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Words Exchanged in an Ambulance

By Ronald S. Coddington 

A multitude of field hospitals popped up in the wake of the unprecedented fighting in Virginia during the spring campaign of 1864. A constant stream of battlefield wounded poured into these makeshift tent facilities, where harried surgeons patched up wounds or performed amputations and other emergency surgeries.

One the untold numbers of men who rolled into one of these medical halfway houses was a Union sergeant from New Hampshire. His short ride in a creaky ambulance from the battlefield to a field hospital would become one of his most enduring memories of the war.

Sgt. Thomas Emerton Osgood’s belief in universal salvation was frowned upon by many of his comrades in the ranks of the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. Carte de visite by J.D.Andrews of Boston, Mass. Author’s collection.
Sgt. Thomas Emerton Osgood’s belief in universal salvation was frowned upon by many of his comrades in the ranks of the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. Carte de visite by J.D.Andrews of Boston, Mass. Author’s collection.

Tom Osgood was a sturdy soldier with philosophical bent of mind and a long gray-streaked beard. On May 14, 1864, just a few weeks shy of his 50th birthday, he and his comrades in the 12th New Hampshire Infantry assaulted the Confederate defenses of Richmond near Drewry’s Bluff along the James River. Dense woods and a mass of spiked tops of felled trees slowed progress. Beyond these barriers lay Fort Stevens, with a pair of howitzers that were soon brought to bear on the New Hampshire men. At some point, a jagged fragment from one shell tore through Osgood’s right leg above the ankle, taking with it a considerable amount of tendon and muscle.

Osgood received basic treatment in the field and, unable to walk, waited for further assistance. Two days passed before medical personnel were able to revisit Osgood. They determined the wound serious, and loaded him aboard an ambulance for a trip to a nearby field hospital.

He shared the ride with a young Confederate who had suffered an acute thigh wound. Great beads of sweat formed on the boy’s face. Osgood noticed and raised himself up on an elbow, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe the face and brow of the prisoner. He repeated the tender act of mercy two or three times without uttering a word.

The Confederate recognized Osgood’s kindness, and noted how strange it was that two enemies lying side by side should have such a moment.

Osgood recalled his reaction and their subsequent conversation.

“Enemies! I did not know that we were enemies before.”

“Why, you belong to the Union army, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, I belong to what you call the rebel army.”

“I am aware of that, but I see no reason why we should be enemies. I don’t know as you ever injured me, or that I ever injured you, and why should we have any ill will toward each other?”

“What are you fighting us for then?”

“We are not fighting you. We are fighting what you call the Southern Confederacy, only wishing to injure you, as we are obliged to in order to destroy that; so we can have but one government, and that the good old one of our fathers, under which we can all live in peace and harmony, as heretofore, and the old flag of Bunker Hill and Yorktown once more wave over a united and happy nation.”

“Well, I never looked at it in just that light before, but I reckon you are right about us fighters, if not on what we are fighting for.”

“Yes, and I am right about that, too, and the right must and will prevail, as time will prove; and I trust you may yet live to enjoy the privileges and blessings of the very government that you and your comrades are now trying to destroy.

“What may I call your name?”

“My name is Madison A. Brown; I belong to the Twenty-fifth South Carolina regiment.”

Their dialogue ended abruptly as an ambulance pulled up at the field hospital. Osgood watched as attendants carried the young Confederate into a tent and out of sight.

“The question alluded to was upon the propriety of excommunicating the venerable Sergeant Osgood, of Company C, who, it was discovered, was a believer in universal salvation.”

Osgood’s kindly treatment of a foe would not have surprised anyone who knew him. Back in his hometown of Hebron, N.H., townspeople respected him for his honesty and integrity, and cheered by his sunny disposition. He had embraced carpentry as his chosen profession, perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus. In his early 30s, Osgood married Sylvia Lovejoy, a woman about 15 years his junior. They started a family that grew to include five children. Sylvia died tragically five days after the birth of their last child, a son, in 1858.

When the war came, the widowed Osgood and his five motherless children lived in the town of Bristol, located about 35 miles from Concord, N.H. In the summer of 1862, he placed his children in the care of relatives and enlisted in Company C of the 12th. The men elected officers and non-commissioned officers, a common practice in the volunteer army, and voted Osgood corporal. The men chose wisely. The regimental historian noted, “Osgood was a model soldier. He was ever ready without a murmur to perform any duty assigned, however hazardous … He never lost faith in the final success of the Union arms and his pleasant hopefulness was a constant benediction to all with whom he came in contact.”

Osgood proved his mettle on the battlefield. He narrowly avoided capture while on picket duty at Fredericksburg in December 1862, and was reportedly one of the last to cross the Rappahannock River before the pontoon boats were pulled out during the retreat. At Chancellorsville in May 1863, he suffered a gunshot wound in the right arm.

The Chancellorsville wound caused him to miss the Battle of Gettysburg, but he rejoined his comrades at Point Lookout, Md. The 12th and two other New Hampshire regiments had been sent there at the end of July 1863 to guard Confederate prisoners. After the trials and tribulations of the recent campaigns, the New Hampshire men found Point Lookout to be something of a paradise. Here, they were able to rest and recuperate after the rigors of life in camp and on campaign.

The men rejuvenated their spirits with regular prayer meetings in a small grove of pines near camp. The Confederate prisoners whom they guarded may have inspired them. According to the regimental historian, “Religious services were held every Sabbath in the prisoners’ camp, the chaplains of the different regiments taking turns in conducting them, and fervent interest was frequently manifested, especially among the soldiers from General Jackson’s command, who had imbibed somewhat of the Christian zeal of their great leader.”

The New Hampshire men soon outgrew the pines, however, and raised funds for the construction of a proper chapel, which was dedicated with a stirring sermon on the last Sunday of 1863. By this time, noted the historian of the 12th, “Quite a church of humble and devoted worshipers in the Christian faith was organized from the Twelfth and the other two regiments, which, without schism or discussion, excepting upon one question, grew up and flourished.”

“The question alluded to was upon the propriety of excommunicating the venerable Sergeant Osgood, of Company C, who, it was discovered, was a believer in universal salvation. This was deemed to be too dangerous a doctrine to be tolerated, much less to be openly communed with, and so without any other charge against him he was voted out.”

Osgood in fact was a Universalist. He shared in the belief, as it was stated in one book of the times, “that God is a Universal Father, and that all men are brethren, destined to a Common Salvation.” Though the doctrine traced its American roots to colonial times, it had only come into its own during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. One of its guiding voices was theologian Hosea Ballou, a likewise son of New Hampshire. Ballou is considered one of the fathers of American Universalism. In his view, “Between the humble and contrite heart and the majesty of Heaven there are no barriers; the only password is prayer.”

The excommunication of Osgood did not dampen his spirits. In fact, it appears to have deepened his faith. Just a few months after he was ostracized, he suffered the wound at Drewry’s Bluff. The damage to his leg ended his service as a combat soldier, and he spent the rest of the war in and out of military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Manchester, N.H. He received a disability discharge in July 1865.

Osgood reunited with his children in Bristol, and resumed his livelihood as a carpenter despite the crooked and deformed condition of his leg. As late as 1888, surgeons reported that the wound, a patchy area about the size of a silver dollar, periodically opened up to expel bits and pieces of foreign matter, and crusted over only to break open later. About this time, he used crutches to walk.

Shortly before his death in 1896 at age 82, the regimental historian interviewed Osgood. Though he had slowed down and his gray streaked beard had turned to snow white, his mind was strong. “His influence, both by precept and example, has always been on the right side, and, although constant and consistent in his Christian work and faith, he neither believes in the election of the good nor the rejection of the wicked, but in a common brotherhood for all. He declines to believe in a Creator less kind and forgiving than many of his creatures.”

One of God’s creatures was Madison Brown, the Confederate with whom Osgood had shared an ambulance ride more than three decades earlier. “I have not seen or heard from him since; but I have often thought of him, as doubtless he, if living, has of me.”

Osgood went to his grave not knowing that Brown had suffered an amputation and succumbed to his injury on May 22, 1864—only six days after the two men parted ways.

References: Asa W. Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers; Bristol Weekly Enterprise, October 22, 1896; Thomas E. Osgood military service and pension records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Richard W. Musgrove, History of the Town of Bristol, Grafton County, New Hampshire, Vol. I; Randolph W. Kirkland Jr., Broken Fortunes: South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in the Service of Their Country and State in the War for Southern Independence, 1861-1865.

Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.

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