Battlefield Guide Services

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Human Wreckage of the Wilderness - Dr. Bontecou's Documentation

     One hundred and fifty-two years ago today, the armies of north and south clashed in a forbidding landscape, partly along the Orange Plank Road, in western Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The two day engagement left nearly four thousand killed and close to another twenty-five thousand wounded, captured or missing. A large number of the dead were left where they fell, some receiving hardly a thin earthen shroud to cover them. Two years later, their then skeletonized remains dotted the shot-torn woods, some alone, others gathered into groups. The remains of the Union dead had been collected and interred by a burial crew dispatched by the Federal government the previous summer. The southern dead were largely left in situ.

     In April of 1866, Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou visited the battlefields around Fredericksburg. Bontecou was a talented surgeon with the Union Army, and by war's end was the head of Harewood Hospital outside of Washington, D.C.. As part of documenting soldiers under his care, Bontecou began to photograph their condition, and healing wounds. These images became part of the Armed Forces Museum of Pathology, known today as the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

     While passing through the Wilderness region, Bontecou was accompanied by a photographic entourage, headed by William Bell, the chief photographer for the Surgeon General's Office. Much of what they recorded showed remains of earthworks and shattered trees. Some however showed the bleaching bones of the dead. Out of all of them, one image in particular shows considerable detail of three skulls, partly surfaced to the elements, along the Orange Plank Road,

     Along with the photographic record, Bontecou collected numerous pathological specimens, human crania that bore the effects of the projectiles that killed them, often times still found rattling inside, and retained to be wired to the side of the specimen. They are maintained in the museum collection to this day. Due to the details visible in the above photograph, I was able to determine that the center skull was one of the ones retained for the collection. There has been unfortunate postmortem loss of teeth, along with apparent misplacement of the mandible, but the visible trauma to the right rear and a pronounced fracture across the forehead make this a clear match that would stand up in a court of law.

July 6, 2010, finding the matching specimen at the NMHM, Walter Reed Hospital.
Detail from the April 1866 photograph taken on the Orange Plank Road.
The same skull as it resides in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
AFIP 1001057

The garish wound that ended this man's life.


Anonymous said...

I have a great-great grandfather who was captured in the Battle of the Wilderness and taken to Andersonville Prison where he died.

Ila Lark said...

My second great grandfather, William W. Sosebee, was shot through the shoulder(s) at the Battle of the Wilderness, on May 6, 1864. He was taken to the Parker's Store field hospital and lived for 8 days, before dying of lockjaw. I have heard the dead were buried on the premises and were later reburied. Does anyone know anything about this Parker's Store area? Is there a photo anywhere? And what is the chance that his bones are still in a shallow grave in the Parker's area? I would appreciate any information, please.