Union soldier turns medic at Gettysburg, 1863

by Elbert Corbin

Pvt. Elbert Corbin to his wife, July 6, 1863. (GLC)After three days of fierce fighting on July 1–3, 1863, nearly 40,000 battered soldiers lay scattered across the blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the torrential summer rain poured down on the wounded, Private Elbert Corbin of the 1st New York Light Artillery was thrust into an unexpected role when he was ordered to remain behind and take care of his fallen comrades.

In this rare letter, Corbin detailed the quick training that enabled him to assist his wounded compatriots. He also writes of helping wounded enemies: “dressed our Boys wounds then . . . assisting to cut out Balls and dress the wounded Rebels.” He resignedly noted the paradox of having to “Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up.”

Corbin describes operations and procedures he performed, saying that he now “can do up wounds from shot or shell or Bullits quite like an M.D.” But he also reported that he is troubled by having become numb to the gruesome tasks of rudimentary surgery: “I can see an Arm or Leg taken off and it has no more affect on my feelings, than cutting so much Beef.” Though he claimed that he was no longer disturbed by his work, it is clear that Corbin’s experiences stayed with him, as he wrote of Gettysburg, “more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Leife.”

A full transcript is available.

Excerpt

Monday Eve July 6th.  10.O’Clock – Em I have passed another busy day – Lieut Shelden was fixed up by me and made as comfortable and sent off with some other officers I am left here in Care of the Boys – Several of the boys who had very slight wounds are with the Battery. We have Patched up just so as to man 4 guns all told and the Battery is ready for the front . . . After getting off Lt[?] S. I dressed our Boys wounds then 15 or 20 of the Boys of other Batteries then I was sent to work assisting to cut out Balls and dress the wounded Rebels and we now have an quantity of them and I shall have to help tomorrow I can do up wounds from shot or shell or Bullits quite like an M.D. – I have had quite a Dicipline I do it for that – I can see an Arm or Leg taken off and it has no more affect on my feelings, than cutting so much Beef – Dead men are plenty here – and I saw plenty of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Leife– at home It is strange how I have diciplined my feelings to see Dying and suffering men and have no feelings only a passing thought, I have some [illegible] that were cut out of men I have had quite a chat to day with Rebels . . . such a Sabbath I shall long remember and these days work here among the wounded & dying – 

* The Gilder Lehrman Institute thanks the following people in helping to identify Corbin as the author of this letter: Thomas E. Corbin (great grandson of Private Elbert Corbin); Greg Goodell and Scott Hartwig at the Gettysburg National Military Park; and Stephen J. Dreher, historian for Pettit’s Battery B.

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