“Devotion to Duty Cost Their Lives”: Meet the 3 Union Surgeons Who Were Killed at Antietam

In the bloodiest single day in American history, the Battle of Antietam, three Union surgeons were killed in action — the highest loss of life for medical personnel in a single engagement in the war. In just twelve hours of continuous combat spread across the farm fields due west of Antietam Creek, over 23,000 troops from both sides were killed, wounded, or missing. The battle was the first major testing ground for new emergency medical management and evacuation systems. With the immense bloodshed, it is no surprise the surgeons themselves were at risk in this particular battle. In this blog post, I will be looking at the three Union surgeons who were killed in the Battle of Antietam: Assistant Surgeon Albert A. Kendall of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Surgeon William James Harrison White of the VI Corps, and Assistant Surgeon Edward H.R. Revere of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

1. Assistant Surgeon Albert A. Kendall, 12th Mass. 

Albert Asaph Kendall was born in 1827 in Middletown, Vermont, and raised in Massachusetts. With a passion for medical care, he entered New York University for the practice of medicine, graduating in 1852. Exactly ten years later, in April 1862. Kendall was commissioned an assistant surgeon of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. When the Army of the Potomac began their chase of the Army of Northern Virginia in early September 1862, the new assistant surgeon had very limited experience in combat casualty care.

During the evening of September 16, 1862, the 12th Massachusetts Infantry and the I Army Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker crossed the Antietam Creek to reconnoiter and put pressure on the Confederate left. That next morning at dawn, the I Corps advanced south towards the Rebel army, who inflicted severe damage to the Bay Staters. “The dead of the regiment lay in piles, and the wounded kept thinning the line,” recalled the survivors in their regimental history.[1] Out of 340 men in the ranks at the start of the Battle of Antietam, only 32 remained. The regimental surgeons, including Kendall, were immediately at work for their bloody task. While at the operating table in the 12th Massachusetts field hospital near the East Woods, Kendall was struck in the heart by a stray bullet and died instantly.[2] According to members of the 10th Maine Infantry, his stretcher party carried his body across the Smoketown Road for burial. Like many dead soldiers at Antietam, Kendall’s body was buried in a shallow grave with a rough wooden headboard. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser newspaper, a local Mason (Kendall was one, as well) traveled from Boston to Sharpsburg, Maryland to bring back his body. That next month, Albert A. Kendall was received by his widow and grateful Massachusites, and was reburied at Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Newton, Massachusetts.

2. Surgeon William J.H. White, VI Army Corps

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A native of Washington, DC, William J.H. White was born in 1827. He attended the Columbian College Medical School, graduating in 1849. Early that next year, on March 12, 1850, White was commissioned into the United States Army as an assistant surgeon by President Zachary Taylor. On April 16, 1862, he was promoted to the rank of major-surgeon.

At the outset of the Maryland Campaign, White became the Medical Director of the VI Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. William Franklin. On September 17, 1862, while riding alongside Franklin during Maj. Gen. William F. Smith’s advance, a volley erupted from a nearby wood line, instantly killing the surgeon. Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac Jonathan Letterman wrote very highly of the long-term regular army surgeon:

“Surg. W. J. H. White, U.S. Army, medical director of the Sixth Corps, under General Franklin, was killed on that field by a shot from the enemy. He, was a skillful surgeon, a gallant officer, and a gentleman whose deportment was kind and courteous to all who had intercourse with him. These admirable traits, together with his familiarity with the medical affairs of that corps, made his loss, and especially on that day, deeply to be deplored.”[3]

Additionally, Surgeon General William Hammond wrote on September 20, 1862:

“Amiable in disposition, and of talents and integrity unquestioned, Surgeon White performed every duty which devolved upon him during a service of more than twelve years, to the entire satisfaction of this Department, which feels his loss as that of an officer not easily to be replaced.”[4]

3. Assistant Surgeon Edward H.R. Revere, 20th Massachusetts Infantry

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Born on July 23, 1827 in Boston, Massachusetts, Edward Hutchinson Robbins Revere attended Harvard Medical School in Cambridge. He was also a descendant of Boston patriot Paul Revere. In 1849, he graduated from the prestigious school and then left the country in August of that year for Paris to pursue his graduate studies. After graduation and trip throughout Europe, Revere moved back to the United States to establish his first medical practice at Greenfield, Massachusetts. On September 14, 1861, he was commissioned assistant surgeon in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, commanded by his brother Paul. On October 21, 1861, he was captured by Confederates at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff and sent to Richmond; it was not until May of the following year he would be paroled. According to the Harvard Memorial Biographies, Revere was the only surgeon that day, “being at all times under the fire of the enemy,” yet he was also remembered for “his cool, self-possessed deportment, his well-directed energy, and his self-forgetfulness were remarked by all who observed him.”[5] Throughout the Peninsula Campaign in the late spring and summer of 1862, he was also noted for his “zeal, ability, courage, and discretion.”[6]

On September 17, 1862, as the II Army Corps under Major General Edwin Sumner advanced into the West Woods, Revere stayed close to his regiment to begin immediate treatment of the wounded. While under heavy fire, he continued to aid the wounded near the field. At some point after noon, Revere had just finished tending to a patient, when he stood up to move to the next, when “he was pierced by a bullet, and sank and died upon the field of battle.”[7] His medical service record noted that “he was shot through the heart.”[8] His body remained on the field until the next day when it was transported back to Mount Auburn Cemetery near Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts. Revered by many, Revere was posthumously breveted and honored by his alma mater in the Harvard Memorial Biographies.

 


Sources:

  1. Benjamin Cook, History of the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers (Webster Regiment) (Boston, MA: Twelfth (Webster) Regiment Association, 1882), 68.
  2. Ibid., 69; James Lorenzo Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, 1861-1865 (Springfield, MA: Clark W. Bryan & Co., 1889), 225; The records are not clear as to what Kendall was specifically doing when he was killed. Either he was lifting a wounded patient or binding wounds.
  3. Jonathan Letterman, Circular, October 30, 1862, https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/antietam.
  4. William A. Hammond, Orders, September 20, 1862, in Harvey F. Brown, The Medical Department of the United States Army from 1775 to 1873 (Washington, DC: Surgeon General’s Office, 1873), 228.
  5. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Harvard Memorial Biographies (Bedford, MA: Appleford Books, 1866), 127, 128.
  6. Ibid., 133.
  7. Ibid., 134.
  8. Compiled Service Record for Surgeon Major Edward H.R. Revere, National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.
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