Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace

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Having on the occasion referred to become seperated from my command, and in seeking to reach it, I fell in with a party of Union and Rebel soldiers. This was at a small house in a clearing, and near the locallity where occurred the action of the previous day. Upon joining the soldiers above mentioned I found them in conversation with a woman standing in the door way of the aforesaid house. The first utterance I recollect making to any of the men in question was to enquire in whose lines they were. Those of the Union and rebel side both announced that they were ignorant as to which army’s lines they were in, and further replied that they were seeking information upon that subject from the woman already alluded to. Of a rebel soldier whose appearance I thought favored the idea that he might be an officer, I enquired if he were such. He replied to me in the negative. Some further observations passed between myself and this soldier, all of which I now disremember. I have a recollection, however, of remarks made in a jocular way having reference to the peculiarity of our situations; but what they were precisely I am unable now to call to mind. In less than five minutes after my arrival at the house referred to, I discovered, looking to the left in reference to my approach to the house, an additional number of rebels coming. I remember distinctly that two of them were mounted, and my impression is that three were on horses. There were others on foot. One of the mounted men displayed a white cloth. I rode forward a few yards, and upon meeting this party of rebels, with a view of learning what communication they had to make, if any, under their flag of truce, I enquired if any of their number was an officer. I received a negative answer; and to that general question put to all the rebels when altogether they met, the reply was that they were represented by no officer. I questioned the second party of rebels, as I had the first whether they were in their own lines or ours. The rebel party last joining us professed the same ignorance as did the first party fell in with as to the lines of either army. The Union squad and the rebel squad being equally lost, or professedly so, I made the proposition that we would all take a course at the right relative to my approach to the house at which we had all gathered, and that we would all keep together and take the chances of the Army lines we might reach,—observing that if the Union lines were reached the rebels would become our prisoners, and if, on the other hand, the rebel lines were entered the opposite would happen. I will state the direction it was proposed we should take was considered by the Union side the most probable course leading to our lines. At all events altogether we started on the road in the direction proposed.—Here I will state that before starting I suggested that in case we came upon a force of the enemy that no attempt at a fight should occur. It seemed to me in the uncertainty of reaching our army, or any organized body of it, that it was impracticable to make the effort at resistance to a body of the enemy should such a body be encountered, especially as there were but a few armed men in our party—less than twenty I believe—who could, if the disposition were felt make any fight against the enemy. All except one soldier, for any thing manifested to the contrary, acquiesed in my proposition not to fire in case a rebel force should be met.—With the agreement as above stated we all proceeded in one course together.—I will mention in this place the fact of my tying upon the end of my riding whip my towel which I look from my haversack. I did this on my own motion, and for the purpose of protection from being fired upon. This I carried but a short distance. Proceeding on our way a distance of about a quarter of a mile, we came to three ambulances bearing the insignia of the 5th Corps standing in the road. The ambulances bore every evidence of having been abandoned, and heading in an opposite direction from that in which we were moving, the impression to my mind was that, after all, the course pursued was unfavorable for reaching our lines. However, we pursued on the way taken. At a distance of less than half a mile from the ambulances we met a mounted man whom I suppose to have been a Union officer, but wearing an overcoat I could not determine his rank—Having passed on to the ambulances, he returned, and upon his return, overtaking us within a short distance of our troops, he ordered a rebel riding near me to dismount. Assuming that he was taking charge of the rebel party, I proceeded on, and soon arriving among the troops of the ad Div of the and Corps and troops of the 5th Corps, I enquired the direction of my Div & rejoined my command.

I beg to say to the court in regard to the transactions above narrated that I acted according to the best of my judgement. Finding myself and the men of our army in whose company I happened, in a difficult and embarassing position, I only sought what seemed to me the best means of safety in regaining our lines. All of which is respectfully submitted.

J. H. Thompson Surgeon 124th N.Y.

There is a compelling ingenuity to Thompson’s decision, but despite their safe return to the Union lines a number of his companions failed to appreciate it. Early in November four soldiers from the 7th Wisconsin Volunteers brought charges against the hapless surgeon, telling a story decidedly different from Thompson’s own.