“My Feelings May Be Imagined When I Saw Him…In Pain”: Caring For Wounded Friends during the Battle of The Wilderness

“Nothing could be seen except trees and brush. All we could see of the enemy was the flash of their guns. This was guide enough, and we blazed away at them. We soon had them started, or they fell back by design to draw us from the [Brock] road. I don’t know which; I only know they did fall back and we followed until darkness closed in on this region of the “shadow of death.” From 4 o’clock on we were into it all along the line, hot and heavy, teeth and nails, nip and tuck. It was a continuous roar of musketry, rising and swelling like the sound of surf pounding on the short… About dark the roar died away and we began to look around. We have gained a little ground, but lost heavily in men….”

John Haley of the 17th Maine described the confusion and intensity of the first day’s fight in The Wilderness on May 5, 1864, as he fought in the II Corps along Brock Road and then advancing parallel with the Orange Plank Road. A dedicated soldier and journal-keeper, 24-year-old Haley was not prone to shirking his duty, but he faced two heavy burdens during The Wilderness in addition to the tangled combat experience. Haley was physically unwell and had admitted the night before “were I at home and feeling as I do, I would be in bed, but here I am sitting up without rest for 48 hours.”[i] During the battle, Haley became so weak that “I could not stand up, and I bled at the nose like a stuck pig.”[ii]

Pvt. John Haley

But then two of Haley’s best friends fell to the ground. Later, Haley could not explain how he found the strength, but with “superhuman exertion,” he went to his comrades, controlled his own feelings at the sight of their blood and pain, got them off the battlefield, and took care of them for hours.[iii] Battlefield medical care often came first from comrades, later from medical men. Many times, immediate first aid from a comrade saved a wounded soldier’s life. However, when soldiers like Haley found and responded to their broken and bleeding friends it created heavy emotion. Haley wrote in his diary about the experience of seeing his friends’ suffering and what he did to help them:

“Frank Sweetser and Fred Loring were the men mortally wounded. The former was shot in the lower abdomen; the latter had his hip crushed. I must bear testimony to the patience and heroic spirit displayed by these two young men. Frank was a warm personal friend, and my feelings may be imagined when I saw him writhe in pain. Never was there a young man of sweet disposition, generous and warm-hearted. I couldn’t have thought more of him had he been my own brother. Fred was my tentmate and a fine fellow. He didn’t possess Frank’s generous nature, but he was much esteemed by me.

“Four of us made stretchers of blankets and poles and carried them to the Brock Road, where the field hospital was. It was not less than a mile from our line of battle, and yet it seemed like ten as we struggled through the tangled underbrush of the Wilderness. Sweetser begged constantly for water, which he threw up as soon as it was down. Fred’s patient and uncomplaining manner, in spite of what must have been the most excruciating pain, was astonishing, for he was only a lad in his teens. His conduct was the more conspicuous in contrast to the other wounded men all around us who were groaning, praying, begging, cursing, and yelling with pain and rage. He made not a sound save now and then a sigh or low-spoken request. Sweetser died soon after midnight when they were taking him and Fred off in an ambulance to Fredericksburg, where every house is a hospital.”

Haley explained that he spent the night at this field hospital, taking care of his friends. He was surrounded by “hundreds of men [lying] wounded with no one to tend them” and was unwilling leave his comrades in their pain. Haley did not say, but he may have been the one who advocated for Sweetser and Loring to get them on ambulances and toward better medical care (he hoped) in Fredericksburg that night. Already physically unwell himself, the shock and loss of seeing his friends hurt and one die nearly pushed Haley over the edge, and he knew it: “The events and fatigues of the last three days have so unstrung my nervous system that a blow from a twig would, I believe, prove fatal.”[iv] After Sweetser’s death and Loring’s departure, Haley slept at the field hospital; the next morning…he rejoined his regiment.

Sketch by Alfred R. Waud of soldiers carrying wounded men during the Battle of the Wilderness. (LOC)

Who were Haley’s friends? He wrote a short description of their character and some vivid details of his final hours with them, but what about the rest of their short lives?

James Franklin Sweetser was born on May 11, 1844[v] and grew up in Biddeford, Maine. His parents were Edward and Peace Sweetser, and he appears to have been one of the middle children: George, James, Thomas, and Ann.[vi] He was listed as “Franklin” and about five years old on the 1850 Census, suggesting that his family called him by his middle name.[vii] Ten years later, on the 1860 Census his pre-war occupation was listed as “operative”, perhaps an unskilled factory or machinery worker? His father was Edward Sweetser, who also appears to have been a Union soldier during the Civil War, died on October 30, 1862, at a hospital in Washington D.C.;[viii] he may have been a teamster with the 17th Maine.[ix] James’s older brother, George (born 1843) also served, moving between several Maine regiments: Company E of the 9th Maine Infantry, Company E, First Maine Sharpshooters, and Company E, 20th Maine Infantry. (George survived the war and lived until 1919.[x])

Franklin enlisted in Company I of the 17th Maine Infantry on August 18, 1862.[xi] He may have previously enlisted in the 1st Maine Infantry, a three-months unit formed in 1861.[xii] With the 17th, Sweetser probably saw battle at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, and Mine Run before falling mortally wounded on May 5, 1864 during the battle of The Wilderness. According to Haley, Sweetser was shot in the “lower abdomen” and was probably somewhat delirious with pain.

He died in the night, probably either on a stretcher or in a waiting ambulance. Someone (possbily Haley) helped to ensure that his body stayed identified and that he had a marked grave, probably near the field hospital at first. A local newspaper in his hometown ran the simple announcement: “Died of wounds received in the battle of the Wilderness, James F. Sweetsir, of this city, Co I, 17th Me.”[xiii] “Corporal James F. Sweetsir of Maine” is now buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.[xiv] However, in 1888 a headstone was provided to a local cemetery in Biddeford, Maine for James F. Sweetser of the 17th Maine Infantry. Most likely his body is buried at Fredericksburg, and the Maine headstone served as a memorial to his name among other local fallen soldiers.[xv] Sweetser died less than a week before his twentieth birthday, remembered by his friend as “a young man of sweet disposition, generous and warm-hearted.”

James Sweetser’s grave in Fredericksburg National Cemetery (Find A Grave)

Frederick H. (or M) Loring was born on January 5, 1846, and likely grew up in Maine.[xvi] His parents, Levi and Sarah Loring, may have adopted or raised children. According to the 1860 census, Mary, Julia, Fred, Henrietta, Albert, and Isabel all appear to have the last name “Winslow” but are listed as living with and the implied children of Levi and Sarah.

Socially, Fred was seen as Levi’s son. The Vermont Record ran an article on April 1, 1864, highlight the war service of “Sons of Vermont Ministers in the Army.” The piece claimed that more than 50 ministers’ sons “are or have been in the National Army. This is an interesting and important fact in the history of what Vermont has done for country during the present war.” The article went on to list many of the young men, noting that some served as chaplains, but many had enlisted as soldiers. “Frederick H. Loring, son of Rev. Levi Loring of Charleston, is a private in the 17th Maine Regiment.”[xvii] Fred enlisted on November 30, 1863, and his place of residence prior to joining was listed as Portland, Maine.[xviii]

Loring had been Haley’s tentmate during his sort time with the regiment. Likely, Haley taught him how to be a soldier and the details of camp life during the winter months. Unless he had served previously with another unit, the battle of The Wilderness was Loring’s first major combat experience, and it ended in fatal agony with a crushing wound to the hip. A detailed casualty list of the 17th Maine, published on May 26, 1864, in The Portland Daily Press printed Loring’s name and the word “seriously,” vaguely telling the homefront what Haley had already seen.[xix]

With a “patient and uncomplaining manner,” Loring bore his suffering, probably lying beside Sweetser in the field hospital while Haley hovered over both. He seems to have been silent, perhaps in physical shock or simply withdrawing to try to bear the pain. Haley did not give details, but Loring must have known about Sweetser’s death that night and he must have said something in the darkness before Haley left him. Unlike Sweetser, Loring survived an ambulance ride along the rough Orange Turnpike to Fredericksburg. How long he stayed in Fredericksburg, what operations he may have endured, or if he even received medical care in the overcrowded hospital city is not known at this time. However, Loring eventually arrived at the Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C.

Part of Armory Square Hospital in Washington (LOC)

By May 11, large numbers of wounded sent from The Wilderness to Fredericksburg to Washington started arriving at Armory Square Hospital located on the Capitol Mall,[xx] and many soldiers from Maine regiments in the Army of the Potomac found refuge and care at this hospital.[xxi] On May 19, The Portland Daily Press informed its readers about The Wounded in Washington. “Rev. E.W. Jackson, chaplain at Armory Square Hospital, Washington, has our thanks for his kindness in causing to be prepared full reports of the wounded Maine soldiers recently brought to the hospitals of that city…” The article noted that all the wounded were passing through Fredericksburg and then sent to Washington, implying that it was easier to confirm the wounded casualties. Reverent Jackson wrote in a letter dated May 16: “It is with us a busy time. We have twelve hundred wounded men (not from Maine alone) to look after.”[xxii]

Medically and logistically, Loring’s transportation to Washington may have been delayed. His injury would have warranted more specialized care, and he may have been purposely held back and sent to Washington at the end of May. According to an eyewitness, on May 28 “a considerable number of wounded soldiers arrived from Fredericksburg. Many of them were badly injured, and for that reason their removal had been delayed as long as possible. Of these unfortunate, but heroic sufferers, one hundred and sixty were carried upon stretchers to Armory Square Hospital, where they will receive the best and kindest treatment.”[xxiii]

Interior of a Ward at Armory Square Hospital (LOC)

What is known for certain is that Loring did not survive his wound. “On Monday, June 6th, in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, of wound in thigh, received May 5th, in the “wilderness battle,” Frederick H. Loring of the 17th Maine Volunteers, Co. I, son of Rev. Levi Loring of West Charleston, Vt., — aged 18 years.”[xxiv] Several newspapers in Maine and Vermont printed the notice of his death.[xxv]

Loring appears to have been buried in Charleston, Vermont, though some details on his gravestone appear to be incorrect according to other primary sources. Likely his body was embalmed and sent to his family. An advertisement had appeared on May 13, 1864 in the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier from The Armory Square Hospital Gazette: “In this Hospital the bodies of all deceased soldiers are embalmed. The friends are immediately notified by telegram. If they desire the remains forwarded to them, they will send by telegraph to forward the body to such address, and all expenses can be paid on delivery; in this way great time and expense can be saved.”[xxvi] Likely, this is what happened to Loring’s remains.

Frederick Loring’s Grave in Vermont (Find A Grave)

John Haley had already returned to his regiment and fought in more battles by the time Loring died. But he did not forget his friends, and the memory of their woundings, the night in the field hospital, and their deaths stayed with him. Part of the layers of war that he would live with for the rest of his life. Both soldiers were younger than Haley, and he seems to have seen them as younger brothers; growing up with only sisters, Haley’s bonds of comradeship and soldier-brotherhood may have been especially close in his “immediate circle of friendship.” He had done all he could to get Sweetser and Loring to safety, and he had stayed with them—giving them water, easing care, and the presence of a friend in their darkest hours.

On September 18, 1864, Haley wrote one final time about his lost friends in his war diary:

“How often are the ties of friendship severed by the cruel hand of war. One after another is cut down and hurried out, and I am left to mourn and wonder how many more will be called. My immediate circle of friendship has not been invaded by death since the first day in the Wilderness, when Frank Sweetser and Fred Loring fell. A Richmond paper boasted that we “would plant 50,000 Yankees in Virginia.” I have no doubt but what this promise has been fulfilled to the letter. The world regards our men as martyrs or heroes; I live to write their obituaries.”[xxvii] (emphasis original)



[i] John W. Haley, edited by Ruth L. Silliker, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer (Camden: Down East Books, 1985). Page 142.

[ii] Ibid., Page 145.

[iii] Ibid., Page 145.

[iv] Ibid., Page 145.

[v] Maine, US, Birth Records “James Franklin Sweetsir”. Accessed through Ancestry.com

[vi] 1860 Census. Accessed through Ancestry.com

[vii] 1850 Census. Accessed through Ancestry.com

[viii] Find A Grave, Edward Sweetser.

[ix] John W. Haley, edited by Ruth L. Silliker, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer (Camden: Down East Books, 1985). Page 285.

[x] Find A Grave, George W. Sweetsir.

[xi] U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 “James F. Sweetsir.” Accessed through Ancestry.com

[xii] U.S., Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 “Frank C. Sweetser” Accessed through Ancestry.com

[xiii] The Union and journal. June 17, 1864, Image 3 (Biddeford, Maine). Accessed through Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

[xiv] Find A Grave “Corp James F. Sweetsir,” Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

[xv] U.S., Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1861-1904, James F. Sweetser. Accessed through Ancestry.com

[xvi] Find a Grave, “Frederic M. Loring”

[xvii] Vermont Record, April 1, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xviii] US, Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 “Frederick H. Loring.” Accessed through Ancestry.com

[xix] The Portland Daily Press, May 26, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xx] Lady of War E, page 247

[xxi] The Portland Daily Press, May 11, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xxii] The Portland Daily Press, May 19, 1864, Page 2. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xxiii] The Portland Daily Press, June 3, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xxiv] Vermont Chronicle, Saturday, June 18, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xxv] The Portland Daily Press, June 13, 1864. Accessed through Newspapers.com

[xxvi] Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, May 13, 1864, Page 2. Access through Newspapers.com

[xxvii] John W. Haley, edited by Ruth L. Silliker, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer (Camden: Down East Books, 1985). Pages 200-201.

3 Responses to “My Feelings May Be Imagined When I Saw Him…In Pain”: Caring For Wounded Friends during the Battle of The Wilderness

  1. Sarah beautiful, I was at the Wilderness this morning at the same time that General Wadsworth and Major Abbott were wounded along the Orange Plank Road. And kept thinking about Abbott who was evacuated to a hospital about a mile to the rear of Hancock’s line. Sad the fate of those known and sadder still the fate of the unknowns now interred in Fredericksburg National cemetery and those “who crumbled into Mother Earth, unburied and unknown.” Walt Whitman, “Memorandum
    During the War.” He thought Armory Square the least caring of the Washington Hospitals.

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