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Wounded at Fort Wagner, Death after Bermuda Hundred

Captain Emerson. Carte de visite by James Fitzallen Ryderof Cleveland, Ohio. Author’s collection.
Captain Emerson. Carte de visite by James Fitzallen Ryder of Cleveland, Ohio. Author’s collection.

About half an hour after the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and the rest of Brig. Gen. George Strong’s Brigade charged Fort Wagner, another Union brigade joined the offense. Commanded by Col. Haldimand S. Putnam, its four regiments advanced in column. The third in line was the 67th Ohio Infantry. A newly promoted captain, George Emerson, commanded Company F.

Bullets buzzed like angry bees as the Buckeyes crossed Wagner’s moat. As Emerson approached the southeast bastion, a Minié bullet struck a glancing blow to his head. Bleeding profusely and believing the injury fatal, he fell back. His men continued on and some of them climbed onto the bastion before being forced back by the fort’s Confederate defenders.

Emerson made his way to a field hospital. By the time a surgeon cleaned and bandaged the wound, the assault had ended in failure.

A year later in Virginia, Emerson suffered his second war wound. He and the rest of the 67th composed part of the Bermuda Hundred section of Union lines near Ware Bottom Church, Va. On May 20, 1864, Confederate forces commanded by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard attacked. By day’s end the severe fighting left about 1,400 of the 10,000 federals involved dead or wounded, including Emerson. His cousin, Sgt. Taylor E. Stroud of Company G, wrote to Emerson’s father, Asa, about his son’s condition:

“Dear Uncle: I now take this opportunity to write to you a few lines to let you know how the boys are. Your Son, George, is dangerously wounded through the bowels. I do not think he can live very long. He has gone to Fortress Monroe this morning.” He continued, “I would like to have went with George and the rest of the boys to help take care of them, but I could not go. He said that he would get a Chaplain to write to you and I think you will get all the particulars. The last thing he said to me that he wanted his body sent home if it cost two thousand dollars. I hope you will try to get to him.”

Trenches at Bermuda Hundred. Glass plate negative by an unidentified photographer. Library of Congress.
Trenches at Bermuda Hundred. Glass plate negative by an unidentified photographer. Library of Congress.

Abdominal wounds meant certain death. When a soft lead bullet struck the soft tissue, it often tore the intestines and leaked fecal material into the abdomen. Surgeons unfamiliar with antiseptic practices and germ theory probed the wound to staunch bleeding and administered morphine, if available, to make the patient comfortable. Death typically occurred within three days from hemorrhage and/or infection.

Emerson succumbed to his injury on a transport bound for Fortress Monroe. He was 24. Attendants carried his remains to Chesapeake Hospital. Asa Emerson retrieved his son’s body and had it interred in the cemetery near his home in Parma Heights, Ohio.

Scott Valentine is a MI Contributing Editor.

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