A Temerity to Life

Dr. J. W. Page had a very particular view of the Civil War on the North Carolina coast. I was looking at his letters, diaries and supply ledgers at the New York Public Library a couple weeks ago and it was unmistakable:

"Regions of the Body Wounded or Injured," U.S. Sanitary Commission Papers, New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

“Regions of the Body Wounded or Injured,” U.S. Sanitary Commission Papers, New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

To him the war was all about wounds and injuries, and he breaks them down clinically and methodically.

Here is how Dr. Page described a Union army raid into Confederate territory in December 1862. We now know the actions during that raid as the battles of Kinston, White Hall and Goldsboro Bridge.

And I quote—

Wounds of the Head- 67

                                    Wounds of the Face – 29

                                    Wounds of the Neck- 17

                                    Wounds of the Chest            – 74

                                    Wounds of the Abdomen – 19

                                    Wounds of the Back and Spine – 16

                                    Wounds of the Upper Extremities- 161

                                     Wounds of the Lower Extremities- 146

            Total: 534- incl. 22 officers.


His was a grim accounting.

Dr. Page further divided the wounds by the projectile or weapon that caused them: cannon ball; shell; grape shot; rifle, musket or pistol shot; sword or lance; bayonet.

Dr. J. W. Page, U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Dr. J. W. Page, U.S. Sanitary Commission. Courtesy, New York Public Library

That was Dr. Page’s war. A native of Bath, Maine, he was the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s chief agent in the parts of the North Carolina coast that the Union army occupied from 1862 to 1865.

The USSC was a privately funded group that supported field hospitals and provided food, clothes, bedding and other comforts to sick and wounded Union soldiers.

When you view the war through Dr. Page’s eyes, you don’t see anything about valor or cowardice, tactics or battle lines, state’s rights or slavery.

Instead, you see hospital supply lists, special efforts to find new clothes for smallpox victims (whose own clothes, of course, had to be burned) and urgent pleas for blankets, lemons or underwear.

Rarely did the doctor convey any personal feeling or emotion for a specific patient in the papers that I read at the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division.

He probably had his hands full. He was in charge of the USSC’s efforts at Union hospitals in New Bern, Morehead City, Beaufort, Newport, Little Washington, Plymouth and Roanoke Island. He also extended aid to war refugees and local civilians in need of food and clothing.

One reference to an injured Union soldier did stand out, though, if only because it was so unusual.

Dr. Page’s comment concerned Private Joseph Beals from the 158th N. Y. Volunteers. On May 26, 1864, four torpedoes intended for mining the Neuse River exploded at Bachelor’s Creek, while they were being unloaded from a train.

According to Dr. Page’s records, that explosion killed 28 men, wounded 16 others and left 25 others “slightly affected.” One of the gravely wounded was Pvt. Beals.

In a USSC report, Dr. Page wrote a list of the casualties admitted to Foster General Hospital in New Bern and noted, one by one, what happened to them and how they were faring.

Of Joseph Beals, he wrote: “Fracture of right leg—extensive laceration & contusion of scalp, face, body & extremities. Transverse opening into the larynx, one inch in extent. The lungs much congested.”

And then he wrote: He seemed to possess great temerity to life.            

A young man’s spirit revealed in eight words, a medical doctor’s heart revealed for a split second.

It was the lad’s epitaph. Dr. Page’s final note on young Beals reads: “Died 62 hours after injury.”

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