05 April 2013

A Field Surgeon

In a little strip of woods known as Stony Hill there is an important rock.  Now on the Gettysburg Battlefield there are a lot of rocks, but this one is special.  It sits across the road from the monument to the Irish Brigade, in behind another larger rock. What makes this rock important is the brass plaque memorializing the surgeon of the 32nd Massachusetts.  It is the only known monument to a Civil War surgeon on the battlefield.

The 32nd MA was a part of the 2nd Brigade, First Division of the V Corps.  The 2nd Brigade was led by Colonel Jacob Sweitzer, and was made up of the 9th and 32nd Massachusetts, 4th Michigan, and 62nd Pennsylvania.  On 2 July 1863 they were rushed to the support of the III Corps in the Wheatfield.  They deployed on the Stony Hill facing towards the Peach Orchard, with General RĂ©gis  de Trobriand’s Brigade of the III Corps on their left and Colonel William Tilton’s Brigade of the V Corps on their right.  The 32nd was on the left of the Brigade, their position was exposed and Sweitzer gave orders to the Colonel of the 32nd; Colonel Robert Prescott to “change his front to the rear, so as to give him the benefit of elevated ground and cover of the woods’.#  They came under fire almost as soon as they deployed from Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolinians.

Following the 32nd onto the field was their head surgeon, Major Zabdiel Boylston Adams.  Dr Adams was born 25 October 1825 in Boston, MA, a part of one of that city’s oldest families.  He spent two years at Harvard before being “rusticated” to Bowdoin College, where he graduated with honors in 1849.#  [Joshua L Chamberlain was in the class of 1852.]  Adams finished his medical training at Harvard Medical.

He volunteered his services to Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and was commissioned Assistant Surgeon in the 7th MA in May 1861.  Adams was with the 7th for the Battles of Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Fair Oaks.  On 26 May 1862 he was commissioned Head Surgeon for the 32nd MA.  He was with them at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Burnside’s Mud March.

When the 32nd took the field in the late afternoon of 2 July 1863, Dr Adams went with them.  He set up his field medical aid station behind some large rocks, maybe 50 yards behind the front line.  Adams used a flat rock there as his surgical table# [this rock is in front of and to the right of the one with the plaque].  Staying in place as the men of the V Corps retreated off the Stony Hill, Adams didn’t leave until the last moment.  He reported looking a Confederate Officer right in the eye as he was coming off the field, and of having a shell explode, covering him with dirt.#

Throughout the 3rd, 4th and 5th of July Dr Adams stated that he operated non stop.  Most likely he performed the operations at the Michael Fiscel Farm south of White Run.#  While in the middle of an amputation on the 5th of July, he lost his eyesight.  Adams wrote of it that, “I was in the act of amputating the leg  of a wounded Rebel, had removed the limb and was proceeding to tye up the spouting arteries when my sight completely failed me, fortunately assistance was at hand.”#

Dr Adams would return home following his days at Gettysburg.  His eyesight would return and in early 1864 he would become the Major of the 56th MA, leading his men in Battles at the Wilderness and Petersburg.  He was wounded 3 time, almost losing a leg, and was a POW at Libby Prison.#

Following the war Adams returned to his home in Framingham, MA.  He would found the Framingham Union Hospital and serve as  the medical examiner for the 8th Middlesex District.#  He died 1 May 1902 in Framingham after falling over a dam in Southboro, MA#, he is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge,MA.

As to the rest of the men of the 32nd MA, they were ordered into the Wheatfield twice on 2 July.  The first time in support of the III Corps, the second time in support of the II Corps, First Division troops belonging to Brigadier General John Caldwell.  This time they found themselves along a stonewall on the left side of the field.  They were under heavy fire and were soon engaged in hand to hand combat as Confederate troops surrounded them.  One member of the 32nd; Oscar West, remembered the order to retreat as, “left face every man get out of this the best way he can.”#  The company lost 33.1% of its men in the Wheatfield fight#, they would spend the 4th and 5th burying their dead, before leaving the battlefield that evening to follow Lee’s Army south.