Saturday, September 29, 2012

Letter #22 -- Georgetown College Hospital, Washington City -- September 29, 1862

Approximately 4 weeks after his wounding at the Second Battle of Bull Run, John W. Derr sat in a small hospital ward on the campus of Georgetown College (now Georgetown University).  Owing to the large number of wounded that had been produced at the battle of First Bull Run as well as subsequent smaller battles, small hospital wards were popping up all over Washington City.  The most famous of which was the Patent Office in Washington, where tens of thousands of Union soldiers were treated, recuperated...and in some cases...died.  The nation...both north and south...was ill prepared to handle the vast load of wounded soldiers that the war produced.  The initial thoughts of a three month war with all of the glorious heroics of battle, instead turned into a bloody, screaming nightmare.  Washington City...essentially as small sized backwater type town...overnight was turned into a combination armed encampment as well as the largest hospital in the world.   As I stated in prior postings, this human tragedy along with the wounding of his brother, was what drew Walt Whitman to Washington City to serve as a nurse.

As is true in most wars, great benefits resulted from initial tribulations.  Better surgical techniques were developed.  Better doctors...with battlefield training...were produced.  Lesson were learned about hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitation.  Better hospital architectures were designed to add in the recuperation of the wounded and ill.  New techniques in anesthesia, operations, and nutrition were born of the experiences in the Civil War.  We, as Americans, have both our nation and these developments as gifts from our brave soldiers.

In the letter dated September 29, 1862, John has very little to say to his parents.  As you would expect, his letter is primarily to inform his parent that he is healing well and that he is getting better.  This is an interesting letter to me, in so much as it took him an additional four months to recuperate and return to his unit.  As was true of such wounds during the war, the ups and downs of infection and other illness acquired while staying in the hospital wards along side many other sick and dying men, probably contributed to his roller coaster recovery. I find that with what he described as a minor wound taking five months to heal, that his wound was much more serious than he disclosed to his parents.  Additionally, his post war inability to sustain work and his disabilities indicate that this was indeed a very serious wound.  Undoubtedly the initial wound appeared to be minor, with post injury infections and secondary diseases causing further damage to the muscles, tendons and skin on his leg.  However...that was not something to write home to parents.

After his final recovery and return to service John was made the company Wagoner and he spent most of the war driving team between battle line service.  His injured leg made this a better option vs. long marching.  It did not, however, preclude his participation in battles and other operations described in later letters.

The photograph above is a "likeness" taken as some unknown period in the life of John W. Derr.  The original photograph has no date indication.  More than likely it is a post war image, but I include it here as a reference to his image and "likeness" that he mentions in this letter.  I find his interaction in this letter very he shows his true feelings for his parents.  This is, I imagine, a common emotion felt by many lonely, scared and tired soldiers during all wars.

                                                                                               Georgetown College Hospital
                                                                                                Monday September 29, 1862

My Dear Father and Mother,

                        I take my pencil in hand to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am very well today and I hope that this few lines will find you in the same.  Further I let you know that I received your letter today and I was very glad to hear from you and to hear that your are all well.  You said that you did get my likeness what I did send home and you would like to know who is to have it.  My Father and Mother are to have it of course.  They are my oldest friends what I have and if you do get a chance to get it in a case you would better do it because it won’t get so dirty and it will cost only 25 cents.  So I must come to a close and say good by this few lines from your dear son.

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Don’t forget to answer soon.  Direct you letter to John W. Derr., Georgetown College Hospital, Ward No. 2, Washington, D.C.

Jim D.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Clean up and Follow-up

I was working on Letter #21 last week and during the course of the exercise, I found a section of the Google Blogger that I had been remiss in accessing.  I set up this blog to allow for interaction with you...the reader...and to get comments, suggestions and insights into the interests of my readers.  I was puzzled as to why I was getting no comments on the blog (internal to the commenting tool) and yet would get comments directly sent to  Well...mystery solved.   I finally located and reviewed the "Comments" in the Blogger tool and found about a dozen comments that you...the readers...have sent me.  Some as far back as a year.  Wow!  I am feeling kinda silly having asked for comments and then...when folks do send comments...I give the impression that I ignore them.  For that, I profusely apologize!  For those of you who sent the comments directly to the gmail account, I did respond to well as those who commented on my Facebook link and the various groups I belong to in Linkedin.  I have since posted all of those dated comments in their respective postings, so you can see  your comments, if you go back to those dates.  So...I will start reviewing the Blogger comments and posting them on this website on a regular basis...and I am sorry for appearing to be so aloof.

Ok...enough about that.

In 2011, I traveled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to spend a few days at the beach and to do a little research into Burnsides Expedition to North Carolina.  The 48th PVI played a prominent role in this campaign and I wanted to spend a few days absorbing the atmosphere and reflecting on the environment that was endured by my ancestor 149 years prior.  The trip was planned and I was very excited by adventure I was embarking upon.....then came hurricane Irene.  Delaying my trip by 2 days, I ventured south to the Outer Banks only to find that access to the location of the 48th PVI on Hatteras Island had been blocked by storm damage and a missing/washed out road.  While I was 'bummed' by missing this opportunity, I knew that I would return to the Outer Banks...a favorite vacation destination for our family.  So...this year I made another try...and was successful!

My plan was to visit two locations on Hatteras Island...the wreck of the SS Oriental....and the southern point of the island where markers are located commemorating the Burnsides Expedition.   I had been told that wreck of the SS Oriental in May of 1862 was one that was still visible today.  The wreck is located about 100 yards offshore in the surf about 10 miles south of the Oregon inlet across the street from the Pea Island nature center.  I have often heard from people about sites and locations and how "easy" they are to see/access and upon going there myself, find just the opposite.  In this case, the rumors are true.  I parked at the visitor center with my daughter, and we made the 150 yard trek across the road and up the sand dune towards the beach.  At the top of the dune, you get a very good view of the entire beach for miles and a great perch from which to view the ocean....and there...about 100 yards offshore....the wreck of the Oriental.  Well....the cast iron boiler at least.  What you see (below) is the remains of the boiler of the ship and it is just tall enough to breach the surface so you see it with each passing wave.  Very cool.  Especially when you think that it has been 150 years since the ship foundered and sank in a tropical storm leaving many of the passengers to either swim to shore, or the await rescue from the SS George Peabody.   As a interest in the Oriental is because of the connection to the Peabody...the ship that transported Derr from Fort Monroe to Hatteras Island in 1861.  Documentation indicates that during the rescue operations, members of the 48th PVI provided support on the ship to the sinking ship.  Was Derr part of that?  I don't think we will ever know.
For more on this see my posting of... .

SS Oriental

Wreck of the SS Oriental

Boiler images taken from the shore of the SS Oriental......


SS George Peabody

The second location I decided to visit was the location at the drive end of the Hatteras Island near the "Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum" where markers are located in the museum parking lot commemorating the Burnsides Expedition.   The 48th PVI, being and integral part of this expedition, camped and fought here during the defense of the newly captured Forts Hatteras and Clark.  Later  the 48th PVI would transit further south on ships as part of the New Berne campaign near the Neuse River.  Derr's letters of 1861 and early 1862 indicate participation in these actions as well as his discomfort at living in the cold/wet (winter) and hot/sandy (summer) environment of the Outer Banks of  North Carolina.  As a side note...having visited these locations during the month of August in the dead of summer, I can not imagine the discomfort of these soldiers at living in the hot, humid, sandy and insect ridden environment as they did.  Unbelievable.

 Yeah...that's me taking the picture in the reflection....

Jim D.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Letter #21 - Georgetown College Hospital, Washington DC - September 7, 1862

As promised...the September 7, 1862 letter....

In my last post, I commemorated the August 29, 1862 battlefield action at Second Bull Run (Manassas).  In this battle, during the thrust by General Reno's men against General Jackson's men at the Unfinished Railroad near Featherbed Road, John W. Derr was wounded.  In the letter written from his hospital bed at Georgetown College hospital in Washington City, Derr tells of the circumstances of his wounding, subsequent actions by his comrades and the rebels, and ultimately his fortunate parole and hospitalization.  During this battle at around 3:00 p.m. on August 29th, many of his friends in Company D., of the 48th PVI were wounded or taken prisoner.  For example, he identifies Joshua Reed, Peter and David Krieger as friends from the Deep Creek area that were wounded. 

John Derr was careful to include in his letter home, the fact that his wound was serious, but that the wound did not include bone injury.  This was critical, because a gunshot wound that damaged the bone, usually resulted in immediate amputation.  The low velocity, high caliber rounds of the era caused a massive shattering of the bone that was impossible to repair using the medical capabilities of the day.  This, however, did not mean that John was out of the woods.  Infection, disease, and neglect could cause compounding and ancillary failures that could claim a soldiers life, and indeed, John was in the hospital for the next 5 months recuperating. 

                                                                                                Georgetown College Hospital
                                                                                                Washington, September the 7 1862

My Dear Father and Mother,

                        I take my pen in hand to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am not very well now.  I let you know that I am slightly wounded in my leg above the ankle, but it didn’t injure the bone any.  I was wounded August the 29 in the afternoon at about three o’clock or a little after three at what they call Second Bull Run fight.  I was carried off from the field in the hospital form our men.  But then the next day our men had to retreat back and then I was tooked prisoner by the Rebels and they had me for three days.  And then I was Pertroled (Paroled) by our men with a flag of truce and was brought to Washington in the hospital and there I am now.  Now I dares’nt fight anymore until I get exchanged.  There are no more of the Deep Creek boys wounded that I know of but Josua Reed he is slightly wounded, but I don’t know where he is.  And David and Peter Krieger from New Castle they are both slightly wounded.  Peter is shot through the leg above the knee but didn’t hurt the bone, David is shot in the back and they are both with me.  Further I let you know that I will try my very best to get a furlo and come home when my leg gets well.  I hope it will soon get well because it is only a flesh wound and I can nearly walk on it now.  So I don’t have much more to write this time.  So don’t forget to answer this letter as soon as you get this form me.  So I will close letter and say goodbye for this time.

                                                                                                Your respect son,

                                                                                                John W. Derr

Direct your letter to John W. Derr, Georgetown College Hospital, 2nd Ward, Washington, D.C

Photograph of the "Unfinished Railroad" looking west from the Featherbed Road, Manassas, Virginia.  It was within 100 yards of the picture that John W. Derr was wounded during the assault on Jackson's center line on August 29, 1862.

The Stone House at Route 29 and Route 234 in Manassas, Virginia.  Location John W. Derr was taken after being wounded on August 29, 1862 during his prisoner status.  He was later paroled and sent to Georgetown College Hospital in Washington City.

Pennsylvania ARIAS Civil War soldiers service index card of Joshua Reed, wounded along with John W. Derr at the Second Battle of Bull Run...August 29, 1862.  Reed would survive to be captured later in the war at Pegrams Farm in September 1864.  He was exchanged in March of 1865 in poor health and died two months later at his home in Pennsylvania while convalescing.

The Broad and Cherry Street hospital in Philadelphia, Pa, where John Derr recuperated from December 1862 - January 1863.

Jim D.