Confederate Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble came close to losing his leg to
Union fire at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.
He was shot in the same leg – nearly in the same place – at
the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. That time, Confederate surgeons decided to
amputate the limb to save the general’s life.
|Trimble fought with his doctors
saying that had they amputated following his first injury, the second one would
never have occurred.
The irascible 61-year-old Rebel rebuked his doctors. He complained that
had the leg been removed at Second Bull Run, the Yankees would have missed him
“There was fight enough in old man Trimble to satisfy a herd of
tigers,” Henry Kyd Douglas wrote in “I Rode with Stonewall.”
A West Point graduate and a civilian railroad construction engineer in
Baltimore before the war, Trimble had served under the command of the storied
“Stonewall” Jackson prior to Gettysburg. Second Bull Run, fought near
Manassas, Va., on Aug. 28-30, 1862, was a Rebel victory.
A Union bullet smashed Trimble’s left leg on Aug. 29.
“For a variety of reasons his leg was slow in healing,” Roger
Long wrote in the first issue of The Gettysburg Magazine, which
came out on July 1, 1989. “Trimble insisted the damage had been caused by
an explosive bullet. Pieces of bone had to be extracted from his flesh months
after, and he was plagued by ‘biles’ around the wound.”
In addition, Long said Trimble’s recovery was delayed by his age,
his unwillingness to stay still and by “doses of laudanum and ‘lead
wash’ prescribed by doctors.”
Trimble, who was born in Virginia in 1802, was back in uniform by the
spring of 1863. However, he suffered a setback, contracting a skin infection
called erysipelas, Long wrote.
Trimble’s flesh may have been weak, but his spirit was strong.
Before he was wounded, he demanded a promotion.
“General Jackson, before this war is over, I intend to be a major
general or a corpse!” he told his commander, according to “Lee’s
Lieutenants” by Douglas Southall Freeman.
Trimble was promoted from brigadier general to major general in January
Trimble, according to Long, was recuperating in a Richmond hospital in
May 1863, when Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops in the battle of
Chancellorsville, Va. Jackson did not survive; Trimble did.
Even so, it looked like Trimble was too feeble to join Gen. Robert E.
Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Undaunted, Trimble
went north and wound up among some of the first Confederate troops to attack
Gettysburg on July 1, the first day of the battle.
The second injury
The Rebels drove the Union Army of the Potomac out of town. But the
Yankees, under the direction of Gen. George G. Meade, dug in on high ground
close by. Lee attacked on July 2, but failed to dislodge Meade.
On July 3, Lee ordered a massive assault against the center of the Union
line. The ill-fated attack would go down in history as Pickett’s Charge,
in honor of its commander, Gen. George Pickett.
Trimble, itching for a fight, asked to help lead the assault. He got his
Though Trimble was on horseback, the 12,500-man attack force-advanced on
foot across fields that gently sloped upward for about a mile toward the Union
soldiers who were shielded by a low stone wall. Union artillery and rifle fire
decimated the Rebels; about half of them were killed, wounded or captured.
According to Long, Trimble wrote in his diary that he led his troops to
“a point some 200 yards from the breast works – here the men broke
down from exhaustion and the fatal fire and went no further but walked sullenly
back to their entrenchments.”
The Union troops kept blazing away at the retreating Rebels. Trimble was
among the wounded.
Just as he was crossing back over the Emmitsburg Road, near the Union
lines, Trimble “…was shot through the left leg … near the close
of the fight and my fine poor mare after taking me off the field died of the
same shot…,” according to the general’s journal. “And so,
Trimble, who had gone to such literal pains with that leg since Second Manassas
[the Confederate name for the Second Battle of Bull Run] was wounded again, in
almost the same spot,” Long wrote.
On July 4, Lee retreated from Gettysburg, which became one of the
turning point battles of America’s bloodiest war. The other turning point
was at heavily fortified Vicksburg, Miss. There, after a long siege, a Rebel
army surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, also on July 4, 1863.
|The monument to the 26th North
Carolina Infantry shows how close some of Trimble’s troops came to the
stone wall before they were driven back.
|Image: Craig B. O&P Business
Meanwhile, Hunter H. McGuire, MD and a team of Confederate surgeons
determined that Trimble’s wound necessitated amputation of his leg. They
also were certain he would not be able to accompany Lee’s army back to
Virginia, Long wrote.
“Even in this predicament,” he added, “the fight was not
quite gone from the tiger. He began cursing the doctors who had saved his leg
before, reasoning that had they amputated as he had insisted then, the shot at
Gettysburg would have missed him completely. No one could argue with
Trimble recuperated at a Gettysburg home and at a hospital in town
before he was transferred to a Union hospital in Baltimore, then to Union-held
Fort McHenry, which guarded the city harbor.
He bitterly complained about his captors, food and prison lodgings, Long
wrote. But Trimble remarked that he had been measured for an artificial leg,
which was “to be done in 3 weeks,” according to his diary.
In September, he arrived at the Johnson’s Island prisoner of war
stockade near Sandusky, Ohio. He hoped to be exchanged for Union prisoners or
“I have begun to use my artificial leg, but still use crutches
until the stump hardens,” Trimble wrote in his diary.
While Trimble hobbled about, other prisoners, led by a Virginia captain,
also a minister of the gospel, schemed to escape, apparently without
Trimble’s knowledge or approval, Long wrote. Trimble was to take command
of the captives who, unarmed, would scale the prison’s 12-foot upright
plank walls, overpower the guards, commandeer cannons and make their way to the
Confederacy. The captain, Long wrote, “was a visionary with a high regard
for the deity and little military experience.”
The plan was not carried out.
Return to his roots
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson, a Missouri Confederate, was
planning a jail break of his own. His idea was to climb the fence and flag down
a steamer on Lake Erie, which surrounded the island.
“I am sure that if Gen. Trimble had two legs … we would have made
a successful effort,” Long quoted Thompson. Trimble, according to
Thompson, “said he felt a delicacy in urging us to undertake an attack in
which he could not participate on account of the loss of one of his limbs …
though he fully approved of all the plans and desired us to make the attempt
yet he would not order or urge it.”
Nothing came of Thompson’s escape scheme either. But Union
authorities still considered Trimble a flight risk, so in 1864, they moved him
to Fort Warren, on an island in Boston harbor. In March, 1865, he was sent to
City Point, Va. to be exchanged, but the war was almost over by the time he
Trimble was paroled in Lynchburg, Va., shortly after Lee surrendered at
Appomattox on April 9. By then accustomed to his artificial leg, Trimble
resumed his engineering career in Baltimore. He died in the city in 1888 at age
Trimble’s legacy lives on in Baltimore. He designed the city’s
President Street train station which houses the Baltimore Civil War Museum.