YOUR TOWN:  Caroline | Culpeper | King George | Fredericksburg | Orange | Spotsylvania | Stafford | Westmoreland     TODAY: 10.22.2014 | 

One man's ordeal: William McCarter

 
ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 29 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

THE BATTLE of Fredericksburg was the most costly battle the North had suffered up to that time in the Civil War. According to official returns, the Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 casualties in the fight. Of that number, exactly 9,600 were wounded. Many of those men would later die as a result of their wounds; others would suffer painful and often crippling effects for the rest of their lives. Although this story is about just one man's tribulations as a wounded soldier at Fredericksburg, it accurately reflects the experience of thousands of wounded soldiers in that war.

The subject of our story is William McCarter, a 21-year-old Irish immigrant with a wife and children, who at the time of the war was employed as a leatherworker in Philadelphia. Responding to his adopted country's call, McCarter enlisted as a private in the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers,
a regiment in the Irish Brigade. The brigade's commander, Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, needed a clerk at his headquarters, and when he saw an example of McCarter's impeccable handwriting he gave him the job.

The Army of the Potomac occupied Fredericksburg in December 1862 and prepared to attack the Confederate army, which was drawn up on the heights outside of town. Gen. Meagher told McCarter to remain at his headquarters in Stafford County, but, like most young men who had never been in a battle, McCarter was eager to taste combat. Ignoring the general's orders, he crossed the Rappahannock River and joined the 116th Pennsylvania in its attack on Marye's Heights. What he experienced there erased any notions that he may have had about the glory of war.

As the Irish Brigade charged across the plain leading to the ridge, Confederate cannon and rifle fire decimated the Union ranks. In the 116th Pennsylvania, the losses were staggering. "Every third man had fallen," wrote McCarter, "and along some parts of the line, every second soldier had been killed or wounded. To make matters still worse, we had lost nearly all our Officers."

Bullets filled the air. One spent ball struck McCarter on the left shoulder, giving him a large bruise; another clipped his ankle, inflicting a painful, if not dangerous, wound. A Minieball pierced the cartridge box at his side, while others cut through his uniform. McCarter continued to fight on despite wounds to himself and to those around him. A young man standing next to him was shot in the stomach.

"He rolled about for a few minutes in agony and blood, two or three yards in front of me," remembered McCarter, "and with the exclamation: 'Oh, my mother!' on his lips, he died."

Moments later, a soldier standing immediately behind him went down. Then it was McCarter's turn. As he was ramming a new round down the barrel of his rifle, a ball struck the young clerk in the arm, just below the right shoulder.

"A stream of warm blood rushed out of the wound, saturating my clothing down to my feet, the shattered arm dropped powerless by my side; dizziness and partial loss of sight followed, and I fell unconscious on the ground."

When McCarter came to, he found the battle in full fury. "Bullets kept constantly whizzing over me, around me, burying themselves in the ground not a foot from my head and throwing mud and dust all over my person. My situation was truly an awful one."

The body of a dead comrade lay between McCarter and the Confederate line. Lying down behind it, McCarter used the corpse as a makeshift barricade. By the end of the afternoon, it was riddled with bullets.

As night fell, the Union army withdrew to the city, leaving a strong skirmish line in front of the heights. McCarter and many other injured soldiers lay between the lines, subject not only to Confederate fire but to the errant fire of their own men.

"I now gave myself up for lost," he admitted, "never expecting to leave or to be removed from that spot alive."

McCarter gathered his dwindling strength, however, and as darkness covered the field he slowly dragged himself to the rear. Every 10 minutes or so, the Confederates fired a volley to discourage a surprise attack. The flash of the rifles briefly illuminated the Southern riflemen, who, to McCarter, understandably looked "more like devils than human beings."

Moving little by little between volleys, he eventually reached the millrace now covered by modern Kenmore Avenue. Because of the large number of corpses there, McCarter called the place "The Valley of Death." By then he was dehydrated from loss of blood, and his strength was spent.

"I felt as though I was being consumed, the pains of my wounds increased, and mytongue literally stuck fast to the roof of my mouth, almost preventing articulation. My sufferings now from the pains of my wounds were indeed light compared with my suffering from 'thirst,' and I really prayed to God, with all my soul, to end my life then, and there, or send me water."

After an hour, a dim blue flame flickered in the distance--two soldiers looking for wounded comrades. McCarter tried to call for help, but he was too weak to move and his mouth was too dry to speak. He could only hope that they saw him. God was with McCarter that night, for not only did the men see him, but they also happened to belong to his own company. Greedily, he drank the water that ran from their canteens down his throat--a full quart, he later estimated.

The men did not have a stretcher, and McCarter was too feeble to walk. Fortunately, an ambulance appeared; however, it was already carrying 11 others. McCarter's friends persuaded the driver to take on one more, though, and the overloaded vehicle was soon making its way into town.

To the agony of the wounded soldiers inside, it seemed to hit every rock, stump, and rut along the way. The passengers pleaded with the driver to go slower, but he ignored their cries. Two men died before they reached the town.

The ambulance finally halted in front of a four-story house that, like nearly all buildings in town, was being used as a hospital. Revived by the water he had received, McCarter limped into the building under his own power and lay down in an elegant room with seven other wounded soldiers. During the night, additional ambulances discharged their human cargo, and by morning dozens of men filled the room.

The first surgeons did not make their appearance until morning. They slowly moved about, examining each man. When they got to McCarter, they cut his blood-soaked clothing away from his body and probed his injured arm for the bullet. They found it, and, without using any anesthesia, cut the leaden ball from the soldier's body, giving it to him as a "relic of the war."

McCarter remained in the makeshift hospital for just one day. The Union army was retreating, and as the first step in that operation it sent its wounded soldiers across the river to Stafford County. Unlike many others, McCarter was able to walk. He joined thousands of other injured soldiers who slowly made their way across the pontoon bridge to Falmouth Station, a train depot located just behind modern Earl's Shopping Center.

For hours he stood in the cold mud before finally boarding a train that took him to Aquia Landing (now a county park) on the Potomac River. There, after another considerable wait, he found passage aboard a special steamboat that carried him to a hospital in Washington.

McCarter never returned to the army. His arm suffered permanent damage, and, after spending five months in a hospital ward, he was discharged from the service. Ironically, he came back to Fredericksburg as a resident in 1885 and lived here for one year. He died in Washington in 1911, at the age of 71. His memoirs, recently published by Savas Publishing Co., remain one of the most vivid and compelling narratives of the war.

Chatham feels the hand of War

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."

THE BATTLE of Fredericksburg was the most costly battle the North had suffered up to that time in the Civil War. According to official returns, the Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 casualties in the fight. Of that number, exactly 9,600 were wounded. Many of those men would later die as a result of their wounds; others would suffer painful and often crippling effects for the rest of their lives. Although this story is about just one man's tribulations as a wounded soldier at Fredericksburg, it accurately reflects the experience of thousands of wounded soldiers in that war.

The subject of our story is William McCarter, a 21-year-old Irish immigrant with a wife and children, who at the time of the war was employed as a leatherworker in Philadelphia. Responding to his adopted country's call, McCarter enlisted as a private in the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers,
a regiment in the Irish Brigade. The brigade's commander, Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, needed a clerk at his headquarters, and when he saw an example of McCarter's impeccable handwriting he gave him the job.

The Army of the Potomac occupied Fredericksburg in December 1862 and prepared to attack the Confederate army, which was drawn up on the heights outside of town. Gen. Meagher told McCarter to remain at his headquarters in Stafford County, but, like most young men who had never been in a battle, McCarter was eager to taste combat. Ignoring the general's orders, he crossed the Rappahannock River and joined the 116th Pennsylvania in its attack on Marye's Heights. What he experienced there erased any notions that he may have had about the glory of war.

As the Irish Brigade charged across the plain leading to the ridge, Confederate cannon and rifle fire decimated the Union ranks. In the 116th Pennsylvania, the losses were staggering. "Every third man had fallen," wrote McCarter, "and along some parts of the line, every second soldier had been killed or wounded. To make matters still worse, we had lost nearly all our Officers."

Bullets filled the air. One spent ball struck McCarter on the left shoulder, giving him a large bruise; another clipped his ankle, inflicting a painful, if not dangerous, wound. A Minieball pierced the cartridge box at his side, while others cut through his uniform. McCarter continued to fight on despite wounds to himself and to those around him. A young man standing next to him was shot in the stomach.

"He rolled about for a few minutes in agony and blood, two or three yards in front of me," remembered McCarter, "and with the exclamation: 'Oh, my mother!' on his lips, he died."

Moments later, a soldier standing immediately behind him went down. Then it was McCarter's turn. As he was ramming a new round down the barrel of his rifle, a ball struck the young clerk in the arm, just below the right shoulder.

"A stream of warm blood rushed out of the wound, saturating my clothing down to my feet, the shattered arm dropped powerless by my side; dizziness and partial loss of sight followed, and I fell unconscious on the ground."

When McCarter came to, he found the battle in full fury. "Bullets kept constantly whizzing over me, around me, burying themselves in the ground not a foot from my head and throwing mud and dust all over my person. My situation was truly an awful one."

The body of a dead comrade lay between McCarter and the Confederate line. Lying down behind it, McCarter used the corpse as a makeshift barricade. By the end of the afternoon, it was riddled with bullets.

As night fell, the Union army withdrew to the city, leaving a strong skirmish line in front of the heights. McCarter and many other injured soldiers lay between the lines, subject not only to Confederate fire but to the errant fire of their own men.

"I now gave myself up for lost," he admitted, "never expecting to leave or to be removed from that spot alive."

McCarter gathered his dwindling strength, however, and as darkness covered the field he slowly dragged himself to the rear. Every 10 minutes or so, the Confederates fired a volley to discourage a surprise attack. The flash of the rifles briefly illuminated the Southern riflemen, who, to McCarter, understandably looked "more like devils than human beings."

Moving little by little between volleys, he eventually reached the millrace now covered by modern Kenmore Avenue. Because of the large number of corpses there, McCarter called the place "The Valley of Death." By then he was dehydrated from loss of blood, and his strength was spent.

"I felt as though I was being consumed, the pains of my wounds increased, and mytongue literally stuck fast to the roof of my mouth, almost preventing articulation. My sufferings now from the pains of my wounds were indeed light compared with my suffering from 'thirst,' and I really prayed to God, with all my soul, to end my life then, and there, or send me water."

After an hour, a dim blue flame flickered in the distance--two soldiers looking for wounded comrades. McCarter tried to call for help, but he was too weak to move and his mouth was too dry to speak. He could only hope that they saw him. God was with McCarter that night, for not only did the men see him, but they also happened to belong to his own company. Greedily, he drank the water that ran from their canteens down his throat--a full quart, he later estimated.

The men did not have a stretcher, and McCarter was too feeble to walk. Fortunately, an ambulance appeared; however, it was already carrying 11 others. McCarter's friends persuaded the driver to take on one more, though, and the overloaded vehicle was soon making its way into town.

To the agony of the wounded soldiers inside, it seemed to hit every rock, stump, and rut along the way. The passengers pleaded with the driver to go slower, but he ignored their cries. Two men died before they reached the town.

The ambulance finally halted in front of a four-story house that, like nearly all buildings in town, was being used as a hospital. Revived by the water he had received, McCarter limped into the building under his own power and lay down in an elegant room with seven other wounded soldiers. During the night, additional ambulances discharged their human cargo, and by morning dozens of men filled the room.

The first surgeons did not make their appearance until morning. They slowly moved about, examining each man. When they got to McCarter, they cut his blood-soaked clothing away from his body and probed his injured arm for the bullet. They found it, and, without using any anesthesia, cut the leaden ball from the soldier's body, giving it to him as a "relic of the war."

McCarter remained in the makeshift hospital for just one day. The Union army was retreating, and as the first step in that operation it sent its wounded soldiers across the river to Stafford County. Unlike many others, McCarter was able to walk. He joined thousands of other injured soldiers who slowly made their way across the pontoon bridge to Falmouth Station, a train depot located just behind modern Earl's Shopping Center.

For hours he stood in the cold mud before finally boarding a train that took him to Aquia Landing (now a county park) on the Potomac River. There, after another considerable wait, he found passage aboard a special steamboat that carried him to a hospital in Washington.

McCarter never returned to the army. His arm suffered permanent damage, and, after spending five months in a hospital ward, he was discharged from the service. Ironically, he came back to Fredericksburg as a resident in 1885 and lived here for one year. He died in Washington in 1911, at the age of 71. His memoirs, recently published by Savas Publishing Co., remain one of the most vivid and compelling narratives of the war.

Chatham feels the hand of War

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."

THE BATTLE of Fredericksburg was the most costly battle the North had suffered up to that time in the Civil War. According to official returns, the Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 casualties in the fight. Of that number, exactly 9,600 were wounded. Many of those men would later die as a result of their wounds; others would suffer painful and often crippling effects for the rest of their lives. Although this story is about just one man's tribulations as a wounded soldier at Fredericksburg, it accurately reflects the experience of thousands of wounded soldiers in that war.

The subject of our story is William McCarter, a 21-year-old Irish immigrant with a wife and children, who at the time of the war was employed as a leatherworker in Philadelphia. Responding to his adopted country's call, McCarter enlisted as a private in the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers,
a regiment in the Irish Brigade. The brigade's commander, Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, needed a clerk at his headquarters, and when he saw an example of McCarter's impeccable handwriting he gave him the job.

The Army of the Potomac occupied Fredericksburg in December 1862 and prepared to attack the Confederate army, which was drawn up on the heights outside of town. Gen. Meagher told McCarter to remain at his headquarters in Stafford County, but, like most young men who had never been in a battle, McCarter was eager to taste combat. Ignoring the general's orders, he crossed the Rappahannock River and joined the 116th Pennsylvania in its attack on Marye's Heights. What he experienced there erased any notions that he may have had about the glory of war.

As the Irish Brigade charged across the plain leading to the ridge, Confederate cannon and rifle fire decimated the Union ranks. In the 116th Pennsylvania, the losses were staggering. "Every third man had fallen," wrote McCarter, "and along some parts of the line, every second soldier had been killed or wounded. To make matters still worse, we had lost nearly all our Officers."

Bullets filled the air. One spent ball struck McCarter on the left shoulder, giving him a large bruise; another clipped his ankle, inflicting a painful, if not dangerous, wound. A Minieball pierced the cartridge box at his side, while others cut through his uniform. McCarter continued to fight on despite wounds to himself and to those around him. A young man standing next to him was shot in the stomach.

"He rolled about for a few minutes in agony and blood, two or three yards in front of me," remembered McCarter, "and with the exclamation: 'Oh, my mother!' on his lips, he died."

Moments later, a soldier standing immediately behind him went down. Then it was McCarter's turn. As he was ramming a new round down the barrel of his rifle, a ball struck the young clerk in the arm, just below the right shoulder.

"A stream of warm blood rushed out of the wound, saturating my clothing down to my feet, the shattered arm dropped powerless by my side; dizziness and partial loss of sight followed, and I fell unconscious on the ground."

When McCarter came to, he found the battle in full fury. "Bullets kept constantly whizzing over me, around me, burying themselves in the ground not a foot from my head and throwing mud and dust all over my person. My situation was truly an awful one."

The body of a dead comrade lay between McCarter and the Confederate line. Lying down behind it, McCarter used the corpse as a makeshift barricade. By the end of the afternoon, it was riddled with bullets.

As night fell, the Union army withdrew to the city, leaving a strong skirmish line in front of the heights. McCarter and many other injured soldiers lay between the lines, subject not only to Confederate fire but to the errant fire of their own men.

"I now gave myself up for lost," he admitted, "never expecting to leave or to be removed from that spot alive."

McCarter gathered his dwindling strength, however, and as darkness covered the field he slowly dragged himself to the rear. Every 10 minutes or so, the Confederates fired a volley to discourage a surprise attack. The flash of the rifles briefly illuminated the Southern riflemen, who, to McCarter, understandably looked "more like devils than human beings."

Moving little by little between volleys, he eventually reached the millrace now covered by modern Kenmore Avenue. Because of the large number of corpses there, McCarter called the place "The Valley of Death." By then he was dehydrated from loss of blood, and his strength was spent.

"I felt as though I was being consumed, the pains of my wounds increased, and mytongue literally stuck fast to the roof of my mouth, almost preventing articulation. My sufferings now from the pains of my wounds were indeed light compared with my suffering from 'thirst,' and I really prayed to God, with all my soul, to end my life then, and there, or send me water."

After an hour, a dim blue flame flickered in the distance--two soldiers looking for wounded comrades. McCarter tried to call for help, but he was too weak to move and his mouth was too dry to speak. He could only hope that they saw him. God was with McCarter that night, for not only did the men see him, but they also happened to belong to his own company. Greedily, he drank the water that ran from their canteens down his throat--a full quart, he later estimated.

The men did not have a stretcher, and McCarter was too feeble to walk. Fortunately, an ambulance appeared; however, it was already carrying 11 others. McCarter's friends persuaded the driver to take on one more, though, and the overloaded vehicle was soon making its way into town.

To the agony of the wounded soldiers inside, it seemed to hit every rock, stump, and rut along the way. The passengers pleaded with the driver to go slower, but he ignored their cries. Two men died before they reached the town.

The ambulance finally halted in front of a four-story house that, like nearly all buildings in town, was being used as a hospital. Revived by the water he had received, McCarter limped into the building under his own power and lay down in an elegant room with seven other wounded soldiers. During the night, additional ambulances discharged their human cargo, and by morning dozens of men filled the room.

The first surgeons did not make their appearance until morning. They slowly moved about, examining each man. When they got to McCarter, they cut his blood-soaked clothing away from his body and probed his injured arm for the bullet. They found it, and, without using any anesthesia, cut the leaden ball from the soldier's body, giving it to him as a "relic of the war."

McCarter remained in the makeshift hospital for just one day. The Union army was retreating, and as the first step in that operation it sent its wounded soldiers across the river to Stafford County. Unlike many others, McCarter was able to walk. He joined thousands of other injured soldiers who slowly made their way across the pontoon bridge to Falmouth Station, a train depot located just behind modern Earl's Shopping Center.

For hours he stood in the cold mud before finally boarding a train that took him to Aquia Landing (now a county park) on the Potomac River. There, after another considerable wait, he found passage aboard a special steamboat that carried him to a hospital in Washington.

McCarter never returned to the army. His arm suffered permanent damage, and, after spending five months in a hospital ward, he was discharged from the service. Ironically, he came back to Fredericksburg as a resident in 1885 and lived here for one year. He died in Washington in 1911, at the age of 71. His memoirs, recently published by Savas Publishing Co., remain one of the most vivid and compelling narratives of the war.

NEXT: Chatham feels the hand of war

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."