- Historic Sites
Asa Smith Leaves The War
AN AMERICAN HERITAGE ORIGINAL DOCUMENT Edited and with an introduction
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
As they could do no more and the sound told us that a battle was raging, they left for the front after expressing great sympathy for me. After proceeding a short distance, Benton retraced his steps and offered me his blanket and tin cup. I tried to persuade him to keep them, as I knew that I was unable to carry them, but he threw them down at my feet and departed, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
I remained here for a short time, when I heard that there were a large number of sick and wounded in a ravine some distance above, so I started and was fortunate enough to be directed to the place.
I found there some 1,500 (so I was told), mostly from the 3rd Corps, and began to look about for help. Finally I found Captain James Mason of Co. B, whom I had known before the war. He interested himself, and soon brought Brigadier Surgeon Richard Salter to see me.
Dr. Salter said that he could do nothing for me, telling the captain that I could not live 48 hours. The captain urged him, when he said that he was upon the sick list himself, and was not able for duty; that he had no anesthetics and no instruments with the exception of a small pocket case, and but few bandages, which he felt that he ought to keep as he might save someone’s life with them, while they would do me no good.
The captain then asked him as a personal favor to do what he could, saying the he had known me before my enlistment; upon which the doctor said he did not think I could survive the operation; but as the captain was persistent the doctor asked me if I thought I could stand it, and knowing that it was my only chance, [I] nodded my head as I was unable to talk.
He then told me to sit down on the ground with my back against a tree, and ordered Sergeant Hugh Boyd of Co. I and another man who (years after) I learned was John Scales of Co. G, Mass, ist Infantry, to hold my hands and head. My moustache had become matted with blood and was with difficulty cut away, and then before examining the wound he began to dissect out the small pieces of bone, stopping occasionally to ask me if I could “stand it.” Although it was terrible to bear, I nodded my head and he went on. After finishing the cutting, he began sewing up the wound in the chin and the holes through my cheeks, after which he moistened a piece of sponge with turpentine and inserted it in the lower part of the wound, which was left open for drainage.
When he had finished, he counted the pieces of bone and said there were eighteen; then after looking at me for a short time he said, “Young man, you have got more nerve than any man I ever saw.” He then wanted to know if there was anything in the way of nourishment to be had, and one of the soldiers replied that he had a little honey that I might have, whereupon they stirred some into a little warm water and tried to have me partake of it; but I could not, as it immediately set me to coughing so that I could not swallow anything.
Finally they found a little beef tea (so-called) and I got a very little of it down, the most of it having gone through the opening left for drainage. The surgeon then called for a knapsack, and on one being procured he caused it to be rilled with straw, and placed me face down with my forehead resting upon it. Then saying he would dress the wound in the morning, he departed.
Later it began to rain and conditions became very bad, the ground getting muddy, and it being very dark one was liable to be trod upon by others.
Being very much exhausted, I finally got asleep, but was suddenly awakened by a stampede of a large number of mules, who ran over and among us. Fortunately I was not hurt, and had dozed off again when the experience of the previous night was repeated as a squadron of lancers (“Turkey drivers”) rode up and ordered us to “skedaddle,” as the Johnnies were coming.
Once more I roused myself and started downstream (as we had been directed). It was a very dark night, and the road was narrow, with a column of infantry filling one side of it and artillery the other. The bushes that grew at the side of the road were pushed aside by the passing soldiers, and as they came back into position kept hitting my face, so that I was compelled to take to the fields for the greater part of this distance, which I was told was seven miles. The greater portion of the way it was uncultivated land, some wood; but there were quite a number of large wheat fields through which I made my way; being a great deal of the time halfway to my knees in mud.
Toward daylight the weather cleared, and shortly after sunrise I came upon the bivouac of a regiment of Connecticut infantry who were preparing their breakfast. Some of them took pity upon me and invited me to partake with them; but they had nothing that I could eat, so they gave me what hot coffee I could swallow (which wasn’t much) and wished me good luck; and I went on to the river at what I found was Harrison’s Landing.
I found a large, square, brick house with outbuildings, overlooking the river, and a long, pile wharf extending to deep water. The river was full of men-of-war, and vessels of every description with supplies for man and beast.
Troops were bivouacked in the mud all about, and were coming in rapidly. After looking about a little, I made my way to the house, as being the place most likely to be used by surgeons. I found two at work in what had been the best room, and wounded men in large numbers anxiously awaiting their turn.