“Don’t Leave Me Here to Bleed to Death!”

wc butler

The most recent issue of Hallowed Ground, a publication of the Civil War Trust, features an 1863 photograph of several Confederate soldiers laid out in shallow graves—casualties of the fighting at Gettysburg. This picture is like many of the grim photographs of the war dead, but what makes it unusual is that one of the soldiers has been identified. Two crude headboards were placed behind the heads of two of these men, and the writing or carving on one has been deciphered as “WCButler, 3rd S.C.” This young man was William Calvin Butler, a private in the 3rd South Carolina Infantry Regiment who was born in Newberry County in 1839. He was buried at the Rose Farm in Pennsylvania, and his body was later moved to Head Springs Cemetery in Laurens County, S.C. In the town of Newberry, his name is listed as one of the “sacred dead” on the Confederate monument there.

When I came across this photograph, I was reading the History of Kershaw’s Brigade by D. Augustus Dickert. Published in 1899, it contains moving anecdotes about a number of South Carolina soldiers who died in various battles. Dickert’s vignettes illustrate the horrors of the so-called Civil War in much the same way that the photograph of Private Butler does, distilling those horrors into one heart-rending image of a young life snuffed out. In a chapter entitled “Pathetic Scenes,” he relates the stories of two comrades who fell at Chickamauga. (One of them was Tilman Nunamker, who died on Sept. 20, 1863, at the age of 25. His grave is at the St. Andrews Lutheran Church Cemetery in Lexington, SC.)

In our first general advance in the morning, as the regiment reached the brow of the hill, just before striking the enemy’s breastworks, my company and the other color company , being crowded together by the pressure of the flanks on either side, became a for the moment a tangled, disorganized mass. A sudden discharge of grape from the enemy’s batteries, as well as from their sharpshooters posted behind trees, threw us in greater confusion, and many men were shot down unexpectedly. A Sergeant in my company, T. C. Nunamaker, received a fearful wound in the abdomen. Catching my hand while falling, he begged to be carried off. “Oh! For God’s sake, don’t leave me here to bleed to death, or have my life trampled out! Do have me carried off!” But the laws of war are inexorable, and none could leave the ranks to care for the wounded, and those whose duty it was to attend to such matters were unfortunately too often far in the rear, seeking places of safety for themselves, to give much thought or concern to the bleeding soldiers. Before our lines were properly adjusted, the gallant Sergeant was beyond the aid of anyone. He had died from internal hemorrhage. The searchers of the battlefield, those gatherers of the wounded and dead, witness many novel and pathetic scenes.

Louis Spillers, a private in my company, a poor, quiet, and unassuming fellow, who had left a wife and little children at home when he donned the uniform of gray, had his thigh broken, just to the left of where the Sergeant fell. Spillers was as “brave as the bravest,” and made no noise when he received the fatal wound. As the command swept forward down the little dell, he was of course left behind. Dragging himself along to the shade of a small tree, he sought shelter behind its trunk, protecting his person as well as he could from the bullets of the enemy posted on the ridge in front, and waited developments. When the litter-bearers found him late at night, he was leaning against the tree, calmly puffing away at his clay pipe. When asked why he did not call for assistance, he replied: “Oh, no; I thought my turn would come after awhile to be cared for, so I just concluded to quietly wait and try to smoke away some of my misery.” Before morning he was dead. One might ask the question, What did such men of the South have to fight for—no negroes, no property, not even a home that they could call their own? What was it that caused them to make such sacrifices—to even give their lives to the cause? It was a principle, and as dear to the poorest of the poor as to him who counted his broad acres by the thousands and his slaves by the hundreds. Of such mettle were made the soldiers of the South—unyielding, unconquerable, invincible!

In a later chapter, Dickert describes a terrible death at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, and scenes of its aftermath:

Friends were hunting out friends among the dead and wounded. The litter-bearers were looking for those too badly wounded to make their way to the rear.

Dr. Salmond had established his brigade hospital near where the battle had begun in the morning, and to this haven of the wounded those who were able to walk were making their way. In the rear of a battlefield are scenes too sickening for sensitive eyes and ears. Here you see men, with leg shattered, pulling themselves to the rear by the strength of their arms alone, or exerting themselves to the utmost to get to some place where they will be partially sheltered from the hail of bullets falling all around; me, with arms swinging helplessly by their sides, aiding some comrade worse crippled than themselves; others on the ground appealing for help, but are forced to remain on the field amid all the carnage going on around them, helpless, and almost hopeless, until the battle is over, and, if still alive, await their turn from the litter-bearers. The bravest and best men dread to die, and the halo that surrounds death upon the battlefield is but scant consolation to the wounded soldier, and he clings to life with the same tenacity after he has fallen, as the man of the world in “piping times of peace.”

Just in rear of where Colonel Nance fell, I saw one of the saddest sights I almost ever witnessed. A soldier from Company C, Third South Carolina, a young soldier just verging into manhood, had been shot in the first advance, the bullet severing the great artery of the thigh. The young man seeing his danger of bleeding to death before succor could possibly reach him, had struggled behind a small sapling. Bracing himself against it, he undertook deliberative measures for saving his life. Tying a handkerchief above the wound, placing a small stone underneath and just over the artery, and putting a stick between the handkerchief and his leg, he began to tighten by twisting the stick around. But too late; life had fled, leaving both hands clasping the stick, his eyes glassy and fixed.

In South Carolina, the sacrifices of such men are memorialized every year on the tenth of May.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

About Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, is the author of nine non-fiction books including South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, A Confederate Englishman, Confederate South Carolina, Days of Destruction, and A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina. Her works of historical fiction include Honor in the Dust and The Immortals. Her latest non-fiction book, An Everlasting Circle: Letters of the Haskell Family of Abbeville, South Carolina, 1861-1865, includes the correspondence of seven brothers who served in the Confederate Army with great distinction. More from Karen Stokes

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