Sure, there were tons of famous and some not so famous or more infamous skirmishes and battles for the South. The small piece of hilly terrain in somewhere eastern Kentucky butted us right into the mountain crevasse and the elements where hell. Three pair of socks at least every 6 hours of you could lose your toes to the black. Frostbite, famine and of course the enemy made our lives hell.
Our supply line had been broken miles back and ammo was becoming scarce as I witnessed men fastening their bayonets in lieu of what was surely to come. The air was quiet; the morning thick with dew and mist, whence even the squirrels had retreated this ominous morning. Every man knew it. No scuttle-butt pep talk from any Sgt. was going to shake the fear from these men, the Yanks waited only beyond the trees and the gully they currently formed in, probably breaking fast and applying their wares of death and terror. Oh God the waiting, the long tiring….on edge like a worm on a hook…waiting.
When dawn could give little more the drums and artillery started the barrage. Dirt, trees and men flew willy-nilly into the ditches and saplings surrounding us in the tight gulley. We struggled valiantly to bring our muzzles around and plant aim for just one enemy. The cyclones of impacted mortar fire churned the dirt relentlessly making visibility near zero at times. I crawled to the the parabola of the ditch, feeling exposed and indeed so, nonetheless I saw one: a Union soldier running full speed, bayonet fastened and leveled as he charged our embankment.
I brought the old muzzle loader around remembered my breathing as a shell exploded at what seemed only feet to my right, throwing me clear and no longer did I see the charging soldier. Now I had problems, well one problem…my right leg was mangled. The artillery shell had done its job and now mobility was impossible. Grasping the rifle and it’s one shot close to his chest he reached for the loose bayonet and managed to attach it upon the end of his rifle, and not a second to soon! Suddenly perhaps even the tenacious Union officer had persevered and dived over the fox hill embankment with murder and hate in his eyes, also there was a little fear, if I remember correctly. I raised my rifle in reflexive terror that did not mimic any form of ‘training’ he had received, this was brutal survival. The bayonet pierced into the diving officers exposed chest, his own bayonet plunging into the dirt inches from the Southie.
Out of raw fear and reflex, as the officer lie plunged, gravity his nemesis….the Southie shot the rifles payload. Surprisingly considering the early damp conditions the rifle bucked it’s flint and with a deafening ka-boom created an exit wound in the officer the size of a watermelon. The enemy was dead, but his leg was beginning to succumb to shock and there they were to pull him back from the lines…the corpsman. The General or Colonel of the Southern unit was able to break the back of the Northern hasty invading force allowing many southern casualties to be brought back behind the lines for ‘medical treatment. For all his lucid happiness to be alive and rescued, the trip was painful and no laudanum nor liquor was spared for his pain.
He lay in a row of patients in order of trauma and need. He was third, if the dr. didn’t break for potatoes, a smoke, or a much needed rest. No one wants to wait, no one is in a hurry, and no one wants a tired cranky doctor to amputate their body parts, yet he knew that was exactly what was coming. The non-discreet pile of sawed off bloody appendages still wearing their uniforms piled high as a man behind the surgical tent. And oh god the smell…so putrid, the flies and it seemed like pestilences waiting room….and so it was.
The surgeon sat on an old stump scarfing down a dry sandwich with dry bloody hands, besmirched in a bloody apron not very unlike a butcher back home. His hair was thinning and his brows were generous, but cruel or perhaps just jaded. He was large and over- weight, but he carried his weight like of an asset rather than a liability. An orderly stopped and quickly whispered something into his ear a s he polished off the sad sandwich and he nodded and stood to stretch to his full monstrous size. Maybe he just seemed so big from down here. They came and got Al, now I;m second in line and I really want to keep my foot. I prayed for the first time in 3 months as artillery shells exploded in the distance.
An old veteran sometime in the night left a small whittled crutch beneath my slumbering shoulder. I woke up and I was next. The orderly declared the wound, the most likely form of treatment, and desperately shot me a small weak smile while telling me, “ you are gonna be ok friend.” They lifted the litter and towards that house of horrors I was brought.
The surgeon did not look rested or in good spirits. I tensed immediately causing my pain to nearly and blessedly take me away from this, alas…it did not. I glanced at the tray of barely washed blood soaked instruments and used towels…I retched…then I saw the bonesaw…
Within in seconds I had been deposited on an operating gurney quite unceremoniously, followed by an emotionless, “Sorry buddy…” I glanced and gazed about. It was all they had said it was and worse. Screams, missing portions of living men, and so much blood. Dry blood, floor-soaking puddles and stains everywhere. This was a true charnel house. Within moments several orderlies insisting they were trying to help me held me down. I was powerless, even through the excruciating pain he couldn’t muster an inch of wiggle room…and the reason for this was unfortunately visible.
The ‘butcher’ stepped in drying his hands on a dry blood stained towel and immediately seized the menacing bonesaw from the soaking bucket.
“What’da we got her’? Another limb?” the surgeon muttered as he struck a match and lit a stub of an old cigar.
“Yes sir doctor. Lower right extremity no chance of saving the foot sir.” The nurse responded.
“Ok, lemme take a look corpsman.” The surgeon grimaced and nodded his head,
“Let’s do this. Hold him down…and good this time!” the surgeon said with exasperation.
Oh god! He’s going to cut off my foot and I can’t protest nor stop him. I’m pinned like claustrophobia, buried alive, unable to move….then it begins.
The first cut just saws the flesh right into the sinew and nerve clusters, the doctor dictated as he worked on me. As if I wanted to hear this. But even more so was the grind each time he would saw into the mangled leg bone. How deep was he at this point, surely just one or two more passes of the saw and the worst would be past, if infection didn’t kill him. Then a horror more terrible than he could have ever imagined….The surgeon, in order to avoid a major artery had to re-saw an inch higher to ensure the patients lack of blood loss and possible survival. After the mistake was overheard and the third sawing grind with the dull bonesaw, the southie found sweet solace in unconsciousness.
When he awoke the first thought beyond the speed of pain was the thought that mere yards away his leg and foot sat indiscriminately on a massive pile of appendages. Ready for the flames of tomorrow and the next set of casualties.
He closed his eyes, thanked someone for the bottle of opium, and cried as he fell into sweet, warm, addictive safety.
Sometime later he awoke to the fever and the tent flaps blustered with the cold Kentucky air. Through the burlap he heard thanks being given to the local pig butcher for helping out with the casualties. I thought I smelled the faint odor of a chewed cigar.