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Excerpt from Dr. John Hill Brinton's Personal Memoirs

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Excerpt from Dr. John Hill Brinton's Personal Memoirs


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Brinton, John H. Personal Memories of John H. Brinton, Major and Surgeon U.S.V. 1861-1865. (New York: Neale Publishing, 1914), 267-274. Transcribed by John Hennessy.



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In the early part of May, active preparations were begun by the Army of the Potomac, and Grant moved forward on the memorable Wilderness campaign, which ended in the capture of Richmond, the surrender of Lee, and the overthrow of the Rebellion. On the 3rd or 4th of May, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, and the terrific series of battles commenced. For forty days men fell by the thousands, telegraphic communication from Washington with the army ceased, and at first it was found impossible to communicate with the wounded or to transport them to Washington or to northern hospitals.

On the 9th of May, 1864, I received orders to go to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and to report for surgical duty to the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. On the same day, I was directed by another order to take charge of the battle supplies placed on board the steamers "State of Maine" and "Connecticut", and have them delivered at Fredericksburg, Virginia, for the use of the wounded at that place. In giving me these orders, the acting Surgeon-General Barnes told me verbally, "Doctor, our losses have been enormous, the wounded are by thousands, we don't know where they are and so far all attempts to send them supplies have failed. Take these supplies on board the steamers and get them forwarded at any hazard and at any loss. If you cannot deliver all, deliver one-half; if not that much, deliver what you can; wounded are suffering for them, and do the best you can. The Secretary of War authorizes you through me to take possession in his name any and all wagon trains to transport these supplies to Fredericksburg. Give what orders you please in his name for this purpose."

Accordingly, I went down with these steamers to Belle Plain on the Potomac Creek. The steamers carried an immense amount of medical supplies, - hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth. A corps of engineers and bridge builders were on board and these were directed to give me every possible support and assistance in landing the supplies, when I was to look out for myself, and to get proper protection and transportation from the army to which I was to deliver them. Arriving in Belle Plain, I found a shallow, muddy shore, no wharf, no landing. The engineers immediately built caissons or cribs of timbers, some of which they brought with them and some of which they cut. These were sunken in the shallow water and timbers and trees stretched between so as to form a sort of roadway over which the supplies could be carried safely to land. The landing was overlooked by higher ground, and it was necessary to place guards for the protection of the precious supplies. I learned that the road from Belle Plain to Fredericksburg, ten or twelve miles distant, was infested with guerillas, and that no bridge existed at Fredericksburg. I had no force by which to send forward my supplies, and it was necessary for me to go forward myself to obtain wagons and guards. To avoid guerillas on the road, I determined to walk along the edge of the woods at a safe distance from the road, and this I did in a pouring rain, which wet me so thoroughly that my pocket case of instruments was dissolved by the wet and instruments huddled loose in my pocket. The inclement weather protected me from the guerillas, who were not very active just then, and arriving within a mile or two of Fredericksburg, I met a small body of cavalry, who were going to Belle Plain with a few wagons in search of quartermaster stores and ammunition. Acting under my verbal orders, I took possession of these wagons in spite of the most vehement protests and threats, and I walked back to Belle Plain, loaded up the wagon train with medical stores, and sent them forward on May 10th under Assistant Surgeon Brinton Stone with instructions to get through as many of them as possible to Fredericksburg. He was a daring, persevering man, and started without escort, but with the wagons. His train became separated in two sections, the front one of which, consisting of a very few wagons, reached Fredericksburg. The latter section, and he himself, were captured by Captain Mosby, a "guerilla," that is, an independent ranger, with from 50 to 200 troopers, acting under his own orders, hanging on the rear of our armies, capturing scouts, peddlers, wanderers, wagon-trains, and all stragglers. He was a veritable "moss-trooper," annoying us a great deal, but never preventing any serious movement.

The wagons and contents were carried off, and Stone himself was obliged to accompany Mosby for a whole night. Mosby to a fancy to him and in the morning said, "Doctor, if you will give me your word of honor not to say for twenty-four hours where you have been, who has captured you, or anything whatever that you have heard or seen, I will let you go." Stone give the promise, a man was detailed to accompany him back to the road, and he was set free, having been provided with a rather shabby horse in place of his own fine one. He reported to me, stating in general terms what happened, bu sedulously keeping his word and not violating the parole.

The train of wagons under Assistant Surgeon Brinton Stone was followed by a train from the Sanitary Commission. On the afternoon of the same day, May 10th, I sent forward a second supply train under Surgeon Homiston, to Fredericksburg. Stone and Homiston reported back to me at Belle Plain on the 11th of May.

By this time the wagons had begun to arrive from the army containing many slightly wounded men, among others my cousin Charles Coxe, who had been wounded in the arm at Todd's Tavern. I then forwarded the supply trains as fast as I could to Fredericksburg. Additional supplies were being received form Washington and soon Sanitary and Christian Commissioners arrived in great numbers. I had no quarters for these gentlemen, and at night I was obligated to let them sleep on a canal boat filled with blankets. Lights were forbidden. Stone, whom I instructed to make them comfortable, reported to me early in the morning that he was afraid there but be a good many dead Christians in the hold of the boat, "Because," he said, "I had to close the hatch to keep the stores from being damaged." Fortunately, they had plenty of air, and slept comfortably in the blankets.

A favorite trick of the Sanitary Commission agents was to ride forward with a wagon or two under the protection of a military train until the lines of safety were reached; then as their own wagons were usually better horsed than those of the Medical Department, they would whip out from the line, pass the front, open their supplies (usually of lemons and canned fruit) and the next day's New York Herald or some such paper would announce that "as usual the Sanitary Commission was first on the ground to assist our wounded boys."

In a train sent forward under Stone's command, an obnoxious Sanitarian with a four-horse light wagon of lemons and crackers, asked protection and escort, to which I acceded. As they started, Stone whispered to me, "I don't think that Sanitarian will be the first to Fredericksburg." He afterwords told me, with a chuckle, that unfortunately the linch-pin came out of the sanitary wheel right in the midst of a deep creak fording, and that the last he saw of the Sanitary Commissioners was that they were soused in the swollen stream. He said nobody was to blame; but the teamsters, I heard, were very merry over the mishap.

Belle Plain was now established as the depot for the army, and having arranged matters at this place I went forward with a supply train on May 13, 1864, to Fredericksburg, which I found filled with wounded, a train of sex or seven hundred wagonfuls having arrived from the front. Having reported by letter to the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, I wrote by the same messenger to Captain Mason of the Fifth Cavalry, asking him to send me one or two orderlies, a pack horse, and a horse for myself. The pack horse, I told him I would load with a couple of kegs of Army Museum whiskey (cherry brandy), which I had taken the precaution to bring with me. In due time, horses and men arrived, and with Kelly, the trooper, I started for General Grant's headquarters, wherever they might be. The kegs were neatly slung on the backs of the pack horses, and Kelly assured me that they and I were anxiously awaited at headquarters.

We passed over the old battlefield, over Marye's Heights, through the old Confederate defenses and out through the woods and wilderness region, in search of headquarters. It was all very lonely, nobody could be seen, and there hardly seemed to be a bird in the woods. At least, and just as we were in doubt which way we were to go, whom should I meet but my friend and distant relative Colonel Joe Brinton of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He gave me the general bearings, and I and my trooper rode on, the road becoming more and more silent and we advanced. Finally, after two or three hour's riding, we came to a fine old deserted mansion with broken greenhouses attached. There was a little clearing of woods here, and somehow or other, I felt that were were off our track, wandering in space as it were. The more I looked, the more and more I was convinced that were were entirely wrong, so we retraced our steps and finally after much devious wandering, reached General Grant's headquarters, where I was kindly welcomed.

After a while, General Grant asked me to take a seat by him some twenty yards in front of his tent, as he said he wanted to talk to me. I remember that he was smoking a big pipe. He spoke to me of old time. Just then Rawlins reported to him that one or two large regiments of heavy artillery were approaching. They were the soldiers who had garrisoned the defences of Washington, and had been converted and armed as infantry and sent to the front. He pointed to them approaching on the road to the left. The General remarked, "Order them in" (the 6th New York Artillery and I think, a Massachusetts regiment); they immediately advanced under fire, and took an active part in the contest, which I have omitted to state was taking place to the left of the General's headquarters. They advanced in a line which seemed to me to melt as it went on, so fierce was the fire. As darkeness fell, the firing ceased and after a while Rawlins, the Chief of Staff, approached General Grant and advised him that the details of the day's fight were coming in over the telegraph. "How does it stand," said the General; the answer was, "We have lost about" so many, "the enemy have lost" so many, mentioning a greater number. "Ah!" said the General, "then we are still gaining on them, still a little ahead."


I may state that the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, Surgeon McParlin, had assigned me by letter on the 13th of May, to duty as Medical Purveyor of the Army. I explained to the General that it was not the intention of the Surgeon-General to put me on permanent duty; that I had my work at Washington to finish. He laughed and said, "We must keep you here, so that we can get plenty of castor oil." However, he directed my order changed, so that on the morning of the 15th, I was able to return to Fredericksburg, finish up the business of the supplies, see what surgery I could, and having thus fulfilled my order of delivering the battlefield supplies, betook myself to Washington in accordance with my instructions from the Acting-Surgeon-General. On the 22nd of May, I was back at my old duties in the office.



"Excerpt from Dr. John Hill Brinton's Personal Memoirs," in Fredericksburg: City of Hospitals, Item #66, https://projects.umwhistory.org/cwh/items/show/66 (accessed October 23, 2021).

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