Perhaps the best advice that an Army surgeon could have offered Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard late on May 31, 1862, was, “Take two bullets and call me in the morning.”
On May 25, two Union corps crossed Virginia’s Chickahominy River to occupy Seven Pines, a crossroads village, and Fair Oaks Station, a rural stop on the Richmond & York River Railroad “five or six miles from Richmond,” Howard wrote in his postwar memoirs.
Confederate patrols probed the Union lines on Thursday, May 29, and Friday, May 30, as Howard and his brigade camped east of the river.
“Now came during that [Friday] night a most terrific storm,” Howard wrote. “The rain fell in torrents and it was accompanied by high winds. It was difficult to keep our tents standing and in that peculiarly soft soil the mud deepened and the discomforts were beyond description.”
“The Chickahominy, during the fearful succession of storm bursts, had risen and spread rapidly over all the low ground till the stream had become a broad river,” he recalled.
Gen. Joseph Johnston, the senior Confederate commander, realized that the flooding river had effectively trapped the two Union corps at Seven Pines. On Saturday, May 31, he launched “an assault [that] was so abrupt and overwhelming” that many Union troops “scattered off to the rear,” Howard wrote.
The desperate battle continued all day; among the reinforcements hustled westward to cross the Chickahominy was Howard’s brigade, comprising the 5th New Hampshire Infantry, the 61st New York Infantry, the 64th New York Infantry and the 81st Pennsylvania Infantry.
Howard and his men would cross the river on an Army bridge already “starting to float off with the water.” His brigade finally “approached the front” as “a thick mist was setting on and a dark, cloudy sky was over our heads, so that it was not easy at twenty yards to distinguish a man from a horse.”
Howard had sent Lt. Nelson A. Miles, a future Indian Wars commander, to find where the 1st Brigade should deploy. Miles met Howard “near the edge of a swampy opening over which the Confederates had charged and been swept back by the countercharge.”
“General, you had better dismount and lead your horses, for the dead and wounded are here,” Miles told Howard.
“A peculiar feeling crept over me as I put feet on the soft ground and followed” Miles, Howard remembered. “A few friends were searching for faces they hoped not to find. There were cries of delirium, calls of the helpless, the silence of the slain, and the hum of distant voices in the advancing brigade.”
Howard moved his brigade into position that night. “As soon as it was light” on Sunday, June 1, the 5th New Hampshire crossed the railroad tracks near Fair Oaks Station and occupied the adjacent woods. Minor fighting took place, and the Granite State boys soon rejoined the 1st Brigade.
Then Confederate infantry struck the Union lines, and the Battle of Seven Pines resumed. Advancing Confederates struck the 81st Pennsylvania and fired a deadly volley. The Pennsylvanians rallied, and now Howard advanced with his two New York regiments: the 61st on the right and the 64th on the left.
Confederate bullets “cutting through the trees” struck the New Yorkers and punched a hole through the shoulder of Howard’s brown horse. Howard dismounted and saw that his men, enduring “their first experience under fire,” were starting to break.
He “mounted my large gray horse” and “placed myself, mounted, in front of the” 64th New York Infantry. Howard’s aide and younger brother, Lt. Charles Howard, sat on a horse “in front of” the 61st New York.
“Every field officer was ordered to repeat each command,” Oliver Otis Howard remembered. First he shouted, “Forward!” Then he shouted, “March!”
“I could hear the echo of these words and, as I started, the Sixty-fourth followed me with a glad shout up the slope and through the woods,” Howard recalled. “The Sixty-first followed my brother at the same time.
“We moved forward finely, taking many prisoners as we went and gaining ground,” he wrote.
Then “a small Mississippi rifle ball” hit Howard’s right forearm. Moments later Charlie Howard “ran to me on foot and said that … [his] horse was killed. He took a handkerchief, bound up my arm, and then ran back to the Sixty-first.”
Oliver Otis Howard advanced the New York regiments until they recaptured the abandoned Federal camps at Seven Pines.
“Behind those tents was found a stronger force of Confederates, kneeling and firing,” he wrote.
Both sides unleashed murderous volleys at a distance of “thirty or forty yards,” Howard recalled. He rode behind the deployed New Yorkers about 10:30 a.m.; then a bullet shattered his horse’s left foreleg, and “though I was not aware of it, I had been wounded again, my right elbow having been shattered by a rifle shot.”
“Without flinching,” the New Yorkers “were firing back” as Howard passed command to Col. Francis Barlow of the 61st New York. Then soldiers took the severely wounded Howard to where Dr. Gabriel Grant “was operating under fire beside a large stump.”
Grant “bound up my arm [and] I found my brother shot through the thigh, just able to limp along by using his empty scabbard as a cane.” Grant dressed Charlie Howard’s wound and ordered him onto a stretcher.
“I preferred to walk” to a field hospital set up near Fair Oaks Station, Oliver Otis Howard recalled.
“Dr. Hammond, my personal friend, met me near the” field hospital about 11 a.m. and examined Howard’s shattered right arm. Hammond reported that “the last ball had passed through the elbow joint and crushed the bones into small fragments,” Howard wrote.
Confined briefly to a bed in occupied slave quarters, Howard listened as Hammond, a Dr. Palmer, “and several others … stood by my bedside in consultation.”
“At last Dr. Palmer, with serious face, kindly told me that my arm had better come off,” Howard recalled.
“All right, go ahead. Happy to lose only my arm,” he responded.
Not until 5 p.m. did Palmer appear “with four stout soldiers and a significant stretcher,” Howard wrote. Once his patient was supine on the stretcher, Palmer tightened a tourniquet “around the arm close to the shoulder … above the wound.
“Then they bore me to the amputating room, a place a little grewsome (sic) withal from arms, legs, and hands not yet all carried off and poor fellows with anxious eyes awaiting their turn,” Howard wrote.
The hospital orderlies placed Howard “on the long table,” Dr. Grant loosened the tourniquet, and “a mixture of chloroform and gas was administered and I slept quietly,” Howard noted.
“Dr. Palmer amputated the arm above the elbow. When I awoke I was surprised to find the heavy burden was gone, but was content and thankful,” he wrote.
After sunrise on Monday, June 2, the doctors discharged the brothers Howard. They traveled to Lewiston, where “the whole population appeared to have turned out to greet us,” Oliver Otis recalled years later. He endured “words of welcome and appreciation” before crossing the Androscoggin River to “meet my little family after more than a year’s separation.”
Elizabeth and the children were ecstatic to welcome home their wounded warrior.
“Sweet, indeed, was the rest of a few subsequent days when we enjoyed the nursing and comforts of home,” Howard remembered.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.