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Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
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:
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.
Sergeant Charles Campbell, the chief complainant, swore that when Thompson first approached the stragglers, the Union troops were in full control and that the Rebels the doctor questioned were acknowledged prisoners and not the free agents Thompson took them to be. Nonetheless, Campbell asserted, the surgeon, without establishing the true nature of the situation, as the only officer among the hundred-odd stragglers, immediately took command. Going up to one of the Confederates, he said, “I surrender all these men to you.” Thunderstruck at this turn of events, Campbell, though only a sergeant, intervened. “I told him not by a d———d sight he would not,” and the doctor withdrew the offer.
Moments later Thompson announced “he wanted it fairly understood … that if we met any of the enemy that he did not want a shot fired, as he was a non-combatant and did not wish to get hurt.”
“I told him,” Campbell went on, “that if we met any of the enemy there would be a shot fired, and I would commence by shooting him if he did not behave himself.…”
This incriminating affidavit—a “profane, exagerated and untruthful statement,” Thompson called it—was supported by sworn testimony from three other witnesses, one of whom, undoubtedly referring to the “towel” the doctor had at one point raised, spoke of it as a white flag of surrender.
Taken together, the four accounts were too damaging to be ignored, and shortly after their arrival at II Corps headquarters Thompson was formally charged with cowardice and treachery arising from seven specific acts. Brought before a six-man court on November 15, the surgeon readily admitted that he had done the things the Wisconsin Volunteers described, but, he said, his actions were not really what they seemed to be. He had not been impelled by lack of courage or disloyalty; the raising of the white flag, for example, had been for the protection of the group, and the other acts had proceeded from the same impulse.
The prosecution called no witnesses, and Thompson refused to hail his accusers into court on the ground that they could not be expected to change their written testimony—nor deny the motives they imputed to him—under cross-examination. Instead he brought forward three character witnesses from the surgeons’ ranks in II Corps.
It was a fateful legal maneuver and, as Thompson subsequently acknowledged, a fatal error. “I was,” he later wrote, “a victim of misplaced confidence,” for if each testified to his loyalty, none could certify his courage. Two of the surgeons said they had never seen him in any situation where it might be tested, and the third, M. V. K. Montfort, who had served with Thompson at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Locust Grove, swore that the accused had always assumed the safest possible position while performing his duties in the field. Asked pointedly by the prosecutor to assess Thompson’s reputation for bravery among the men of the 124th, Montfort replied simply, “It is not good.”
Given the circumstances, the court was unsympathetic; it ruled that Thompson’s admission to the specific acts, whatever interpretation he chose to place upon them, was tantamount to an admission of cowardice and to “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” Having taken command in a confused situation, he had automatically under martial law lost his noncombatant status. Absolving him of the charge of disloyalty, the court found him guilty on all other counts and sentenced him to be cashiered with a loss of all pay and allowances.
There was no appeal, and on November 25 Thompson was dismissed from the service. He returned home to Goshen seemingly in disgrace, but within a matter of weeks the officers of the 124th, defending his loyalty but ignoring any reference to his bravery, succeeded in bringing his case before President Lincoln. Encouraged by William Seward, Secretary of State and a native of Orange County, the President, by executive order, granted Thompson a pardon on January 25, 1865, restoring his civil rights and removing all future disabilities his dismissal might otherwise entail. Given the opportunity to re-enlist in February, Thompson failed to respond, unwilling perhaps to chance another separate peace.
After reading the above account Surgeon Thompson’s greatgranddaughter, Mrs. George Cheney, Jr., wrote, the following:
“Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace” is based on one paper found among my great-grandfather’s effects. I had thought it an interesting official report of his “capturing thirty Johnny Rebs” rather than a deposition for his courtmartial.
Why do I consider John Hudson Thompson a Civil War hero? It seems almost at his insistence. Unlike my other ancestors, there is a lot of my great-grandfather still around, familiar as a footstep. Daily the painted glance of his formal portrait confronts me. As I sit reading in his delicate Windsor chair my arm rubs against the wood his arm has worn down. I can even read what he read as he sat there; his medical and regimental-history collection, his five large scrapbooks bulging with his varied interests and printed speeches are a part of our personal library now. His presentation sword cuts our family wedding cakes. In the barn are his McClellan saddle, his regimental papers, his slouch hat and uniform, riddled with ancient moth holes instead of bullets. Some things are missing now but well remembered—his feather bedroll, his huge nightshirt, his green officer’s sash. I regret that two items are not still his. One is the piece of the Union flag shot off at the Battle of Gettysburg and presented to my great-grandmother on a later occasion by General Meade, stolen years ago and sold to an antiques dealer. The other item is the original letter written to his wife on the very day of the incident, of which I have only a typewritten copy.
Was there a reason for saving so much? Does an unquiet spirit hope that by making his presence felt, by preserving so much that was his, including the deposition, the total truth will emerge? From what remains of a man four generations later can we reconstruct a truer evaluation of his character than his judges did?
An 1852 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he could offer ten years of medical experience to his country when President Lincoln called for more men. In 1862 the 124th Regiment of New York Volunteers was raised at his home, St. James’ Place (evidence: the sword presented to him by his “friends of Goshen”). This regiment was made up not only of his friends but also of cousins and other kinfolk within a small area of Orange County. Dr. Thompson’s father-in-law served as quartermaster of the Orange Blossoms and lent his house in Goshen as headquarters while the regiment was being recruited.
My great-grandfather was, by evidence of his uniform, photographs, and nightshirt, a very tall man, well over six feet in height, and of generous proportions. He made a large target.
He was “surgeon in chief of his regiment, brigade, and division,” trained to heal and not to kill, fulfilling his duty to the utmost when his duty as a physician was clear to him. The regimental commander of the 124th, Colonel C. H. Weygant, in New York at Gettysburg , recalls visiting the field hospital after the battle—a scene that “was one of the most horrid imaginable … nearly 3,ooo wounded men had been brought there, and others were continually arriving”—and finding that “the majority of the surgeons had not yet quit their posts to seek the rest their pale, haggard faces told they were much in need of. I did not see our surgeon, Dr. Thompson, but was informed by one of our wounded men who lay near the amputating tables—and who said that for eighteen hours he had listened to the horrid noise made by saws gnawing away human bones—that he and Chaplain Bradner had worked faithfully all night, doing what they could for the Orange Blossoms.”
Let us turn for relief to my great-grandfather’s scrapbooks. We can infer from what he gathered that he was a patriotic, religious, well-read egocentric, proud of his familial connections with Henry Hudson, George Clinton, and many less noted relatives. He was a “fluent and forcible” speaker. By the first reunion of the 124th in 1865 he was delivering “A Stirring Address” in full uniform. Since he spoke at every reunion of the regiment thereafter, there was much to glue in his scrapbooks. At the forty-second reunion in 1904 “Dr. Thompson thought he was the oldest surviver of the Orange Blossoms; he was seventy-seven. Age, however, he said, counted for nothing. The great object in life was to make it a life of usefulness.”
My great-grandfather’s medical books reflect his interest in such advanced ideas as natural breathing and soporifics in childbirth. He was known to be “very lenient with Malingerers,” who were probably suffering from battle fatigue. A history of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, edited by Dr. John Shrady in 1903, declares:
It is not overstating facts to say that few surgeons had the opportunity of witnessing as much actual service in the field as fell to the lot of Dr. Thompson, who participated in the surgical work resulting from the leading battles of the army of the Potomac and the operative department of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Beverly Ford, Gettysburg, Kelley’s Ford, Orange Grove, etc.… Dr. Thompson occupies a conspicuous place in the literature of his profession, few practitioners having contributed more to the medical journals … or reported more interesting cases, particularly in the decades of 1860, 1870, and 1880.
A fellow officer of Dr. Thompson’s regiment, Captain W. E. Mapes, wrote from his bed in the Annapolis officers’ hospital in December, 1864, that my great-grandfather had “saved his life,” and after referring to his “spotless character as a man & skill as a surgeon,” he said: “My Amputation has been pronounced [ sic ] by the Surgeon in Charge of Fort Monroe Hospital & of this H’f4pital also. It has also been highly complimented by an English Surgeon at Fort Monroe.”
Then there is the letter Thompson wrote on the day of the incident and addressed to “My Dear Wife.” In it he thanks her for the food she sent him, expresses concern for “our wayward boy,” my grandfather (her stepson, whose mother had died of childbirth fever). He tells her matter-of-factly of meeting the Southerners in the clearing, of parleying, and of the agreement to ride in a given direction. The letter ends: “Fortunately, the Union lines were reached first and I was the proud possessor of about 3o Johnny Rebs. Now, with as many kisses as the captured rebels, I am, Your loving John.”
Surely in a private letter, written on the very day of the incident, Dr. Thompson could have said whatever he wished to his wife, since it was long before he was called on to justify his actions. Poor fellow, he only sounded rather proud of himself in the role of modest hero.
Along with the officers of the i a4th and “all of the officers now in the field” of the 86th New York Volunteers, who “cheerfully” testified to his good character, I, too, feel that he was “actuated by no criminal motives or desires.” “His whole record has been an honorable one, and his years have been fruitful in deeds of usefulness and kindness,” sums up Dr. Shrady in 1903. I feel that Dr. Thompson’s value to his country has been proved by his contemporaries; he was too excellent and experienced a surgeon to hazard being shot uselessly as a noncombatant in a noncombat. Had he tried to save his own life by jeopardizing other lives in his care, I, too, would accuse him of cowardice. It appears more consistent with his character to believe, as he did on that day, that to resist was “impracticable.” Caught in “a difficult and embarassing position,” he continued to do his duty, which was to preserve lives, be they Union or Confederate. That is the way he had behaved up to that fateful meeting in the clearing—and that is the way he continued to behave for the rest of his long career as a physician.