Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace

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In nearly all respects the Civil War remains the bloodiest war this nation has fought. The casualty rate was higher, the destruction more extensive, the scars deeper than in any other conflict before or since. But for all of that there was an essential innocence in the way the men of both armies adjusted to the grim, hard tasks they were called upon to perfarm.

They were, for the most part, amateur soldiers with little training to draw on and few precedents to consult, and in the end they fell back on common sense and the values of the civilian world they had left behind. Having discovered early that it was one thing to face death in a major battle and something quite different to be placed in jeopardy at some isolated post, they worked out a simple compromise. They /ought with bulldoglike tenacity when they had to but in quiet times along the front made a tentative separate peace with the enemy across the line. Men on picket duty customarily avoided confrontations and held their fire, engaging rather in rough banter or gossip with the sentries from the other side. It was not uncommon for men of both armies to mingle, freely between the lines, to exchange tobacco, newspapers, and rations, with a remembered hospitality that quickly disappeared once the fighting resumed.

We offer here one such instance of a separate peace, dictated in part by as strange a set of circumstances as one can find. The details are revealed in a deposition from John H. Thompson of the 124th Regiment (New York Volunteers) to a court-martial board that had convened to try him on charges of cowardice late in 1864, when he was in his middle thirties. We first learned of Thompson from his great-granddaughter, Mrs. George Cheneyjr., of Farmington, Connecticut, who found the document in an old box that had been willed to her. Fascinated by Thompson’s story but knowing nothing of the surrounding events, she sent the deposition on to AMERICAN HERITAGE . With the assistance o/ the National Archives and the New York State Bureau of War Records we have been able to piece together this rather remarkable tale of one man’s accommodation to the unfamiliar hazards of war. Mrs. Cheney’s reaction to the story follows the account below.—The Editors.

 

More than a century after the event it is difficult to say whether Thompson was merely a victim of circumstance—as he maintained—or whether in fact he was a coward as charged. But this much is certain: nothing in his two years of service with the Army of the Potomac had prepared him for the unlikely situation in which he found himself on the morning of October 28, 1864. A veteran of Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor, the surgeon from Goshen, New York, had spent a sleepless night wandering in confusion through the dense pine woods that bordered a small stream called Hatcher’s Run in eastern Virginia. The day before, the area had been the scene of a savage seesaw battle that had begun at dawn and continued long after dark. (The battle is known variously as the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, the Boydton Plank Road, and Burgess’ Mill.) Two full corps from the Union army had been sent against Lee’s reinforced right flank, some nine miles southwest of Petersburg, in an effort to break through to a key rail line that served as the Confederates’ principal supply route.

Thompson and the 124th Orange Blossoms (so named because the regiment was from Orange County, New York) had missed most of the fighting. Assigned to Mott’s Division of II Corps, the regiment had formed a skirmish line on the Union flank, to the left and rear of the main attack force. As a regimental surgeon, and technically a noncombatant, Thompson was even further to the rear with the ambulances and the other medical staff. Except for treating an occasional soldier wounded by the brisk shelling from the enemy guns across an open field before them, they had little to do until late afternoon, when, as a heavy rain began to fall, the Rebels counterattacked in force. Both Thompson and the 124th stood their ground, and despite fearful casualties, including the loss of four senior officers, the regiment held fast. In the end it mattered only a little, for as the rain continued and the dark began to descend it was clear elsewhere that the Battle of Hatcher’s Run belonged to the Rebel side. By nine o’clock that night the Union troops were ordered from the field.

It was at this point, apparently, that Thompson became separated from his unit, for the withdrawal was anything but orderly in the dark, wet woods. Lost and alone, as the next day dawned Thompson found himself at the edge of a clearing. His deposition explains what happened next:

 

Surgeon’s Qrs 124th Reg’t N.Y. Nov 15, 1864.

In relation to the charges and specifications preferred against me having to do with my conduct on the morning of the a8th ult, I respectfully submit the following statement: