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Cruel Twist of Fate

As a young boy, Richard Walter Scott Martin could be found bandaging injured stray dogs and nursing orphaned hatchlings, as well as doctoring animals on his family farm. So it came as no surprise to the people of his hometown, Manchester, Va., that he would someday become a physician.

Martin began his medical studies at age 17 with Dr. A.M. Tyre in Midlothian, Va., about 10 miles west of Richmond. He finished his schooling at the Medical College of Virginia in 1861. 

Surg. Martin sat for his carte de visite in B. Bingham’s Gallery of Memphis after his release from Irving Block Prison. Author's collection.

Surg. Martin sat for his carte de visite in B. Bingham’s Gallery of Memphis after his release from Irving Block Prison. Author’s collection.

Martin didn’t have time to set up a practice before the war began. Caught up in the secessionist fervor that swept the South, Martin enlisted on May 18, 1861, as a private in the Richmond Grays No. 2, which became Company H of the 1st Virginia Infantry. The regiment was also known as the Old First Virginia. On July 10, 1861, he was placed on detached service as a hospital nurse, and assigned to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond in early 1862. Martin was transferred to the 19th Georgia Infantry in August 1862, but was soon after excused from duty and ordered to report to the Surgeon General in Richmond. 

On Jan. 6, 1863, the Surgeon General’s office contracted him as acting assistant surgeon and assigned him to General Hospital No. 20 in Richmond. Also called Royster’s Hospital or the First Alabama Hospital, the building was formerly the Royster Brothers and Company tobacco factory. The First Alabama Hospital, coincidentally, was initially located in Manchester, Va. But after 1862, it moved to 25th and Franklin Streets in Richmond and was renamed General Hospital No. 20.

On Feb. 8, 1863, Martin’s contract was cancelled. Apparently the Surgeon General needed surgeons in the field, and so Martin was assigned to the staff of Lt. Col. James C. Johnson as assistant surgeon. Martin joined his new command in Charleston, S.C., where it was engaged in the Siege of Charleston Harbor. By the winter of 1863, his commission had expired. Martin reenlisted, and joined the Army of Tennessee as a surgeon. He was assigned to accompany Nathan Bedford Forest’s 2,000-man command on a raid on Memphis.

The raid had three objectives. First, capture three Union commanders, Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, Gen. Ralph P. Buckland and Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut. Second, gain the release of Southern prisoners from the Irving Block Prison. And, lastly, draw Union forces away from Northern Mississippi.

The raid occurred on Aug. 21, 1864. Forrest and hundreds of his troopers inflicted 160 casualties on the Union garrison at a cost of 34 men. But the raid was considered a failure because it resulted only in a temporary disruption to federal plans. 

This engraving of the raid on memphis appeared in the September 10, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly.
This engraving of the raid on memphis appeared in the September 10, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Some of the Forrest’s casualties were brought to Irving Block—the prison Forrest had hoped to liberate. Martin was sent to Memphis under a flag of truce to attend to those Confederates who had been wounded. But, in a cruel twist of fate, Union forces refused to recognize the flag of truce, and hauled off Martin to Irving Block. Not long after, he fell ill with typhoid fever while tending the wounded. 

An 1864 report on the condition of Irving Block Prison by U.S. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to President Abraham Lincoln stated that, “The prison which is used for the detention of citizens, prisoners of war on their way to the North and the United States soldiers awaiting trial and which is located in a large block of stores is represented as the filthiest place the inspector ever saw occupied by human beings. The whole management and government of the prison could not be worse! Discipline and order are unknown. Food sufficient but badly served. In a dark wet cellar I found twenty-eight prisoners chained to a wet floor, where they had been constantly confined, many of them for several months, one since November 16, 1863, and are not for a moment released even to relieve the calls of nature. With a single exception these men have had no trial.”

Irving Block Prison as pictured in the September 10, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly.
Irving Block Prison as pictured in the September 10, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Through the considerable influence of a Mrs. E.R. Davis of Memphis, Martin was released from Irving Block. Through her skillful nursing, she restored him to health. Soon after Martin left the notorious prison, President Lincoln had it shut down.

Martin returned to duty, and served in northern Mississippi until the close of the war. Afterward, he settled in Tennessee, and practiced medicine in Henning, a town, which coincidently, was the site of Fort Pillow, where in 1864 Forrest’s command massacred the surrendered garrison composed primarily of black Union troops.

Martin later moved to Ripley, Tenn., where, in June 1870, he married a local woman, Medora “Dora” Virginia Posey. They were soon blessed with a daughter, Mary.

Martin practiced medicine in Lauderdale County, Tenn., for more than 30 years. He held membership in the Masonic, Odd Fellows and Knights of Honor lodges. He also owned a 450-acre farm. He died of dropsy, probably edema due to congestive heart failure, in his home on July 16, 1903. According to Confederate Veteran magazine, Martin, “Was a good and charitable citizen, a kind and affectionate husband and father, a zealous Christian, a true Mason and Odd Fellow, and a brave and fearless soldier.”

Thanks to Jodi L. Koste, University Archivist Head, Tompkins-McCaw Library Special Collections and Archives, Virginia Commonwealth University, for her kind assistance; and to Dom Serrano for leading me down the path to the Stars and Bars.

Scott Valentine is a Contributing Editor to MI.

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