Memoir Offers Gruesome Glimpse at Civil War Surgery

When Confederate surgeons amputated Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s bullet-shattered left leg, they were anxious to prove to his young, soon-to-be stepson that the operation was life-saving.

“Dr. [William A.] Robertson of La. opened the leg along the track of the ball, in order to show me they were justified in taking it off – a Dr. Launer of Ala. having objected to it – but it had been plainly a necessity,” recalled Maj. Campbell Brown, 21, the general’s trusty staff officer.

Today, physicians do not generally invite relatives to watch them surgically sever a loved one’s limb. But Brown, whose wealthy widowed mother was Ewell’s first cousin, evidently went everywhere the general went, even to the operating table.

Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell underwent a painful amputation in the midst of a battle after being shot in the knee.

Image: Library of Congress.

Ewell likely named Brown to his staff to curry favor with his mother, Lizinka Campbell Brown. Ewell was madly in love with her. Indeed, Richard and Lizinka ultimately married, a union that made Brown the general’s stepson.

Known for ‘bravery and generosity of spirit’

After the Civil War, Brown chronicled his experiences with Ewell in some of the bloodiest battles of America’s most lethal conflict. Terry L. Jones, PhD, a history professor at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, compiled and edited Brown’s reminiscences in a 2001 book, Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia. The volume offers a gruesome glimpse at an amputation that was typical of thousands of others in 1861-1865.

Richard’s beloved bride-to-be helped nurse him following the 1862 amputation. They were wed in 1863, though they parted when he returned to combat, fighting in the battles of Gettysburg, Pa.; The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Va.; and Sayler’s Creek, Va.

Lizinka and “Baldy” Ewell made an odd couple, and not just because they were kissing cousins. “He was the reigning eccentric of the Army of Northern Virginia, and his men, who knew at first hand his bravery and generosity of spirit, loved him all the more for it,” wrote Larry Tagg in The Generals of Gettysburg.

Tagg said the general spoke in a “shrill, twittering lisp” and was given to “muttering odd remarks in the middle of normal conversation, such as ‘Now why do you suppose President Davis made me a major general anyway?’”

In addition, Ewell was prone to cursing “spectacularly, blisteringly” and “was so nervous and fidgety he could not sleep in a normal position, and spent nights curled around a camp stool,” according to Tagg. “He had convinced himself that he had some mysterious internal ‘disease,’ and so subsisted almost entirely on frumenty, a dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk and sweetened with sugar. A ‘compound of anomalies’ was how one friend summed him up.”

In any event, Ewell, a Washington, D.C.-born West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran, joined the Confederate army soon after the Civil War began in 1861.

A proven survivor

He had survived several battles by the time he lost his leg, and nearly his life, in fierce fighting at Groveton, Va., also known as the battle of Brawner’s Farm.

Terry L. Jones
Terry L. Jones
Larry Tagg
Larry Tagg

Fought on Aug. 28, 1862, the battle was a prelude to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Like the 1861 Battle of First Bull Run, Second Bull Run and Groveton were Confederate victories.

Ewell, as usual, was in the thick of the fighting, which began in late afternoon. Determined to discover the source of some worrisome Union gunfire, he dismounted from his horse and knelt on his right knee to peer through some scrubby pine trees.

A minié ball smashed his left kneecap. The bullet “pierced the joint [and] followed the leg down for some inches,” Brown wrote. “When the leg was opened, we found the kneecap split half in two — the head of the tibia knocked into several pieces.”

The slug “had followed the marrow of the bone for 6 inches breaking the bone itself into small splinters [and] finally [the ball] had split into two pieces on a sharp edge of bone,” Campbell wrote.

Ewell’s injury was typical of musket wounds in the Civil War. Bullets, round, or cone-shaped minié balls, were large — typically .54, .58 and .69 caliber – and made of soft lead. Not only did such projectiles tear gaping holes in flesh, they often splintered when they struck bones.

In any event, the battle continued past sunset, with the Union troops finally retreating.


Brown and others on horseback searched for Ewell in the darkness. Brown ultimately found him “lying in a little opening among the brush pines, quite conscious, but in considerable pain.”

Brown immediately rode off to locate a surgeon and to tell Gen. Isaac Trimble he was now in command of Ewell’s division.

“Finding a surgeon, I returned [and] met Gen’l E. being brought off in a litter,” Brown wrote. “So broken down was he by his exertions in the campaign that he actually slept while being carried off in the litter.”

Before the leg was removed on the afternoon of Aug. 29, Ewell told Brown “that one of the things which had touched [and] pleased him most in his life, was the devotion of some of the men who lay near him on the field. He heard two who were badly hurt themselves call out to passers-by that Gen’l Ewell was wounded — [and] refuse when the litters came up to be carried off before him.”

Still in charge through surgery

Ewell wanted his torn and bleeding leg removed where he lay. So he ordered the stretcher bearers to take away the wounded men and he sent “for the surgeons to come up [and] operate on him there if practicable.”

When the surgeons arrived, they refused to amputate, “considering the case not free from doubt — [and] thinking it possible to save the leg,” Brown wrote.

Ewell rested in one field hospital and spent the night in another one, which came under Union fire about 8 a.m. on Aug. 29. After he was evacuated to a house 4 miles from the battlefield and out of harm’s way, surgeons examined the leg and determined it had to come off. The operation began about 2 p.m. “There had been no reaction up to this time to the prostration produced by the wound — and none took place for a long time afterwards,” Brown recalled. “While under the influence of the chloroform he gave several orders to troops, spoke hurriedly of their movement, [and] — only appearing to feel conscious of pain when the doctor (surgeon Hunter McGuire) began to saw the bone—at which he stretched both arms upward [and] said: ‘Oh! My God!’” With Ewell’s pained outcry, Launer showed Brown the extent of the general’s wound to convince him the leg had to be amputated. Ewell remained still for several hours after the operation. “The pulse was very weak — at times hardly perceptible — and McGuire was afraid of death from exhaustion. He told me afterwards that he did not expect Gen’l E. would ever recover,” Brown wrote.

Battle of Brawner's Farm

Map by Hal Jespersen,; Brawner Farm image: Public domain,

Today, postoperative treatment for amputees does not usually include doses of liquor. But McGuire handed Brown a bottle of brandy for the general. The aide was to give Ewell “a little mixed with water every 15 minutes till the pulse rose — taking care to avoid nauseating him [and] to wake him, if asleep.”

The regimen took effect around midnight, according to Brown. About 2 or 3 a.m. on August 30, Brown awakened Dr. Samuel B. Morrison, the surgeon for Ewell’s division. He “was to take turn about with me in watching — [and] was much relieved to find him think the Gen’l decidedly better—i.e. pretty well over the first danger from weakness. In a good condition to encounter the remaining ordinary dangers of amputation.”

Continued perils

Ewell faced other perils on the bumpy trip by wagon to Richmond, Va. “Dr. McGuire reported that the amputated stump began to ‘slough’ during the move and that Ewell lost another inch of bone before finally reaching Richmond.” In December or January, Ewell slipped on some ice, knocking off more bone, the author added.

After the war, Ewell settled on his wife’s plantation near Spring Hill, Tenn., which was close to Nashville. In January 1872, Lizinka was again called upon to nurse Richard, who came down with what was thought to be pneumonia. The illness may have been influenza because Lizinka soon contracted the malady and died on Jan. 22, Brown wrote.

When told of his wife’s death, “Baldy” Ewell, his life ebbing away, “asked that Lizinka’s photograph be placed on his chest and had her casket brought into his room so he could see her one last time before she was taken to Nashville for burial,” according to Brown.

The general died on Jan. 25 at 54 years old.

“Let nothing disrespectful to the United States be put on my tomb,” were among the old Rebel’s last words, according to Brown. Lizinka and Richard are buried next to each other in the Nashville City Cemetery.

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