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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Detail of Longstreet's Wounds at the Wilderness

by Gordon Thorsby

The details of Stonewall Jackson's wounds are well known. The details of James Longstreet's wounding at the Wilderness is less spoken of. Let's discuss it.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet was arguably Lee’s finest corps commander through the entire war and the best corps commander in both armies. When he was wounded, Lee’s strategy changed and never returned to the same level. It is interesting that Longstreet was wounded a few miles from the location of Jackson’s wounding.

On May 6, 1864, Longstreet was severely wounded in a “friendly fire” incident that also killed Gen. Micah Jenkins and wounded several staff officers.

Two doctors Robert M. Steckler, MD; Jon D. Blachley, MD, made a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Head and Neck Society in Palm Desert, Calif, April 26, 1999. The sources for their information were Longstreet's doctors' notes and official records. Through their knowledge, Steckler and Blachley thought we could gain a thorough understanding of the incident. The following will be a summarized version.

Confederate Dr. John Syng Dorsey Cullen, MD. controlled the hemorrhage from Longstreet's wound, and Cullen was his primary doctor through Longstreet's recovery. The Steckler and Blachley contend that one bullet (probably .58 from an infantry musket) struck Longstreet entering the general from the back. Previous to Steckler and Blachley’s report, the accepted story was the back wound was an exit wound.

In front of Longstreet's party was GEN Micah Jenkins, dressed in a new dark gray uniform that appeared almost black. Meanwhile, the 12th Virginia Infantry of Mahone’s Brigade was lost in the thickets of the Wilderness, simply trying to find their way back.

Longstreet's party traveled between other regiments of Mahone's brigade when the party approached the lost 12th. Thinking the mounted group were Federals, they fired striking Jenkins in the temple instantly killing him and wounding others.

Moxley Sorrel recalled, "[Longstreet] was… lifted straight up and came down hard. The lead-torn coat, an orifice close to the right shoulder pointed to the passage of the heavy bullet…” Longstreet later wrote, "a severe shock from the Minie ball passing through my throat and right shoulder . . . and my right arm dropped to my side."

“Other staff officers saw him “wobble in the saddle and about to fall, lifted him to the ground and sat him against a tree. Cullen rapidly rode to the front. The general was choking on his own blood. Cullen worked to stop the hemorrhage, probably by direct pressure. Longstreet, a bloody froth bubbling at his mouth and throat, was preoccupied with the battle. In a rasping, whispery voice, he ordered MG Charles W. Field to "assume command of the corps [and] press the enemy." Later other doctors consulted with Cullen and conclusions were that it was "not necessarily" fatal." (from the presentation)

Steckley and Blachley argued against the accepted opinion that the wound of entry was located anteriorly. The trajectory of the bullet, Longstreet would have had to have been leaning far forward in the saddle when shot.” Very unlikely was their point.

The doctors contend that the following is what happened:

“The bullet entered the right side of the general's back just along the medial border of the scapula. It traveled in an anterior-superior direction and angled medially, transecting the right brachial plexus and the right recurrent laryngeal nerve. It then passed through the right lobe of the thyroid gland and the right anterolateral wall of the trachea, exiting almost in the midline. This trajectory would account for the paralysis of Longstreet's right arm and his weak, breathy voice, both of which persisted for the rest of his life. The tracheal wound explains the "bloody froth" that issued from his mouth and neck.”

Their research indicated that most of Mahone's brigade was lying down or kneeling and that a ball having a rear entry, the wound would have “a slightly upward trajectory is not only feasible but likely.”

Longstreet was placed in an ambulance traveling to Charlottesville and staying at the home of Mrs. Charles Blackford. Mrs. Blackford noted, "He [Longstreet] is very feeble and nervous and suffers much from his wound. He sheds tears on the slightest provocation and apologizes for it. He says he does not see why a bullet going through a man's shoulder should make a baby of him."

More stable, Longstreet traveled by train to Lynchburg, Va. In July, the general and his family left Virginia for Georgia. His wounds had healed, but his right arm remained paralyzed. His voice, which once could be heard all along the lines, was gone. He was barely able to speak above a whisper. “Following the advice of his doctor he was forever pulling at the disabled arm to bring back its life and action."

If you were to meet James Longstreet on the street in 1880, he would probably shake your hand with his left hand and he would say good morning in a soft, whisper-like voice. Not the way we pictured him.

Consequences of war.


The Cervical Wound of General James Longstreet | Emergency Medicine | JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery | JAMA Network/

The Battle of the Wilderness, by Rhea, Gordon C., Louisian State University, 1994.

US War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 130 volumes Washington, DC.

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