June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Spurred by the story on military medicine in the October/November 1984 issue, Lester Huested, a doctor as well as trustee of the Glens Falls (New York) historical society, retrieved from his attic a medical officer’s letter describing a particularly unwelcome duty. “During the Civil War,” writes Dr. Huested, “my great grandfather, Dr. James E. Pomfret, was appointed surgeon of the 113 N.Y. Regiment of Infantry, which later became the 7th N.Y. Heavy Artillery Regiment. He wrote the following letter when he was with Grant’s army during the siege of Petersburg.”
Before Petersburg, Va. Sept. 2nd 1864
My Dear Wife,
Today I have had to perform the most unpleasant military duty that has fallen to my lot since I joined the Army. Indeed it is a duty I should dread even in civil life. I had to see, officially, the death of a man for desertion. 1 had heard of it—that is, had heard that a man was to be executed for desertion but had no idea I was concerned in the matter until after breakfast this morning. I was sitting on the piazza of the house; it was a magnificent morning—cool—clear—breezy —when the General came up the steps and said: “Surgeon, we shall require your services; it will be necessary to you to examine the man and certify to his death.” The execution took place at 9 and as it was then V-i past eight it was time 1 was stirring as I had to be in full dress. Luckily it never took me long to dress and when the General mounted I was just in time to take my place in the gorgeous crowd and we rode off to the spot selected for the last sad scene. It was a wild spot by the side of the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad; a low piece of ground evidently covered with water a large portion of the time but now from the continued drought as dry as dust. To the left was a leafless grove of pines—killed by the damming of the water by the Railroad—directly in front were the everlasting pine woods of Virginia and to the right a large fort and breastworks—the remains of the deserted works which formed a part of the line held by the Rebs when we first came here. The ragged and bare hills encircle the spot on all sides and the blackened stumps of trees dotted the entire bottom.
The entire division was formed in the three sides of a hollow square. In the center of the vacant side was a significant mound of fresh earth and the new made grave. The General and his Staff—the Brigade commanders and their staffs respectively; the Brigade bands, the Regimental Colors, the double line of men under arms; the splendid sky and the glittering arms—how grand it would have looked under any other circumstances. Yes it was grand—solemnly grand as the men, silent and motionless, waited the coming of the Provost-Guard with the Prisoner. And now on the breeze comes the swell of distant music— nearer and nearer—until over the crest of the hill comes our division band. It is a splendid band—playing the dead march. Immediately in the rear of the band follows the plain coffin borne on the shoulders of four soldiers; then the condemned man and the chaplain of the 5th New Hampshire Rgt., then the command officer of the Provost-Guard, and then the Guard. How solemnly they march—the music swelling out on the breeze as its thrilling melody was given by the band. How silent are these six thousand men!
Now the band wheels out of the way—the coffin is deposited a few feet in front of the grave—the Adjutant reads the order—and the chaplain makes a short address and a prayer. The commanding officer of guard steps up—the chaplain then shakes hands with the man who is then seated on the coffin and his eyes bandaged.
Only the flags move of all that vast crowd. Stepping [back] the officer gives the commands—ready—aim—fire— and instantly the culprit falls over the coffin—dead.
Now comes my part. Riding to the right of the line and directly to the spot where the dead man lay, I felt his pulse —found he was dead—so reported to the officer, and then mounting rode back to the Staff.
Immediately the band wheels into the line, the Guard remain, but the entire division file past the grave. It was a sad—a terrible sight—I hope it will be an effective one. I learned that he deserted before Gettysburg and that he has deserted and enlisted for bounties on several occasions since. I did not learn his name; he belonged to the fourth United States Battery.
Now I have seen scores of dead and wounded men; and have tried to do all that Surgery could suggest in many cases where no human aid could save; but I never before was called, in the line of my duty, to so sad a work as this of today. And I hope I shall never be called upon to see so sad a sight again. I suppose such severe means are necessary in the Army; but I have grave doubts of their efficacy—still these [events] I could not today discuss.