J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Dr. Thacher’s Diagnoses

On 7 June 1780, Dr. James Thacher served as a Continental Army surgeon during the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey. In his diary, published decades later, Thacher described one casualty like this:
In the heat of the action, some soldiers brought to me in a blanket, Captain Lieutenant [Alexander] Thompson of the artillery, who had received a most formidable wound, a cannon ball having passed through both his thighs near the knee joint. With painful anxiety, the poor man inquired if I would amputate both his thighs; sparing his feelings, I evaded his inquiry, and directed him to be carried to the hospital tent in the rear, where he would receive the attention of the surgeons. "All that a man hath will he give for his life." He expired in a few hours.
After the battle, Gen. Nathanael Greene reported to the commander-in-chief: "The Artillery under the command of Lt Colonel [Thomas] Forest was well served—I have only to regret the loss of Capt. Lt Thompson who fell at the side of his piece by a cannon ball."

Dr. Thacher recalled having to leave another casualty of the British artillery fire:
While advancing against the enemy, my attention was directed to a wounded soldier in the field. I dismounted and left my horse at a rail fence, it was not long before a cannon ball shattered a rail within a few feet of my horse, and some soldiers were sent to take charge of the wounded man, and to tell me it was time to retire.

I now perceived that our party had retreated, and our regiment had passed me. I immediately mounted and applied spurs to my horse, that I might gain the front of our regiment. Colonel [Henry] Jackson being in the rear, smiled as I passed him; but as my duty did not require my exposure, I felt at liberty to seek a place of safety.

It may be considered a singular circumstance, that the soldier above mentioned was wounded by the wind of a cannon ball. His arm was fractured above the elbow, without the smallest perceptible injury to his clothes, or contusion or discoloration of the skin. He made no complaint, but I observed he was feeble and a little confused in his mind. He received proper attention, but expired the next day. The idea of injury by the wind of a ball, I learn, is not new, instances of the kind have, it is said, occured in naval battles, and are almost constantly attended with fatal effects.
As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition:
Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.
As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.


Katie Turner Getty said...

I find these "wind of the ball" injuries to be very interesting. Would make for a good MythBusters episode. :)

J. L. Bell said...

But who’ll volunteer to be the tester?