Gettysburg: "While Lying Here Entirely Helpless"

Sketch of an eagle spreading its wings with a banner in its mouth

Lieutenant Charles A. Fuller served in the 61st New York Infantry Regiment. On July 2, 1863, while fighting in The Wheatfield during the Battle of Gettysburg, he was badly wounded in the shoulder and leg. Later, Fuller described his experience getting off the battlefield and to a field hospital in his memoirs. He survived the war, but Gettysburg was his last battle.


We were in this wheatfield and the grain stood almost breast high. The Rebs had their slight protection, but we were in the open, without a thing better than a wheat straw to catch a Minnie bullet that weighed an ounce. Of course, our men began to tumble. They lay where they fell, or, if able, started for the rear. Near to me I saw a man named Daily go down, shot through the neck. I made a movement to get his gun, but at that moment I was struck in the shoulder. It did not hurt and the blow simply caused me to step back. I found that I could not work my arm, but supposed that hurt was a flesh wound that had temporarily paralyzed it, and that it was not serious enough to justify my leaving the fighting line. So, I remained and did what I could in directing the firing. Sometime after this, I felt a blow on the left leg, and it gave way, so that I knew the bone was broken. This stroke did not hurt, and I did not fall, but turned around and made a number of hops to the rear, when my foot caught in the tangled grain and I went down full length. While lying here entirely helpless, and hearing those vicious bullets singing over my head, I suffered from fear. I had, as most men do, got over the dread of battle after I was once fairly in it, and was enjoying the excitement, but when I was "done for" as a fighter , and could only lie in that zone of danger, waiting for other bullets to plow into my body, I confess it was with the greatest dread. While so lying and dreading, in some way, I knew that two men were going to the rear. I yelled out to them, "Drag me back." They heeded the order, or entreaty, and one man grabbed one arm, and the other man the other arm, and they started back with me between them, not on any funeral gait, but almost on a run. My right arm was sound, but the left one was broken at the shoulder joint, and on that side it was pulling on the cords and meat. I wobbled  much as a cut of wood drawn by two cords would have. These men pulled me back in this fashion for a number of rods, and until I thought they had pulled me over a rise of ground like a cradle knoll, when I shouted, "Drop me" and they dropped, and went on without note or comment. I had a tourniquet in my haversack, and with my one serviceable arm, I worked away till I got it out, and did the best I could to get it around my leg, for anything I knew I was bleeding to death, and, if possible, I wanted to check the flow of blood. I think my effort did not amount to much. After a time the firing tapered down to occasional shots. Of course, I did not know who was on top. Certainly no body of our men had fallen back near my bivouac. In a short time I heard a line of battle advancing from the rear. As the men came in sight I sang out, "Don't step on me, boys!" Those in range of me stepped over and on they went, to take their medicine. . . . 

After a while I was aware that a skirmish line was coming from the front, and soon discovered that the skirmishers were not clothed in blue. The officer in command was mounted and rode by within a few feet of me. . . . This fighting was not severe and a short time after these gentlemen in gray moved back in the same manner they had advanced, greatly to my relief. I did not fancy remaining their guest for any length of time.

As the Rebs went back, a nice looking young fellow, small of stature, with bright black eye, whose face was smutted up with powder and smoke, came along where I lay. My sword was on the ground beside me. He picked it up, and said, "Give me that scabbard!" I said "Johnny, you will have to excuse me, as my arm is broken and I can't unbuckle my belt." He made no comment, but went off with my sword. Then matters quieted down, and there was no sound to be heard in that vicinity, except the groanings of the wounded. As long as I lay perfectly quiet, I was not in much pain, but if I attempted to stir the pain was severe. I had heard that wounded men always suffered from thirst, but I was not specially thirsty, and I wondered at it. I did not have any desire to groan, and take on, as many about me were doing. So I wondered if I were really badly hurt, and if I could groan, if I wanted to. I determined to try it, and drew in a good breath, and let our a full grown-man groan. I was satisfied with the result and then kept quiet. this action on my part will read like a performance of a simpleton, and I would not record it, but for the fact that it was the freak and experience of one man, helpless on the battlefield. These personal experiences are, of course, less often written about than are the general movements of troops in battle accounts. . . . 

I think it must have been about midnight—for hours I had heard no sound but the groanings of the men lying on the field about me. All at once I heard a voice. It came from the mouth of Phil Comfort, a private of Co. A. Phil had always been one of the incorrigibles. He would get drunk, and brawl, and fight on the slightest provocation, but he also had the credit of doing much for the wounded of the regiment. I do not know what Phil's business was. . . . but I made haste to call Phil up to me. He responded to my call, and in a moment was staring down on me in the starlight. He said, "why Lieutenant that's you, ain't it!" I admitted the allegation, and said I wanted to get out of here. He replied that he would go for a man and stretcher, and return as soon as possible, and off he went. Before long he was back with man and stretcher, and after much working they got me loaded and started for a point at which the ambulances were assembling. I was set down in the dooryard of a house built of hewed logs, whitewashed. . . . 

After an hour's waiting, I was loaded into an ambulance without taking me from my stretcher. This was fortunate for me, as I kept it until it was swapped for a new one two weeks later. The stretcher kept me from the ground, and was an important factor in my recovery. A man was placed beside me shot through the body. He was in an agony of pain, and it was impossible for him to restrain his groans. When the ambulance started, it went anywhere but in a good road, and as it bumped over logs and boulders, my broken leg would thresh about like the mauler of a flail. I found it necessary to keep it in place by putting the other one over it. At last we stopped and were unloaded. It was still dark, but in due time light broke in the East, and a little later I could roll my head and take in some of the surroundings. Most of the wounded of the regiment had been gathered at this place, and we made by far the largest part of it. Many of the men were so hurt that they could move about, and they all came and made me an early morning call. After a time two of our regimental doctors appeared. They cut open my trousers leg, found where the bullet went in, and, I think, put a strip of adhesive plaster over the wound, and they did the same with the shoulder. It was clear to my mind that the leg, at least, must come off. I expressed my opinion and said, I though t it would be better to do it at once, than to wait till inflammation set in. At my earnest request they promised me that they would see to it that I should be among the first operated on. . . . 

After a time the division operating table was set up in the edge of a piece of timber not very far away. I was on the watch, expecting every minute to be taken out, but I waited and waited and no one came for me. I became quite impatient at this dely. I saw one after another brought on, carried up, and taken away, and I was not called for. At last I asked my friend Porter E. Whitney and another man to take me down to the table. . . . The men set me down as nearly under the noses of the doctors as could be, and, if something hadn't happened, I presume in a few minutes that heretofore good left leg would have made one of the fast growing pile; but about that interesting moment for me, the enemy began to drop shells that exploded in and about the locality. It was not a fit place to pursue surgical operations. the doctors knew it, so they hastily gathered up their knives and saws, and moved to a place where those projectiles did not drop. The two friends who had taken me there, picked up my stretcher and started for a like place. We had to move several times before the greatest artillery duel of the War began. . . . 

During the day friends occasionally poured water on my wounds, which, doubtless, kept the swelling down. . . . The boys who were toting me came to a stone house with a wide piazza clear around it. I was laid on the floor of it, which made a hard med. I ached in every bone, but there was nothing to do but "grin and bear it". . . . 

I had eaten nothing since the morning of the day before, and was faint. Some of our drummer boys found a bin of ground oats, and they made gruel that tasted good, and I made quite a meal of it. That evening about 10 o'clock, an ambulance came for me, and I was taken to the ground selected for the 2d corps hospital. It was another rough ride across lots. Once there I was taken out of my stretcher, the one Phil Comfort took me off the field on, and taken at once to the operating table. A napkin was formed into a tunnel shape, a liberal supply of chloroform poured into it and the thing placed over my nose and mouth. I was told to take in long breaths. To me it seemed a long time before the effect came, probably it was a short time, but at last my head seemed to grow big and spin around. At this stage I remember a doctor had his fingers in the wound in the shoulder and said to the others "Here is a fine chance for a resection." I did not know what that meant, but learned afterwards. when I came to myself, I looked down far enough to see a quantity of bandage wound about a stump of a leg eight inches long. My shoulder was bound up, but otherwise not operated one. Failure to resect may have been due to the great amount of work pressing upon the surgeons. They were worked as many hours continuously as they could stand, and still many a man had to be neglected. I was taken off the table and put back on my stretcher, which was set down in a wall tent, this tent was a s full as it could be of amputated cases. For the most part the men bore their suffering without a groan. Among the number was a young Confederate officer, that had lost an arm. He probably felt that he was a good way from home, and he "took on," bemoaning his fate as a cripple and asufferer. He wore out the patience of every other man in the tent. At last I yelled out to him to shut up, or I would get up and kick him out doors. My bark was effective, and we heard no more from him. All of us were amputates, or seriously wounded. During the night a doctor came, and gave every man a dose of morphine, which produced a happy state of mind and body. As I was taken from the table one of my doctors said, "Fuller, you may drink all of the whiskey you can get, and want."

The day of the 4th we had a drenching rain. Some men out lying in low places and who could not move were, it was said, drowned. On the whole, I presume the rain was a benefit to the wounded.



Charles Augustus Fuller, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861 (Sherburne: News Job Printing House, 1906).

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