By Scott Valentine
The fighting at Bull Run, the Civil War’s first major battle, seemed touch and go for a while. In the end, the Rebels controlled the field and the Union Army retreated in a panic.
Earlier in the day, before the contest had been decided, Asst. Surg. Benjamin Walter Carpenter, 24, of the 2nd Vermont Infantry had received orders to stay behind to care for sick and disabled men. He and his patients made themselves as comfortable as possible in the summer heat at a small house along Warrenton Turnpike and waited.
Later, when remnants of the defeated Union army filed past, Carpenter ordered all of his sick and disabled patients who could walk to join the retreat. Then, in a notable display of concern for the balance of the patients under his care, he “posted himself in the road, pistol in hand, halted every wagon that came along, and when he could not persuade compelled the unwilling drivers to take in one or more of his sick and wounded men, till all were taken. He then, in company with a surgeon of another regiment, followed the column to Centreville. The men thus assisted never forgot the service rendered them by the resolute young Vermont surgeon,” recounted an historian.
A year later, during another retreat at the end of the Seven Days’ Battles, Carpenter again distinguished himself. “He had become endeared to the men by his faithful care, especially during the sickly time on the Chickahominy; while his coolness in danger—notably in the surprise and sudden cannonade at White Oak Bridge, where he was active in rallying the men when some in more responsible positions were seeking the shelter of friendly trees—gave him an added title to their respect.”
His colonel, Edward Hastings Ripley (1839-1915), noted that Carpenter was “very popularly known as ‘The Little Doctor,’” and praised him as “the best Army Surgeon I ever met.”
Soon after, Carpenter advanced to full surgeon and transferred to the 9th Vermont Infantry. The historian recalled the reaction of the men and officers of the 2nd: “His departure was universally regretted in the regiment, and indeed throughout the brigade.”
In 1864, at the Battle of Newport Barracks, N.C., Carpenter temporarily set aside his surgeon’s kit. The commander of the 9th, Lt. Col. Valentine Barney, needed every man he could muster when Confederate forces threatened to overrun the regiment’s position. “Surgeon Carpenter, in the lack of field officers, went to the front, and was active and efficient in watching the movements of the enemy and carrying orders to the various portions of the command.”
Carpenter went on to serve as the chief medical officer at Chicago’s Camp Douglas and medical director of the Second Division of the 18th Army Corps before he resigned in November 1864 to care for his ill mother. He returned to Burlington, Vt., operating a medical practice and pharmacy until his death in 1906 at age 69.
Scott Valentine is a MI Contributing Editor.
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