Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Lo and behold, guess what showed up in my mailbox on Wednesday, February 21st? A week shy of four months after signing up online for a one-year subscription to North & South magazine, I received my first issue. I had mixed feelings. My initial inclination was to mark it “refused, return to sender” but then I asked myself why I was being so petty. I’m actually glad to have finally received it and look forward to future issues. At $39 per year the magazine is a relative bargain and it makes me wonder how they’re surviving. I know people who are spending more than that in a month at Starbucks. At the same time I don’t want anyone to assume my experience with the magazine is typical of the way their business is conducted.
This is how it’s been going. Someone you barely know keeps extending an invitation for you to visit. The visit, if made, might prove interesting and you promise yourself one day you’ll pop in. Time goes by and there are occasional reminders that you need to make that visit. So finally, finally, you write yourself a note on a work calendar to visit on Saturday, February 24th at 1 p.m., and because you get absorbed in your work that particular day you almost forget and then have to rush like hell to make the visit. And, yes, it is true, when you’re in a hurry you’ll hit every red light, all twenty-seven of them.
“Donald, this is General Dan Sickles lower right leg bone.” “General Sickles’ lower right leg bone, this is Donald.” The General’s leg bone and I were finally introduced at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, located on the campus of Walter Reed Army Hospital. I have to confess that I was smiling when we were introduced. Not that I would wish ill fortune on anyone, but there was a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing this s.o.b. had somehow gotten his comeuppance. Yet, when I think about Sickles, who stole a life, stole money, made character assassination an art form and self promotion a religion, I see someone who always came up smelling roses.
Reader, meet Gen. Sickles' lower right leg bone.
In case you don’t know the story of the leg bone, Sickles, who commanded the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac, was struck in the leg by a cannonball at Gettysburg, which resulted in amputation. It has become legend, real or imagined, that Sickles, who was very attached, or in this case, detached, to his leg, made an annual pilgrimage to Washington to gaze with fondness on his missing limb, which he had donated to the museum. What is not the stuff of imagination is that Sickles shipped the leg in a coffin-shaped box accompanied by a card that read “With the compliments of General D.E.S.”
There was another introduction waiting, this one more important to me personally than Sickles’ old shattered leg bone. About two feet to the left was the top portion of a skull that once belonged to, and I suppose in a way still does, Corporal George H. Swift, Co. C, 18th Massachusetts Infantry.
Swift was born in Middleboro, MA circa 1843, to Henry A. and Emily A. Swift. It’s possible he was in an apprenticeship, had a rift with his parents, or was simply making his own way in the world, because, according to the 1860 Census, he was a 17 year-old Shoemaker residing in the home of another family in Middleboro, while his five younger siblings were recorded as living at home. In that same census, his father, then 50 years of age, was also listed as a Shoemaker. In 1870 Henry Swift declared he made his bread by tilling the soil as a farmer, while his 47 year-old wife kept house.
George was either 17 or 18 when he enlisted at Carver, one town over from Middleboro, on September 19, 1861, joining Company C of the 18th Massachusetts as a Private, though he wasn’t mustered into the service until January 14th of the following year. He must have felt he was missing something, having seen 96 of his fellow townsmen enlist as members of Company D in the 18th Mass. and leave for the seat of war. Whatever his reasons, whether swept by patriotism or seizing an opportunity for adventure, he cast his lot with 21 others from Middleboro who were mustered the same day and comprised a fair percentage of Company C’s compliment of soldiers.
At 5 ft. 10 inches he was taller than average, with a light complexion. Both his hair and eyes were recorded in Regimental records as dark. Like so many from the country or small towns he became a ready target for disease, contracting mumps three weeks after his arrival in camp at Hall’s Hill in Arlington, VA. A month later, he was one of nine men who escorted the body of 19 year-old Isaac Harlow back to Middleboro, after Harlow died of Typhoid Fever at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 1, 1862. Harlow had spiraled downward rapidly, succumbing just three days after becoming ill. In a letter written by a member of the Regiment, Harlow was remembered as “esteemed for his consistent Christian deportment… His loss is deeply felt by us all, and we unite in offering feelings of condolence to his parents and the friends in general. He was one of our attendants at the weekly meetings, and little did I think when I saw him last there that he would be so soon called to his Heavenly home.”
That Swift was a good soldier willing to obey orders is evident by the fact that he suffered a gunshot wound to a hand during the assault on Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, and his promotion to Corporal on January 4, 1863, per recommendation of his Captain. Aside from reading accounts of camp life written by others and tracing movements of the Regiment and the Army of the Potomac, there’s no information on the final four months of his life, until May 3, 1863. It’s likely he was lying on the ground or at least had his head down when a musket ball struck him on the top of his skull. Evacuated to a hospital in Washington, surgeons decided to operate, in an effort to relieve what they believed was pressure on the brain, caused either by bleeding or bone fragments. Drilling a hole into and using a saw to cut the skull, doctors soon realized there was no internal damage and put away their instruments. Of the 220 similar surgical procedures, there had been a fifty per cent survival rate. George Swift happened to fall into the wrong half of the equation and died of his wounds on May 17th. In keeping with existing traditions, he was buried before sunset at the Military Asylum Cemetery.
Corp. George H. Swift's partial skull
The grave of Corp. George H. Swift, Military Asylum Cemetery, Washington, DC
In addition to “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds: Medicine During the Civil War,” the museum, which is free and open everyday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m, with the exception of Christmas, offers other exhibits which tell the story of medical science, including the evolution of the microscope, treatment technology, and human growth. The museum also “displays a wide array of delightfully macabre medical wonders – deformed fetuses, a huge hairball taken from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl who liked to chew her hair, and an elephantiasis scrotum that looks like the world’s biggest Portobello mushroom.” I had never seen conjoined twins up close and personal, but there they were, floating in formaldehyde. I would have included a picture in this post, but, having neglected to check the batteries beforehand, my camera went dead while viewing the Civil War exhibit.
Dr. Burt, the docent who led our tour, agreed that many of today’s medical advances, treatments, and procedures, will probably be considered archaic and barbaric in the future and may someday find a home in the museum, just like the iron lung. He remarked that much of what he learned in medical school 50 years ago is now considered obsolete. Pausing to marvel at the C2 model of an artificial leg, which makes it possible for an amputee to walk within days of surgery, he lamented the same advances hadn’t yet been made with arms.
At the conclusion of the tour I prevailed upon the good doctor for an opinion. After providing background information to him, he debunked an oral tradition handed down in my family, that a minie ball had traveled from my great-great grandfather’s hand and upward through bone toward the elbow. It was more likely, Dr. Burt reasoned, that the ball struck the arm dead on, shattering the bones and necessitating amputation. Mulling over his response on the drive back to my office building, I came to the conclusion that I liked my family’s oral tradition better, plausibility and medical reality aside.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
It’s been close to two weeks since I’ve posted due to family, sickness, job stuff and just general too much to do and not enough time to do it in. To be quite honest, I am glad that Donald relieved some of the pressure by posting last week, otherwise the Blog would have been quite empty for too long. It is at times like this that I am glad this is a group blog – you get tired, someone else is there to pick up.
A friend of mine has started a neat little venture; he roasts his own coffee beans on a weekly basis and brings me in a pound each Monday. I have to say it is much better than any of the junk you can get at a grocery store or coffee store. I am now on the second to last pot and trying to decide if I want to have the last pot and experience my wife’s wrath or not by having the last pot. I think I’ll just make a different type and wish it was Monday and I had the next new batch. If you haven’t figured it out from previous posts, I write while listening to music and drinking coffee. Having this new service should help tremendously.
So I am sitting listening to Brandi Carlile and typing up a few posts so that we have some fresh stuff up. If you haven’t heard of Brandi, go here and listen to a few of her songs. Her new album is coming out in April and I can’t wait. I’ve listened to her last more times than I care to admit. Her “Fall Apart Again” is a masterpiece of vocals and lyrics. The sad thing is that so many kids think Justin Timberlake is a great artist and wouldn’t even consider listening to Brandi - sad state of the music industry.
But as I was saying, I’ll have some fresh post up throughout the week. Hope you enjoy them and look forward to hearing from all of you in the comment sections.