Struck by a Confederate bullet, Samuel Wing decided to walk rather than ride to a military hospital.
That decision saved his life.
A self-described “poor” Aroostook County farmer with “a young wife and two small children,” Wing was swept up by the national draft in 1863. Too proud to “skedaddle” across the border to Canada, Wing essentially abandoned his farm and moved his family “back to the old homestead in Phillips” so his wife could “go to her folks and stay with them while I was away.”
Summoned to join Co. H. 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment in Virginia, Wing “spent two weeks with father, mother, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors, and after this I was going to Dixie’s land, perhaps never to return.
“I will not try to depict the parting scene” as he said “farewell” to his wife, children, relatives, and friends. “Those who have had a like experience know too well the feeling of leaving the loved ones with so little prospect of a return, yet trusting that all will come out well in their case at least.”
So the drafted Wing reported to the 3rd Maine, which in May 1864 marched south into central Virginia as the Army of the Potomac began the Overland Campaign planned by Ulysses Simpson Grant. During an incredible blood-letting orgy, by mid-June the confident, well-manned, and well-equipped Army of the Potomac would suffer 50,000 casualties.
Men did not know what day that a bullet or cannonball would find them. For Samuel Wing, that day was May 12.
The 3rd Maine boys “were ordered to get ready without lights or noise” hours before dawn on that rainy Thursday, according to Wing. The rain darkened the dawn as “we were taken across fields and swamps and through the woods, without any roads” into the godforsaken Wilderness. Soldiers often “plunged into water nearly knee-deep.”
A jumbled second-growth forest, The Wilderness offered Grant’s troops few roads upon which to maneuver; heavy growth limited straight-line sight. If the Army of the Potomac could push quickly south into open countryside, the Union boys could probably turn the right flank of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and actually cut off that Robert E. Lee-led army from Richmond.
Lee would have to fight in the open, where the Union’s superior numbers could destroy his men. But Lee struck Grant very hard in The Wilderness; there the savage fighting spread through a forest as thick as any coastal spruce-fir forest in Down East Maine.
Company H deployed “just in front of a belching [cannon] battery” and protected the valuable guns against Confederate infantry, according to Wing. He fired at times; about 2 p.m. an officer ordered Company H to cease fire, and Wing left his firing position.
Confederate troops soon started shooting, so Wing returned “to the place I had left. As I arrived and thought to turn, a bullet struck me in the right arm near the shoulder, just above the armpit.
“This caused” the startled Wing to experience “a numbness, which felled me to the ground. I did not ask any one to assist me but succeeded in my efforts to crawl on my hands and knees … five or ten rods (82 to 165 feet),” then “my numbness had somewhat worked off.”
Two soldiers helped Wing reach a field hospital “about a half mile distant.” There the surgeons, busy with men showing blatant wounds, did not examine Wing and “only tied a cloth around my arm and sent me to the general hospital … about two miles away.”
Wing reached this hospital on foot. “There the doctors examined my wound carefully and picked out some pieces of cloth” from his uniform. The doctors told Wing he had been wounded in his right shoulder; they declined to remove the bullet.
Turning to one surgeon, “I told him my shoulder felt all right, but that I felt very badly in my chest and lungs,” Wing said. “He thought that that must be a sympathetic pain, caused by the nerves running from the shoulder to the side, and that it would be all right in a few days.”
Wing lay down for the night on straw spread inside a tent. He had not eaten for almost 24 hours, but “the bullet had taken all hunger away.”
He learned on Saturday, May 14 that he would be evacuated to Fredericksburg, where thousands of wounded soldiers already filled the churches and schools and spilled into private homes. Informed that he could sit in an ambulance for the 12-mile journey to Fredericksburg, “I concluded to walk” as “the jar of the ambulance would be too much for me.
“The wound was not bleeding enough to weaken” the physically tough Wing, who “threw away a good pair of boots … sent me from home” and donned “a pair of shoes because they were lighter. Then I tore off the ragged bottoms of my pants up to about the knees, in order to get rid of the weight of mud hanging to them.”
Abandoning his canteen, haversack, knapsack “and all other equipments of war,” Wing walked on the long road to Fredericksburg. Ambulances carrying “poor men who had been severely wounded” passed him, and Wing soon realized he had been smart to walk.
“These poor wounded soldiers were loaded into [often spring-less] ambulances and carried from five to fifty miles over … rough and racking roads,” he noticed. “It was awful. I was on a piece of corduroy road when an ambulance passed me.
“It was enough to make one’s blood run cold to hear those poor fellows shriek and moan, as they were jolted up and down over those logs,” he remembered the horrible screams emanating from the ambulance. “And when the wagon left the corduroy, it would often drop into a mud slough that would almost overturn it.
“Those very sounds I will never forget,” said Wing, a Christian by belief. “I could truly say that I thank the Lord that he had spared me from such a fate and had given me the strength enough to creep or crawl, instead of having to ride.
“I have no doubt but that thousands died, who would have lived, if they had not been subjected to such an ordeal,” Wing concluded.
He survived the war and learned decades later that a Confederate bullet had lodged in his right lung after chipping a right rib. Wing had long since figured that the object “which has been in motion with every breath” he took since May 12, 1864 must be a bullet.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.