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It was nearly sundown on Sunday, September 20,1863.Union Brigadier General Walter Whitaker’s green troops at Chickamauga had fought Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s men furiously, back and forth, amid the smoke and fire since 2 o’clock on Horseshoe Ridge.The Rebels incorrectly thought Whitaker’s brigade was on the verge of a retreat,so again the Rebels charged.While Colonel Thomas E. Champion of the 96th Illinois Infantry rallied his men around their flag,Corporal John Armstrong Robison of Company F,a member of their color guard, was loading his gun. It was then that a musket ball ripped through his arm.Twenty years after the war he wrote his memoirs, which include these excerpts:

“I commenced ramming the ball in my gun again, then I was struck with a ball through the elbow joint, the ball passing through the bone above and below,my arm being in a bent position. I had the gun in my left hand and the ramrod in my right, and I could not let go of it, as the muscles of my hand were clamped around it.”

The 96th’s color guard and flags were shot to shreds that afternoon.Out of the 10 members of the guard, only one was neither wounded nor killed outright.The regiment lost nearly 58 percent of its men in the battle, and its brigade proudly earned the name “Iron Brigade of Chickamauga.”

Robison waited for an opportunity then left the battlefield to find the field hospital.

“After I fell back of the Regiment,I did not know which way to go. The firing seemed to be all around in a complete circle. I was climbing uphill like and the bullets kept spatting the ground around me and my arm bled terrible…I then reached around and pulled the ramrod out of my hand,took off my accoutrements and brought my arm against my side or breast, and it was but a short time until the blood began to run out of my shoe top at every step.”

For the next two days after the battle, Robison witnessed the chaos in and around Chattanooga. He was one of the hundreds of wounded who traveled with the first wagon train to cross over Walden’s Ridge to the tent hospital in Bridgeport,Ala.Fearing he would not be able to endure the pain of the wagon ride over the rough road,he approached the man loading the wounded into the ambulances.

“My arm was so sore I could not walk at first only on my toes to keep from jarring it, for the pain. I told the wagon master, while he was arranging his train and detailing how many should ride in each wagon that I could not stand it to ride in the wagon on account of the jolting and I would walk (the 60 miles) on ahead.”

Four days after the battle, the doctors at Bridgeport determined who would stay and who would travel on to Nashville for treatment. Robison recalled,“I did not like the style of those doctors’treatment.So I went out and climbed into a [freight train box] car.”Without being examined, he slipped past the doctors for the 24-hour train ride to Nashville.“Finally,” he wrote,“the train was loaded and we started and oh,the jar of that old box car was so great, I had to sit squatted down on my toes like,and then the pain was so great in my arm that the tears would run from my eyes. I would have to pour a little water out of my canteen on my arm about every fifteen minutes and kept that up during the whole trip.”

In Nashville the doctors again examined the wounded and sorted them—to remain there or go on to Louisville. It had been a full week since Robison had been struck, and his wound had merely been washed and the bandages changed.

Full of despair, he recalled: “I felt as though my days were about numbered for my arm was swollen very much and beginning to mortify being eight days with nothing done about it,only to bathe it occasionally with cold water. It would pain me severely at times…he (the doctor) took a long silver probing needle and passed it through the wound in my arm.There was no feeling in it, more than the jar of the needle, as though you were stirring in fine ground with a knitting needle….They had me lay on a long table in front of the large glass door,and began to examine my arm,and the doctor said amputation was necessary…. They tried to give me chloroform.They had two young men standing,ready to hold my feet and the doctor held it to my nose for sometime, and it would take no effect on me,apparently….He called for a large tumbler of brandy and had me drink it right down, then they began to cut and examine my arm and kept getting higher and higher up on my arm until they decided to cut it off two inches from the shoulder joint, on account of the flesh being so mortified and black….When they cut the arteries, the blood flew against the glass door.The arm was cut so close to the shoulder, there was no room to put on any tourniquet or bandage to check the blood. They sawed the bone off quick as possible and in doing so; they let the arm drop down something like a stick of stove-wood it splintered off.

I could feel the jar.You see I was just as sensible as I am now,for they did not wait a minute for the brandy to take effect…I did not mind the pain so much until they come to take up the arteries and tie them with silk cords. It just seemed as though they were pulling at my heart strings to take it out at my arm.”

The 26-year-old soldier, fully conscious on the operating table as the surgeon worked over him,wrote,“It is impossible to describe the feeling.”

The doctors decided not to take his shoulder joint out even though the flesh on his stump was mortified.They simply sewed him up and later dealt with the gangrene. Robison described that treatment:“I came to myself or waked up about two o’clock in the morning and there was a man sitting over me and just as soon as I roused up he went and called the doctor and he came and cut the stitches on my arm,and it flared open till it looked about the size of the flesh end of a good big soup bone cut from the hind quarters of a beef…I laid there on my left side or back like, for eleven days without moving,and Doctor Seymore would come once a day to see me, and my wound discharged large quantities of the worst smelling matter you can imagine. They would dress it or wash it off with a small syringe, every four or five hours with something that would make it look so clean and raw as a fresh cut beefsteak and take all the bad smell away.I know I used to pile a pillow or two on my face when they would come to undo the arm, it smelled so terribly bad, and when they would get it washed off then I could look at it alright…Doctor Seymore would come every day and take his two hands and press the flaps of the wound together gently like at first, but a little harder every day.It would hurt me tremendously.I would holler and beg the doctor…I can’t describe the feeling any more than if you can imagine how you would feel if you were hung up by a big iron pin under one arm and somebody pulling at your feet to make you weigh a little heavier.”

Weeks later Robison visited Nashville’s hospitals, trying to locate members of his regiment. To his surprise, he found his brother-in-law, Frederick William Miller, two miles out of town at the army’s 5,000- bed tent hospital.Private Miller had received only a slight wound to his left knee and stayed behind with the 96th at Moccasin Point. Two weeks later, he traveled over Walden’s Ridge to Bridgeport.

The hand of Providence was not with Miller,as Robison truly believed that it had been with him on his journey to Nashville. Robison recounted Miller’s agony:“They [Miller] did not get to Bridgeport until late in the evening and…[the doctors] did not do much for him that night.And by morning the erysipelas [gangrene] had spread so much they did not send him on the train to Nashville and he laid there four or five weeks.The erysipelas still spread in spite of the doctors until it was so close to the body that the leg could not be amputated.They finally shipped him to Nashville in a regular hospital car fixed up with swinging berths. He was put out in the field hospital where there was about 5000 wounded soldiers kept in tents out about two miles from our hospital.I used to walk out nearly every day to see him.My, the death that man suffered before he died. His limb turned as black as any stovepipe, clear to his body. He seemed to have a terrible strong constitution that it was a great wonder to the doctors,so much so,that they held a post mortem over him after death.”

Miller is buried in the National Cemetery in Nashville,section D,grave number 3014. Robison survived his ordeal. He returned home to his wife and two children in Savanna,Ill.,and lived for another 47 years.He went on to father four more children,served as a justice for three terms, a school trustee for 12 years,a tax collector for three years and an assessor for two years.In the 1893 county plat book,he paid to list himself as a “Life and Fire Insurance & Real Estate Agent.”Twenty years after the war Robison,like many of his comrades,wrote his memoirs,to be included with those of his comrades.


Lyn Terese Miller Smith is the author of Write As Soon As You Git This, a historical novel and daily history of the service of Frederick Miller and John Robison in the 96th Illinois Infantry.

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here