The Civil War, as in all armed conflicts, produced numerous ghastly wounds among the combatants. While many soldiers lost limbs or were otherwise disfigured, there were others who sustained wounds that should have been mortal. Somehow they survived. Elnathan Meade of the 44th New York was such a man.
In August 1862 Meade joined Company C of the 44th New York. He was wounded at Fredericksburg, but it was at the Wilderness where he suffered a major wound. A musket ball hit him in the temple and passed through his head. He was given little care as it was assumed he would soon die. He didn’t. Here is Meade’s experience in his own words.
Elnathan Meade’s Story
You wish me to tell how I got from the field at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5, 1864.
The first thing I remember after regaining consciousness was that I found myself between Orrin E. Watkins and Stephen P. Dye (members of my Company), with my arms over their shoulders, slowly walking down the road in the rear of the line of battle, looking for the field hospital tent for medical aid. I was almost blind, and so weak from the great loss of blood that I could not stand on my feet without help.
We soon found men with a stretcher and I was laid on it and the surgeon cut out the ball, which had passed through from my left temple and was protruding just under the skin under my right ear. After this I was carried on the stretcher a short distance to the hospital tent, which was about full of wounded, and laid down in a corner on some pine boughs for bedding.
I remained in this position until the next day before I had any attention. When it was found out that I was still alive, my face was washed in warm water and my wounds were bandaged up the best they could be under the circumstance.
The reason I was not attended to at once, as I was told afterwards, was that the surgeon told the hospital steward that I could not live an hour and he had better attend to those who had a chance to live. I remember Lieut. Orett L. Munger called to look after the boys. I was only a few feet away from Munger when I was wounded.
I can not recall to mind how long I lay on the field or how long I remained in the field hospital, but not very long before I was put in a baggage wagon (the ambulances had all been filled up with wounded), and sent to Fredericksburg, Va., and left on the sidewalk of one of the streets with many hundred others, all wounded, to stay until a place could be found for us.
A soldier of the 7th Wisconsin regiment came along and I told him in the best way I could (I could not talk loud) that I wanted to go to a place where I could get medical attention. He kindly raised me up and let me lean on his shoulders and we walked slowly along to an old factory or mill, near the river, where were one or two hundred wounded men. I was taken in and given a bed on the floor with a blanket under me. My wounds were attended to by the nurses, but I could eat nothing. All the nourishment for a few days was a teacupful of beef tea and water to drink.
Here I found Andrew Giddings, of my Company. He had lost an arm. When we had been in this place for about two weeks, getting more restless all the time to get away to better quarters, one day we both agreed to start out on foot for Acquia Creek and try to board a boat going up the Potomac to Washington, to get into one of the hospitals there where we could get better care.
Well, I made up a little bundle, a nice, fine, red woolen shirt and some handkerchiefs and stockings, that the ladies of the Christian Commission had given me, and we started; we walked in the direction of the road which we were to take. I had not walked more than five rods from the building which we left before my strength gave out entirely and I dropped down by the roadside, utterly exhausted and unable to stand up longer. Very soon two strong men with a stretcher came and placed me on it, carried me back to my old place on the floor, where I remained until I was sent to Fairfax Seminary hospital, near Alexandria, Va., thence to Mower General Hospital, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pa.
Giddings walked on and was fortunate in getting on a farmer’s wagon and reached Acquia Creek, where he got passage on a boat and got to Washington and found good quarters in some one of the hospitals of the city. He has been dead many years. He was a brave and good soldier.
I was discharged on Surgeon’s certificate of disability and left the service the last of October, 1864, and went back to New York, on the farm, to regain my health and strength, and later came to Washington to accept a Government position.
Washington, D.C., November 11, 1909
Meade survived the war despite his terrible wound. In 1881 he was appointed to a clerkship in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. Six years later, he married Lizzie Lindsley, a union which brought them a daughter. In August 1888, by a special act of Congress, Meade’s military pension was raised from $24 to $45 a month. In assessing Meade’s condition, Dr. T. B. Hood, chief of the medical division of the Pension Office, stated that Meade’s sight in his left eye had been destroyed by the wound and his right eye was also slightly affected. He was unable to chew, forcing him to live on a liquid diet and he carried a wood wedge with him to pry his jaw open.
Though he faced these great difficulties, Elnathan Meade lived a long life. He died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in November 1938, at the age of 93. He survived 74 years after the wound that a surgeon thought would kill him in a matter of hours.