Written by: Fred Claridge, Volunteer and Friends of Bentonville Battlefield Board Member
Whenever we give a tour of the Harper House Field Hospital Site, we usually try to include some information about individual wounded soldiers who were treated there. Sometimes, we talk about the surgeons who performed the operations and cared for those wounded. We believe adding those personal stories gives our visitors a better feel for what it was like in this small but very busy hospital site during the battle. We see that as our mission – to make the important history that happened here come alive and to be meaningful for our visitors.
One of the wounded we talk about is a young 17 year old private from the state of Wisconsin named Alfred Nugent. He was only 15 when he enlisted in 1864. Alfred was severely wounded in his right arm on the first day of the battle, the bones in his arm completely shattered – as was often the case with the type of bullets used at the time. He was transported by horse-drawn ambulance to the front yard of the Harper House where an Assistant Surgeon examined him and made him a priority 1 casualty (Editor’s Note: Priorities refer to the Letterman Plan developed during the Civil War, an early version of triage). He required a quick amputation to save his life, so he would have been taken inside promptly for surgery. After being put to sleep with chloroform poured on a sponge by Surgeon James T. Reeve, the amputation took approximately ten to fifteen minutes. Surgeons didn’t have the luxury of spending hours on one patient. There were simply too many wounded. And back then, if you were wounded in the head, chest or abdomen, you were prioritized as a low priority, since there was very little that could be done for you. Alfred received his amputation and was taken to the recovery area.
For several years, we told Alfred’s story a certain way – based on the best information we had available. Stories from that time period tend to morph a bit over time. It was our belief that when Alfred was recovering after his surgery the next day, he found his own arm in the pile of arms and legs outside a window of the amputation room. He recognized it because one of the fingers on his right hand was deformed. Visitors tend to be fascinated by that story. Kids love it.
For almost four years, staff at the battlefield have been conducting extensive research to confirm the details of Alfred’s story. We never stop researching here. That’s what we do. We want to present as accurate a representation of what happened here as we can.
Recently, Colby Lipscomb, the Battlefield’s Education Coordinator, found a letter to the editor from an 1886 newspaper (12/15/1886) from a gentleman named J. Max Clark. Apparently, Clark was a buddy of Alfred’s who recounted an experience he had at the Bentonville battlefield. The letter had originally been sent to Alfred and was reprinted. That letter provided us with some much needed detail about the “legend” of Alfred’s arm. As a result, we’ve changed our presentation of that story. The biggest change is that J. Max found the arm, not Alfred. It’s still a cool story.
Clark’s letter is typical of the writing of the time. It’s very wordy and full of hyperbole. There’s also a fair amount of self aggrandizement. The section that we find most interesting is the paragraph (a long one) where he describes his encounter with Alfred at the Harper House. That paragraph is included in its entirety here:
“I remember probably more of you in fact than you do of me. Let me recall to your mind an incident which will prove that I do. On the morning after the fight at Bentonville, I went over to the hospital to visit you. I found you sitting jauntily head up on a pillow looking just as saucy and plucky as you had always done, and the first thing you asked me to do was to fill your pipe and light it. I was afraid it was not best to let you smoke, but you said the doctor told you you might, so I went into the backyard to light it, after having filled it from your old jacket pocket which was near at hand. When I got to the backyard, I had to put a coal in the pipe to light it, and then to keep it from going out, had to pull where I went into the ward where you were, when I went to your bedside I was so sick I could hardly stand and had to sit down on the bunk to keep from falling, but I never smoked and the few whiffs were too much for me.You were wounded if I remember correctly on the skirmish line just at the time or a little before our line gave way the first time in the afternoon and before we went to look you up the next morning the first thing that surely proved that you were inside the hospital was your arm in the pile of limbs on the outside with the crippled finger and thumb sticking out from the ghastly heap.”
So there it was. Alfred didn’t find his arm, but someone did. And the owner of the arm was recognized because of the deformed finger. Since most of the enlisted men were taken out the back door of the house to recover under the stars, we’re a little unsure about what Clark means by going out to the “backyard” from “inside” the hospital. It’s possible Alfred was inside the house for a time or Clark is talking about one of the tents we believe were set up out back. At any rate, we had most of the story right. As an aside, we also learned that J. Max had a tough time with his first inhalations of tobacco.
We know that Alfred would have been moved out from around the Harper House with the rest of the Union wounded on the last day of the battle. Most likely, he was transferred to a general hospital in New Bern for further treatment. He mustered out of the Army on May 16th, slightly less than two months after the battle. He lived for several more decades. He went back to Wisconsin, and started a family. He was one of the many wounded of the battle who survived because they received a timely amputation by a skilled surgeon.
When I think about Alfred, I try to imagine what it must have been like for a 17 year old boy to go through what he did. The searing pain and heat when a bullet tears into his right arm. The bumpy ambulance ride as he’s rushed to the Harper House field hospital. Soon after arriving in the front yard of the house, Alfred is placed on a canvas stretcher and carried inside the house for his surgery. He’s then placed on a door which serves as an operating table. A tired looking surgeon in a bloody apron stands over him. He tells Alfred he has sustained a serious injury to his arm and that it will have to be amputated. Alfred watches nervously as the surgeon pours liquid from a green tin onto a sponge; the surgeon tells him to breathe deeply as the sponge is held over his nose and mouth. Alfred’s vision becomes blurry as he begins to feel dizzy and sleepy. Then blackness. When he awakens, Alfred is outside laying under a tree. When he looks where his right arm used to be, he sees a stump just below the shoulder covered by a bloody bandage. There are other wounded laying all around him. He will lay under that tree for two days before he is loaded into an ambulance wagon for the trip that will begin his long road home. For Alfred, the war is over. But his new life is just beginning …
Alfred’s story may change again someday. As could any story we tell here. That’s how history works. More research leads to more insight and harder facts. But the important thing is that we have a good understanding of what happened here to a young soldier, seriously wounded in battle. It’s those individual stories that, added together, make for the grand sweep of important historical events. And we owe it to men like Alfred to tell their stories.
Editor’s Note: Site staff and volunteers are constantly researching multiple aspects of the Bentonville story to enhance our interpretation and ensure we’re telling it accurately. Sadly, we have yet to find a photograph of Alfred Nugent although we are looking diligently. If you’d like to help in these efforts, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know!