Pvt. Napoleon B. Perkins of the Fifth Maine Light Artillery figured his wound was not serious although a chunk of shrapnel had slammed into his leg.
After all, Perkins later recalled, he was still standing. Nonetheless, the wound ultimately cost the Union soldier his limb and nearly his life.
Perkins narrowly eluded death at the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The artilleryman was one of about 60,000 Union and Confederate soldiers to undergo amputations during the Civil War and one of approximately 45,000 who survived the surgery, Megan Kate Nelson wrote in The New York Times.
Narrow escape from death
Perkins, from Stark, N.H., ignored his mother’s wishes and joined the army at 17 years old, wrote Mike Pride in Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union. Perkins crossed the state line and volunteered for the Fifth Maine.
At Chancellorsville, Va., Perkins’ outfit helped provide firepower for Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s 133,000-strong Army of the Potomac, which tangled with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 61,000-man Army of Northern Virginia between April 30 and May 6, 1863. Though badly outnumbered, Lee achieved one of his greatest victories.
On May 2, Perkins’ battery of horse-drawn guns was in action near the Chancellor home, for which the hamlet was named. Pride quoted from Perkins’s memoir, which is preserved in the New Hampshire Historical Society Library.
Perkins recalled that the Confederate fire “was something frightful, the way their shells and canister swept our lines….I saw boys falling at the guns, and the shrieks and groans of the wounded men and horses were heartrending.” The Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., was the location of Napoleon Bonaparte Perkins’ limb loss in 1863. Perkins was a Union soldier.Image: © Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Perkins was struck in the right leg above the knee shortly after another shell fragment hit his horse. “I did not then realize that I was wounded bad, for the shot did not knock me down,” he recalled.
A sergeant ordered Perkins to the rear, but the private’s right leg buckled. He staggered toward some woods, where he hoped to find shelter.
In between was a road. When Perkins tried to cross it, he fell on his face. “After a short time, feeling some better, I turned on my side and straightened the wounded leg out as well as I could, then attempted to crawl across the road, but soon gave it up, as I was very weak and faint.”
Perkins soon faced deadly danger from his own troops. The helpless gunner saw a group of blue clad horsemen galloping down the road toward him. “I expected the horses would crush me under their feet, but they leaped over me,” Perkins remembered.
After the mounted men passed, Loomis arrived with a saddled horse for Perkins to ride to the rear. But he was too weak to climb onto the horse and told Loomis to leave him where he was.
Loomis grabbed Perkins by the shoulders and dragged him across the road, but was unable to provide him any more help. He had to get back to the battle.
Meanwhile, Confederate fire continued to rake the battery. A shell exploded an ammunition chest near Perkins, killing six horses and dazing him. He briefly thought he was a goner, too, “but as soon as I could pull myself together, I found myself all right with the exception of being covered with sand & dust.”
Meanwhile, the Confederate shelling set the woods ablaze “and a strong wind springing up, drove it over the ground where many of our wounded were lying, and it was something terrible to hear them crying for help. … A great number were burned to death.” Perkins wondered if he was fortunate to fall “where I did, for if I had succeeded in reaching the woods, I would probably have shared the same fate, for the fire swept through the place I was trying to reach.”
No other option
Finally, some of Perkins’ buddies got to him, tied a rope around his shattered leg above the wound to form a tourniquet and carried him on a blanket 3 miles to the closest field hospital, Nelson wrote. Army surgeons intended to remove Perkins’ leg, but the private refused to let them. “His resistance was not unusual; many Union and Confederate soldiers recoiled at the thought of amputation,” Nelson wrote. “Mid-19th-century gender conventions invested a great deal of meaning in the whole white male body; the loss of an arm or leg, they well knew, would result in the loss of masculinity, and of status and power.”
After a 2-day, bone jarring trip by army ambulance, Perkins ended up on a train and then a steamboat, which took him to Washington, D.C. By then, his leg was “swollen as large as the skin would allow.”
Perkins wound up at a military hospital where he developed gangrene. Doctors warned him he would be dead within 3 days if his leg were not removed.
“Again, the 20-year-old private resisted,” Nelson wrote. But he ultimately relented and on May 23, doctors removed the diseased leg. Twice during the operation he roused himself from the anesthesia — ether and chloroform. He was wide awake when surgeons tied off his arteries and stitched the flesh over the residual limb, Nelson added.
After learning to walk on crutches, Perkins received an artificial limb. “He was anxious to get accustomed to his new leg because he was about to be discharged; he wanted to wear it home so that his injury ‘would not seem so bad to my mother,’ Nelson explained. He left for home on Dec. 7, 1863.
“His troubles were not over, however,” Nelson wrote. “As Perkins and other veteran amputees recovered from their surgeries, they had to renegotiate their place in society.
“Could a veteran amputee woo women, marry, procreate and work to support his family? During a time in which citizenship was seen as ‘embodied’ in adult white males, could an amputee be considered a full citizen?”
A new life
For the next 10 years, Perkins journeyed from New Hampshire to Ohio to Montreal and back again, working at a succession of temporary factory jobs. Most employers declined to hire him. They pitied the disabled soldier, but had “no work that a one leg man could do,” Nelson wrote.
Perkins had a hard time of it until he married Jennie Shedd and took over a harness shop in 1873. Afterwards, he prospered, Nelson wrote. “He attributed all of his subsequent success to the ‘industry and good management of my wife,’ although he continued to struggle with the physical and emotional pain” resulting from the amputation.
“No one except those who have lost a leg as near the body as I have, can realize what it means,” he wrote in his memoir. Perkins died in 1913 at 70 years old. He is buried in Groveton, N.H.
On May 3, 1913, Napoleon Perkins sat down on his porch with James Loomis, who had found him on that roadside, bound up his wound, and carried him to the field hospital 50 years before. They talked about old times for several hours, rehashing the events of that day and the terrible toll the Battle of Chancellorsville took on the Fifth Maine battery (6 men were killed and 22 wounded, a casualty rate of about 40%). Perkins survived the battle and the surgeries that took his leg. And he, like all veteran amputees, carried the marks of the war’s violence back home.
Pride M. Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union. Monitor Publishing Company: 2012.