The following letter, written by Union surgeon Claiborne Walton, is one of the most powerful accounts of the suffering of surgeons during the Civil War that I have read. While I quoted it in the book, the following is a much lengthier quote, showing Walton’s exhaustion, his disgust at the carnage of war, as well as his desire to simply return home to be reunited with his wife.
Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia
June 29, 1864
My Dear Wife
I am sick. Yes sick and tired of bloodshed. Weary and worn out with it. We have been on this campaign fifty-six days and it has been almost one continued scene of carnage from day to day. I am not out of much of the groans of the wounded from morning till night. My hands are constantly steaped [sic] in blood. I have had them in blood and water so much that the nails are soft and tender. I have amputated limbs until it almost makes my heart ache to see a poor fellow coming in the ambulance to the hospital. I have not time to give you an account of the suffering of the poor soldiers of this hardest of all campaigns. To give you a faint idea of some of their sufferings I will tell you that our troops are sometimes ordered to charge the Rebel fortifications and of course many of them are killed and wounded. Occasionally our men have to fall back a short distance leaving the wounded on the ground between the lines of our troops and the enemy where they are bound to remain until we regain the ground which is sometimes a day or two. You may well suppose that their suffering is immense. They are left without water or anything else. In the broiling hot sun with Broken Bones and at the same time between the fire of both our guns and the enemies [sic]. Flies blow them and before they can possibly be removed they are often almost covered with maggots—I could tell you of many yes—of the most distressing cases of wounds. Such as arms shot off-legs shot off. Eyes shot out-brains shot out. Lungs shot through and in a word everything shot to pieces and totally maimed for all after life. The horror of this war can never be half told. Citizens at home can never know one fourth part of the misery brought about by this terrible rebellion. We have been near Kennesaw Mountain for about two weeks and still the Rebels are resisting us at every step. It is true that we have driven them back a few miles but they only fall back a few hundred yards at a time and fortify and fight us again. Sometimes they make a charge upon us we drive them back with dreadful slaughter. Day before yesterday we made a charge upon their lines. They were well fortified. We were compelled to fall back. You may well imagine that they Slaughtered our men with a vingeance [sic]. We lost in a few minutes in killed and wounded Two-Thousand—It was really distressing to see the ambulances coming in loaded with the wounded. We have three operating tables in our division and we were all busy for several hours.
Here I am writing upon the end of a cracker box. Trying to write you a letter but I am so much interrupted that I cannot do it. I have my tent out in the woods a hundred yards from the operating tent and as we sent off our wounded yesterday and there is but little fighting today I felt like it would be a very delightful task to write you one more letter. You know I have written you nothing but very short notes lately and most of them in pencil but I am so situated that I cannot write to do any good. Every Captain (and) Lieutenant that gets sick comes back to my quarters and I am crowded and perplexed. In fact I am bored and somewhat imposed upon. Here comes our most excellent Maj. J.E. Haskins to get a certificate for a leave of absence on account of sickness. I must attend to that. Here comes a man for medicine. Here comes a man to get me to visit a wounded Lt. in my ward and so it goes—Well well worse than all here comes Lt. Dean to get my Pack Mule and to work an ambulance. You remember that after we came back our medicine wagons were taken from us. Our ambulances were sent back to an ambulance train and we were allowed one pack mule to carry a medicine Panier. Well I used that mule to carry my blankets (and) which is the only chance I have of getting my personal affects along with. Lt. Dean of the Ambulance Train has just been here and demanded the mule to put to an ambulance. I told him to take Bill also that I could do better without both then one of them. You know now why we wear “the collar marked Sherman’s Dog” I have just six months yet to serve and then I will wear a collar marked “Nannies Property”. I would be glad if my time for these years could expire today—I do not feel like remaining the balance of my term—I have been away so much that you will not object if I got to the Senate or to Congress if I can will you? You say I will be into something when I quit the service. You can make any disposition you think proper of me—Do just as you like—I will come under Petticoat rule I shall be a happy man if we should all be spared. We were once so happy as we well could be upon Earth. We were not wealthy but what little we had was neat and tidy and done up in good style. How I long to be permitted to see her as in the days past seated at the head of the table pouring out my coffie [sic] and doing the honors of the table generally I felt all the time when I was at home like my coffie [sic] would be better if she were to pour it out and fix it for me my Nannie is a model woman.
Source: KY-1 file, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park