shaw, he was studying medicine at Columbia University in New York City when the Civil War began. Enlisting in the 7th New York Militia as a rifle-toter, he served from May 25, 1862 to September 5, 1862, then left to complete his Columbia education.

Shaw graduated with his medical degree in spring 1863 and applied for service with a Maine unit.

Meanwhile, the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment had mustered in late August 1862 with a full medical staff, whose members ran into hard luck. The first surgeon, Dr. Nahum Monroe from Belfast, treated casualties amidst the Fredericksburg ruins as Confederate shells exploded close by on December 13-14, 1862.

He cared for the sick the following winter and during the regiment’s two-week smallpox quarantine as the Chancellorsville campaign ramped up. After “declining to submit to an examination by a Medical Board,” Monroe received an honorable discharge effective May 18.

The 20th Maine’s first two assistant surgeons did not last long either. Doctor Siroella Bennett of New Portland was “dismissed from the service of the United States for incompetency” on March 21. Dr. Nahum Hersom from Sanford transferred to the 17th Maine Infantry as its surgeon in April 1863.

Under Monroe’s on-the-job tutelage, hospital steward Grenville Baker had “pursued significantly” his medical studies and had “performed his duties thoughtfully and skillfully and … shown himself very capable,” said Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames. On May 24 he recommended that Maine Governor Abner Coburn appoint Baker as assistant surgeon; Lt. Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain and Maj. Charles D. Gilmore concurred.

Now the 20th Maine’s commander, Chamberlain told Coburn the next day “it is very important to the welfare of the men, that we have have a good surgeon, & it is a matter about which I feel a great deal of anxiety.” Efforts to regain Hersom failed, so the regiment marched to Gettysburg, fought, and marched back with no surgeon, albeit with Baker and others (including Rev. John Chamberlain) doing exemplary work caring for the wounded.

Along with Dr. John Benson from Newport in Penobscot County, Shaw reported to the 20th Maine’s bivouac near Williamsport on Monday, July 13, Benson as the surgeon and Shaw as assistant surgeon. Their enlistments were credited to July 13; commissioned on August 1, Benson resigned on August 27 and went home.

His sudden departure left only Shaw caring for the men — and the Mainers noticed his dedication. Polling his officers in mid-September, “I … find that they would prefer (so far as I can discover) Dr. Shaw, our present surgeon, to any stranger,” Chamberlain informed Coburn.

From mid-July into the fall, Shaw “was untiring in his efforts on behalf of the sick, using every means in his power to make them comfortable and to restore them to health,” a November 6 letter to Coburn indicated. “By his ability as a physician[,] the number of sick is now and has been for some time very limited.”

Signed by sixteen 20th Maine officers, the letter explained that “desiring to express our confidence in” Shaw, the shoulder-strap combat veterans asked that Shaw “be appointed and commissioned” as the regiment’s surgeon. Captain Atherton W. Clark led off with a large, easy-to-read John Hancock-style signature; also a signatory was Co. B’s Capt. Walter G. Morrill, only a day away from joining the night attack at Rappahannock Station that would bring him a future Medal of Honor.

The 3rd Brigade’s chief surgeon, Dr. Morris W. Townsend, reminded Coburn that the 20th Maine “should have a full surgeon” and recommended Shaw for the vacancy. Praising Shaw’s “ability, his professional capacity and manly deportment,,” Townsend believed “the interests of the Regt. would be promoted by placing him at the head of the Med[ical]. D[e]part[ment].”

Coburn commissioned Shaw and promoted him to surgeon effective November 10.

He treated casualties during the battle at Rappahannock Station and during many battles related to the Overland Campaign and the Petersburg siege. Shaw and Chamberlain went their separate ways as the latter took over the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps; the 20th Maine remained in the division’s vaunted 3rd Brigade.

Then a ricocheting bullet struck Chamberlain two inches below his right hip as he led his brigade in a June 18, 1864 charge at Petersburg. His wound discharging blood and urine, he was examined at the 1st Division’s field hospital and set aside as mortally wounded.

But Capt. Tom Chamberlain arrived with doctors Shaw and Townsend and Maj. Ellis Spear. Sitting beside the dying colonel, the surgeons probed with a medical instrument and tied off every severed blood vessel they could find.

One eluded their grasp. “It is no use, Doctor,” Townsend told Shaw. “He cannot be saved.”

Just once more, Doctor. Let me try this once more, and I will give it up,” Shaw said. He found and tied the blood vessel, and Chamberlain survived his wound for almost 50 years.

Named acting 3rd Brigade surgeon in December 1864, Shaw suffered so badly from malaria that he resigned due to disability on February 1, 1865. He later married Elizabeth Sanford of New York City. The couple lived in Portland and had four children, of whom two survived to adulthood.

Later becoming Chamberlain’s personal physician, Shaw treated the general as his Petersburg wound gradually weakened and finally killed him. Shaw was present when Chamberlain died in Portland on February 24, 1914.

Finally retiring in 1918, the good doctor received from the Maine Medical Society in 1931 a gold medal for actively practicing medicine for 50 years in Maine. Stricken with pneumonia, the 96-year-old Shaw died at home in Portland on January 27, 1934; he was buried in the family mausoleum in that city’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Sources: William Swinton, History of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard (1870), 480; War Department Special Order No. 133, March 21, 1863 and War Department Special Order No. 221, May 18, 1863, Maine State Archives; Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames to Maine Governor Abner Coburn, May 24, 1863, MSA; Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain to Abner Coburn, May 25, 1863, MSA; Nahum A. Hersom, John Benson, and Abner O. Shaw soldiers’ files, MSA; Chamberlain to Coburn, September 19, 1863, MSA; Dr. M. W. Townsend to Abner Coburn, October 23, 1863 and 20th Maine Infantry officers to Abner Coburn, November 6, 1863, MSA; Lt. Col. Charles D. Gilmore to Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, November 16, 1863, MSA; Brian F. Swartz, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War (El Dorado Hills, CA, 2021), 66-69; The New York Times, Sunday, January 28, 1934

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1 Response to Civil War Medicine: Dr. Abner O. Shaw and the hard-on-surgeons 20th Maine

  1. Steven Garrett says:

    Wonderful tribute to an amazing man. Dr. Shaw served his communiity & state with distinction.

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