I have been wanting to do an article related to the Confederate Medical Corps for some time, as I greatly admire what that branch of the service did during the war. Working under extremely difficult conditions, often short of medicine and supplies, Southern doctors and all of the men of the medical corps did their very best to provide quality care to the men in their charge.
In 1902 Dr. George C. Phillips of Holmes County, Mississippi, spoke to a group of his fellow veterans about his service as a surgeon with the 22nd Mississippi Infantry during the Corinth campaign in October 1862. This talk was published in three parts in the Progress Advertiser of Lexington, Mississippi, on November 7, 14, and 21, 1902.
George C. Phillips was a 25 year old physician in Tchula, Holmes County, Mississippi, when the war started. He enlisted as a private in Company G, “Black Hawk Rifles,” 22nd Mississippi Infantry, on August 12, 1861. He was appointed an assistant surgeon in the regiment on September 26, 1861.
Dr. Phillips talk on his experiences during the bloody fighting at Corinth, and the days immediately thereafter, illustrates the incredibly hard work done by the medical corps during a major campaign:
Commander and Comrades: You have asked me to give you my experience in removing the wounded of my brigade from Corinth Miss., after the disastrous battles fought there Oct., 3rd and 4th, 1862 by the Confederates under General Earl Van Dorn. Of the desperate charges made by our men against the enemy’s breast works, line after line of which they carried, until checked on the second day by the enemy, concentrating their entire force on the almost impregnable position of College Hill I have nothing to say but leave to some of our comrades who were present and took part in that awful struggle, my field hospital was on a small creek immediately behind our brigade line of battle, where there was shade and water.
The infirmary corps ambulance drivers and asst. surgeons were informed where to bring the wounded. The surgeons of the brigade then set to work to prepare for the wounded that we knew would soon be on hand, improvising tables from wagon beds or any pieces of board we could get, or door of a house if any was near, having pots of water boiled, buckets of cold water set handy, instrument and bandages put in order. We had no tents. In the mean time the battle had opened and was waging in our front. By the time our crude preparations were finished, the wounded commenced coming in, those who could walk, on foot, others in ambulance, some in wagons, as we had but few ambulances.
The men were taken out and laid on the ground in the shade of trees, and the conveyances sent back for others. Now came hard work for the surgeons, first in the lignating arteries that were bleeding, cutting out bullets that could be felt, laying aside, often a hurried examination, those requiring a capital operation until the rush was over, splinting and bandaging broken limbs that might be saved.
Late in the night, working by candle light. We finished, first work, with the lot of wounded and the poor fellows as comfortable as we could with the scant means at hand, lying on the bare ground with only their one blanket around them. Fortunately it was not cold, early the next morning the battle reopened and all through the day the wounded continued to come in, though not so numerous as the day before, the artillery doing most of the fighting in our front, the infantry supporting it.
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon I received orders to remove all the wounded who could bear transportation in wagons, back some miles on the road we came in on, to Chewalla, where we made the famous charge on the saw mill – so humorously described in poetry by Col. Reid. None of our wounded wanted to be be left, so I had them all placed in wagons (seventy two, if my memory is correct.) I am speaking only of Bowen’s brigade. We reached Chewalla and got the wounded all taken out about seven o’clock p.m., and I prepared to remove a man’s arm at the shoulder joint who ought to have been operated on the evening before but we did not have the time.
It was a dark night and the wind blowing, I had two sperm candles held by two men with their hats shielding the flame from the wind in spite of which, first one and then the other would be blown out. The case was so urgent however, that I determined to operate, even under these difficulties. As the amputation was to be at the shoulder joint, no compression of the blood vessels could be maintained. So I with the understanding that Dr. McMillen, a large strong man, was to grab the lower flap, as soon as cut, with thumbs across it compressing the bleeding artery.
The bone was shattered by a piece of shell so that I was forced to sweep the knife around to disarticulate the head, Mc’s thumb was in the way ‘hold on’ he says, ‘you are cutting my thumb,’ ‘I can’t stop,’ says I, ‘but damn it Phillips it hurts, you are cutting right into my thumb,’ says he, ‘Hold hard Mc says i, this man’s life is in your hand and you must not turn loose.’ Mc did hold, and the man’s life was saved, but Mc had a sore thumb for some time.
About 9 o’clock that night I received orders “to load up the wounded and start at once with them to Holly Springs, on the same road that we came to Corinth on; to travel until I reached the bridge across the Hatchie River; to stop there long enough to dress the wounds of the men and to feed them; that a quartermaster sergeant would be sent with me, with funds to buy provisions and that I might detail an assistant surgeon to go with and assist me.
I selected Dr. B.F. Kittrell of the 22nd Miss., Regiment, we placed the wounded mostly in wagons that had been used for hauling provisions and forage for the army, there being only five or six ambulances, in which the worst wounded were placed until filled, some were too badly hurt to be moved, but they begged not to be left, and I had all loaded as best I could with straw and leaves in the wagons beds. These were the regular army four mule wagons without springs. We got started between ten and eleven o’clock that night. About twelve o’clock we came to a creek bottom, where the darkness was so intense that the drivers could not see the road and the jolting so great from the running into ruts and over stumps that the wounded could not stand it so I was forced to disobey orders and halted the train.
We stopped right in the road, and drivers, mules, and all who could except myself went to sleep, I was awfully sleepy but had to stay awake to start the train as soon as day began to break and the drivers could see to avoid rough places. We proceeded without incident until we reached Hatchie Bridge about 12 o’clock on the 5th. The train had just stopped and the team of the front ambulance unhitched when two cavalry men came charging across the bridge, at full speed, their hats in their hands, shouting “Go back, go back, the enemy are just across the other side.”
I told the division to turn round and drive to the edge of the woods on the plateau above the river bottom and wait further orders; to give Dr. Kittrell and myself all the canteens we could pack and we would bring the men water, many of them were suffering and calling for it, we not having been able to get any one route, Dr. Kitrell and I hitched our horses, went down the stream and filled about a dozen canteens apiece. When we got up the bank, we found a Confederate cavalry regiment formed across the road, tied the canteens to our saddles and mounted. Says I, “Kittrell lets see what this cavalry is going to do, there may be only a small force of the enemy on the other side and our men may drive them out of the way and we can go ahead.”
The commander of the regiment called in a loud voice, “all men with long range guns step to the front.” Not a man moved it looked as if none of them had long range guns, at least they did not think they were. He then rode down the line and pointed them out, one man said “My captain told me to hold horses.” Another said, “My captain told me to take care of his overcoat,” and so on, one excuse after another. It was a wedding they did not care to attend. Says I, “Kittrell, men are not going to fight, and we are in a middle of a bad fix. We had heard the distant boom of cannons back on the road we came. Lets get our train together and await developments.”
We found our train where I had directed them to stop, I moved them out of the road in the shade of some trees, while distributing the canteens of water. I saw one of our infantry brigades coming down the road at a double quick, thinking that it was Federal cavalry that had run our cavalry across the river and that they were no better fighters than ours (that was before Van Dorn and Forrest had made fighters of our cavalry) and as soon as our infantry struck them they would sweep them out of the way and open up our road, I went to looking after some of the wounded, giving opiates to some that were suffering greatly. Sam Gwin came to me saying that Dr. Keirn was in an ambulance not in my train, suffering very much with his wounded hand, as I finished, one of our men who had been who had been to me several times on the trip, came and begged me while we were stopped to cut his finger off, which had been shot the day before, and was hanging by the tendons and a piece of skin and swinging about pained him very much.
I told him all right, and for Dr. Kittrell to come with him to the shade of a black jack, off from the wagons about forty yards. The Dr. asked me to let him operate as he did not often have a chance, to which I agreed, laid the man on the ground and commenced administering chloroform on a towel. For some reason he was the hardest man to anaesthetize I had even tried it on. He got to the stage of excitement and would not pass it. In the mean time the infantry that passed us had become heavily engaged as soon as they got down on the river and cannons firing from the other side. Says I, “Kittrell the enemy are not cavalry alone they have infantry and artillery.”
I pressed the chloroform and our patient who could hear the firing and in his semi delirious state imagined himself in the midst of a battle, fighting the yankees shooting and charging. At last the chloroform got the better of him. I told the Dr. to go ahead and be as quick as possible as the fighting was growing hotter and appeared coming nearer and I must get my train back out of the way. The Dr. had made one cut on the finger to form a flap when a shell passed through the tree top we were under. Kittrell remarked we can’t stay here Dr. we will be killed. Oh, says I, “Go ahead that’s a shell and they don’t shoot in the same place,” but the Dr. was nervous and his hands shook so that I said keep cool Kittrell or you won’t make a good job of this. I am cool enough says he but this is [an] operation under great difficulties. As he said this another shell struck the ground and burst about twenty feet to one side of us throwing dirt over all of us.
Kittrell stopped and said, “Doctor we must get away from here.” Says I, “give me that knife
I will finish this job.” With two quick sweeps of the knife I unjointed the finger and in a minute folded the flap down and bandaged the stump. I took no stitches, as is usual in such cases, laid his gun and cartridge box by him, remarking, “You can take your revenge out on the Yankees, if you are still of the same mind, when you blow off that chloroform as they appear to be large numbers just down under the hill, and ran to my horse in such a hurry that I forgot my bottle of chloroform.
When I got on my horse I looked around for my train, not wagon or ambulance could I see, nor could I imagine where they had gone as the road we came on was filled with more infantry, coming rapidly to support their friends, who were being hard pressed on both sides of the road, up and down the river, as I saw no other road, however, I supposed they had gone back that way until they met the infantry.
We galloped back alongside the road, asking if a train of wounded passed back, none had seen it. These were all Price’s men, among our best fighters, but I could not help but notice the expression of their faces, many of them haggard, all stern and serious. They had been repulsed in their two days fight at Corinth, followed by a victorious enemy and now their only road of retreat, so far as they knew, blocked by a powerful force of the enemy which they must whip before the force in their rear caught up.
They knew that there was deadly work ahead of them, into which they were going, worn, weary and hungry, it was enough to make them look serious. Here I witnessed one of the saddest scenes that I saw during the war, an old blind grandmother, her daughter and four little grandchildren, lived in a house around which the heaviest of the fighting was going on. They had fled and gotten into the road filled with our troops, the daughter leading her blind mother and one of the little children, the other three holding her by the dress, and all crying
I stopped and asked them what was the matter and where they were going. They told me where they lived, that they did not know where to go, that soldiers and fighting was everywhere. I directed them to leave the road and go down in a steep hollow and stay there until the fighting was over, then to go back home.
Going further back on the road we met two batteries of artillery. They stated that they had met no train of wounded. Knowing that they could not pass without one or the other giving the road, i saw that it was useless to look further in that direction, so we rode as rapidly as possible back to where we operated on the man’s finger. The man and his gun were gone, but the bottle of chloroform was still there. The fighting with both musketry and cannon was now raging all along the line of the river for half a mile and wounded men were coming back.
Riding north along a drive road we presently saw an ambulance about a quarter of a mile
ahead of us. Putting our horses in a lope we soon overtook it, and found it to be one of my train and containing the major of my regiment, who was badly wounded in the shoulder the day before by a shell, and three wounded privates. The major was suffering greatly from his wound. The driver informed me that the rest of the train had gone on this road ahead of him and the major would not let him drive fast enough to keep up. I asked Dr. Kittrell to ride ahead until he overtook the front ambulance and to pack them behind some hill until I came up, because shells were bursting all along the ridge we were traveling.
I hitched my horse to the back of the ambulance and got in to dress the major’s wound and told and told the driver to stop, just then a shell passed just over us and burst a short distance beyond. The major remarked, “Doctor, we will all be killed here.” “I can’t help it major,” I answered, pouring water from my canteen on his shoulder and removing the old hard bandage as rapidly as I could, I soon had it off, put a wet compress over the wound and was applying a fresh bandage when a shell passed under the mules and burst a short distance beyond, filling the ambulance with smoke but hurting none of us. “I tell you, doctor, we will all be killed here,” said the major. Well major, says I, “I had just as soon be killed fixing up a wounded ma as at any other time, but driver you let those mules go, and get away from here.”
When the wheels would hit a rock or root with a big jolt the major would grunt, but he did not say stop any more, in fact he was much more comfortable after I had bandaged his arm tightly to his side. I then mounted my horse, telling the driver to follow the road until he came up with the other drivers, went on at a lope. The road ran on a ridge parallel with the river and almost north for some distance, then turned into a deep hollow, almost due east. Down in this hollow I found Dr. K and all of my train. The trip getting out of range of the shells had been awful upon the wounded and two had died in the wagons. The drivers would put their teams on the run when the wounded would scream, swear and yell to them to stop when they would hold up for awhile, a shell would burst near them and they would yell to the drivers to whip up again.
From the direction I believed the road we were on would lead back into that we had come from Corinth. It was now nearly dark. Leaving Dr. K. with the train I rode on to try and find out where the road did lead. Less than a half mile I found that it did lead into the Corinth road, and that our wagon train was moving along it rapidly, knowing that if they followed it that they would go to the bridge on the Hatchie, where the fighting was, and as I knew the enemy had not been repulsed, I was puzzled to know what they were up to, the drivers did not know. After a little while a quartermaster major came along, inquiring of him, he told me they were going out on the boneyard road. I told him that I had been on that all day and had seventy wounded with me. He then told me that the boneyard road led to a mill on the Hatchie river, ten miles above the bridge, and they were going to cross on the dam, and that if i could get my wagons and ambulances in the train to do so.
I hurried back and moved my train to the road, telling the front driver to keep the heads of his teams right at the road and when I gave the word to rush in and all the rest to keep closed up, most of the train had passed when a wagon broke down just beyond us, before it could be thrown out I ordered my drivers to rush in quick, which they did. It was now dark. I supposed the quartermaster reported my presence, with the wounded, in the train, for after going a mile or two I received an order from Gen Van Dorn, through Division surgeon McVinlen to select one house on the road, assemble all the wounded there and surrender them. I told the doctor there was no use in surrendering until there was someone to surrender to. He replied that he had no discretion in the matter, that he had delivered the order as given to him.
I told him to tell the general all right. It was so dark I could not see any house, if there was any, and I intended to make this my excuse if hauled up for disobeying orders. An hour after this I noticed infantry passing us on the side of the road, presently Colonel _____ came along and recognizing me, how I do not know, for it was dark as pitch, asked me in a low tone, “If I knew that the wagon train was abandoned.” i told him no, but my wounded and myself were and informed him of the general’s orders and he said “the entire train is abandoned. My regiment is the last of the rear guard and we are passing now, there are no troops between you and the enemy and I just wanted to tell you goodbye.” Well, Jim,” I replied, “I am not going to stop as long as this train keeps moving unless the Yankees come up and order me to, and I don’t believe they are going to do that in the dark, they are about near broke down as we are.” “Well, good bye boys,” the colonel said, “I hope you will pull through.”
Late in the night we reached the mill dam on the Hatchie river. I don’t suppose a wagon had ever crossed on it before, our men had strengthened and widened the old dam as well as they could, in the short time they had, making a sort of mud bridge of logs and slabs on top of the dam, the water flowing over it all along, making about the roughest route wounded men were ever hauled over; providentially the entire train got over without accident so far as I know. A little while after crossing the river the wagon train and the infantry went into bivouac, leaving the road open. I saw my chance to get ahead of the army and drove all night, and until ten o’clock next day, when we reached Ripley, away south of either army.
Teams and men were completely worn out, thirsty and hungry. Some citizens directed me to a large meadow through which ran a fine spring branch bordered with large beach trees. Parking the wagon, all the teams were turned loose. I had the wounded taken out and placed together under the shade of the trees. At the far end of the meadow was a small flock of sheep. I wrote a note to the man owning the sheep, stating that besides the drivers and attendants, we had seventy wounded men, that for three days we had had nothing to eat: would he please sell me a couple of those sheep. He did not reply to the note but sent word by the man, that he had no sheep to sell, that what few he had was needed for his own family. (Our commissary sergeant got lost from us, in the confusion, the day before and did not join us again, in fact I expect he, as well as Gen. Van Dorn, thought the Yankees were taking care of us.)
It was a ground hog case, these men must be fed. I ordered two of the men belonging to my infantry corps “To take their guns and kill two of the fattest sheep in that flock, dress them nicely and make soup in camp kettles with one of them, for all the men. For four of the teamsters to take a wagon and bring in corn and hay for the teams and three or four bushels of meal, if they had to grind in and beg or steal some salt” all of which they carried out to the letter like the good soldiers they were. By the time the soup was done, and bread baked, all wounded had their wounds bathed and fresh dressings applied.
There were four tents found in the wagon, which were stretched, straw placed on them and the wounded all laid in them. Then every man had a pan of soup, a piece of mutton, and a good chunk of bread, and I tell you comrades, I thought that was the best soup, the tenderest mutton and sweetest bread I had ever eaten, and the soundest and best sleep that night I ever had, we all went to sleep before dark and did not wake until daylight the next morning, when after another good feed of soup, mutton and bread we started on the road for Holly Springs which we reached without further accident the evening of the second day, that is the 8th, and delivered my wounded at the general hospital.
I was not court martialed for disobeying orders, rather complimented for bringing the wounded out; in truth I think I was forgotten.
G.C. Phillips, Ex-Surg. 22nd Miss. Regt. Inf. Confed. States
Editors Note: George Crawford Phillips died November 3, 1927, in Akron, Ohio, where he
lived with his daughter. He was brought back to Lexington, Mississippi, for burial, and in his obituary it was said of him: “Dr. Phillips was a veteran of the Civil War, serving as a surgeon in the Confederate army, and there never was a more ardent supporter of their cause than the brave soldier who filled his post for the whole four years of suffering and strife.” Doctor George C. Phillips is buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery, Lexington, Mississippi.