Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006
From Gettysburg to Captivity (Part 2)
By Fred D. Taylor
In the last column, I left off with the battle of Chancellorsville, where Captain Robert Samuel Elam led the men of Company E of the 22nd Virginia Battalion gallantly in the Confederate victory.
Following Chancellorsville, and the return of General Longstreet’s corps from Suffolk, Robert E. Lee’s army began its second campaign into the north in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure from the war in Virginia. Today, this campaign has forever been etched into history as the Battle of Gettysburg. In many ways, this battle began by accident. After having spent days marching through Maryland and Pennsylvania, Confederate troops under the command of Major General Henry Heth encountered what they assumed was a small home-guard company on the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg on July 1st. This group turned out to be several thousand veteran Union cavalrymen. Believing otherwise, Heth ordered a full-scale attack, and was met with heavy casualties. The two fought back and forth for the better part of the morning, with the Union cavalry being able to hold their position until reinforcements could arrive. Heth pressed on though, gaining reinforcements himself throughout the day.
The 22nd Virginia Battalion began its journey toward Gettysburg around 5 a.m. on the morning of July 1st, and were soon ordered to proceed at a double-quick march to the sound of the guns. By early afternoon, the 22nd Battalion arrived on the battlefield, and was immediately sent across Willoughby Run to engage the Union forces positioned near the McPherson Farm. The Union forces they faced were members of the “Iron” and “Bucktail” Brigades, thought to be two of the hardest fighting brigades in the Union army. According to reports, the men of the 22nd Battalion were forced to march across several hundred yards of open meadow in front of these Union infantry, “who unleashed a withering fire into the struggling Confederates.” The 22nd Battalion made at least two full-scale charges against the Union lines, both ending in little success for the Confederates. After being heavily repulsed by the Union troops, the 22nd Battalion received reinforcements and regrouped. As the afternoon wore on, the Confederates eventually flanked the Union troops at the McPherson farm, forcing them into a full retreat through the town of Gettysburg. However, the first day’s victory was a pyrrhic one for Robert, who was struck by a minié ball just above the knee during the battle.
As soon as Robert was hit, his men helped him away from the battlefield and carried him immediately to an impromptu hospital setup nearby. After being examined, it was determined that his wound was too severe, and that the only way to save his life was to amputate his leg just above his knee, where he was wounded. Some twenty years later, Robert still recalled the name of Dr. William R. Weisiger, the Brigade Surgeon who performed the operation.
The amputation was successful, but that was the least of Robert’s worries at the time. On July 3rd, he watched as the remnants of his unit marched off, without him, into what became known forever as Pickett’s Charge. Few would come back.
Yet, the long term results of the Battle of Gettysburg were even worse for Captain Robert Elam. The day after the failed attack, Lee decided to withdraw his army from Pennsylvania, and return to Virginia. Unable to transport or care for the nearly 5,000 severely wounded Confederate soldiers from three days of bloody fighting, they would be left in Gettysburg under the care of Confederate surgeons who stayed behind to treat them. Robert would be of this number, and according to military records, he was “officially” captured by the Union forces on July 5, 1863.
Union hospital records show that Robert slowly improved, but remained in a Union Cavalry Corps hospital for approximately four months. In September, Union doctors found it necessary to remove part of the bone in what was left of his femur that had been amputated. This seemed to correct whatever remaining problems had existed from his wound, and other than a case of “diarrhea” that was noted in his hospital records, Robert continued to improve. By October, Robert was well enough to be moved from the make-shift hospital at Gettysburg to a regular medical facility in Baltimore, Maryland. He remained at the Baltimore hospital until Union doctors considered him to be fully recovered in April of 1864. Robert’s status then became “prisoner of war” and he was confined to Fort McHenry prison, also in Baltimore.
In the next column, we will pick up with Robert’s life as a prisoner of war.