Tintype Images of Wounded Civil War Union Soldiers from Pension Application Files in the U.S. National Archives
Today’s post is by Jackie Budell, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
This is the second of two posts about personal tintype images of wounded soldiers in the Civil War Pension Application Files from the Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (Record Group 15).
**Please note that the following post contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers.**
In this blog post we chronicle the lives of four more Civil War amputees illustrated by personal tintypes submitted by veterans as evidence in the U.S. Federal Government’s pension application process.
Personal photographic images are most often found in pension application files in which the person who sought government aid attempted to provide evidence of injury, identity, or relationship. The objective was to prove one’s entitlement to a pension.
When a veteran applied for a pension based on a war injury, a medical examination photograph taken by a doctor was convincing evidence. As a result, researchers of some pension files today can do more than read about a gunshot wound or amputated limb — one can see it in these rare photographs. These are not formal images showing the veteran in his Sunday-best clothes, but were intended to show what lay beneath his shirt sleeves.
These disabled veterans were reminded of places like Bull Run, Gaines Mill, Bentonville and Gettysburg every waking moment of their lives. Today, digital access to these Civil War-era personal tintypes encourages re-discovery and will remind future generations of researchers to learn their stories, lest they otherwise be forgotten.
Visit the National Archives catalog to see more Civil War-era personal tintypes.
Private William Mixon – 2nd US Infantry
“Hoping there is no offense in doing so”
Mixon may not have imagined a great Civil War when he first enlisted in the regular army in 1849. Yet thirteen years later, he and the Army of the Potomac found themselves severely outnumbered on June 27, 1862 when faced with a Confederate force of more than 57,000 men. At the Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia, a Minié ball penetrated his left arm and passed through his elbow, shattering the joint. It ended his army career and Mixon was sent home in November 1862 at the age of 33.
Physician and witness affidavits in his pension application file describe Mixon’s daily physical challenges. He could not flex, straighten or rotate his elbow. He could not turn his hand over or lift his hand to his mouth. For three years he worked on and off in a rolling mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania doing a “boy’s job” with one hand, but co-workers testified that he labored hard and suffered much to earn no more than four dollars in a week.
Mixon wrote to the Commissioner of Pensions in June 1889 to request an increase in his pension equal to the rate allowed for total loss of a limb per the Act of August 4, 1886 pertaining to veteran amputees:
“Sir, enclosed I send you a tintype picture of my arm hoping there is no offense in doing so. I can’t perform any manual labor with my arm, and I am broke down otherwise with my 13 years in the service. … My trouble is all in my elbow. Worse I think sometimes than if my arm was off above the elbow. I have to watch continually that I don’t get it hurt. I can’t put my arm to my face, the power of (my) elbow is gone.”
Mixon received the pension increase at a rate of $36 per month for total disability of his left arm. He collected this amount until his death on February 20, 1902 at the age of 75. The Tennessee-born Union soldier is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Marysville, Union County, Ohio with his wife Matilda.
Private John Eichel – 2nd US Artillery and 44th US Infantry
Committed to his Adopted Country as a “Regular”
German immigrant John (“Johannes”) Eichel was willing to sacrifice for his adopted country when he enlisted in the regular U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in July 1860 to serve five years. Before then, he worked as a farmer. Physical strength and endurance were critical to his ability to make a living.
Eichel’s life was forever changed on August 29, 1862 at the Second Battle of Bull Run. When the fighting ended the following day, the Confederate victory sank the morale of Union troops and left nearly 8,500 of its men wounded. Eichel’s wound was permanent and disabling, his right forearm shattered by a piece of exploded shell.
A physician testified that the amputation resulted in a stump of “peculiar shape” with a flap that was “fleshy “ and “protruded over the bones about 1 and ½ inches.” He documented Eichel’s nerve pain and tenderness in the forearm, adding that the slightest pressure was “unendurable.” Eichel told him that at times he had to squeeze the scar with his left hand when the pain got that bad. He received an artificial arm, but could not use it.
Although Eichel received an honorable discharge for disability in November 1862 and was collecting a pension of $15 per month, he re-enlisted in the army in May 1867 and served nearly two years more with the 44th U.S Infantry on guard duty in Washington D.C. His pension file reveals that he entered service the second time as a United States citizen – he was naturalized by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on October 18, 1865.
Eichel lived in the U.S. Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C. before relocating to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Montgomery County, Ohio around 1869-1870 where he worked as a farmer. According to Historical Registers of the Homes in National Archives holdings (NAID 2124714), Eichel was then admitted to the southern branch Home in Hampton, Virginia in January 1871 and appointed the police sergeant.
He was discharged from the Home in 1878 upon the recommendation of the Examining Board of Surgeons that his disability was not incurred in the volunteer service (Regular Army service was not authorized by Congress in the original legislation establishing the federal system of soldiers’ homes). Annual reports to Congress show that between 1870 and 1876 the number of veterans living at the Homes nearly doubled; thus, this stricter adherence to the regulations was likely due to the actions of the Board of Managers who were focused on increasing accommodations as quickly as possible.
Eichel’s pension was increased to $30 per month upon passage of the Act of August 4, 1886, so he likely had sufficient financial resources and supportive family members that allowed him to live independently in his later years.
Eichel married in 1874 but was a widower when he died August 19, 1900 in Phoebus (now Hampton), Elizabeth City County, VA. He is buried at historic Oakland Cemetery in Hampton City, Virginia.
Private Jesse H. Rice – 20th Connecticut Infantry
At a “Disadvantage” to Support His Family
Jesse Hull Rice was nearing the end of his three year term of service in the army when his luck ran out. He had grown to adulthood in the service, enlisting at age 19 and leaving service at age 22. He was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 as a prisoner of war, but the enemy would do even greater damage at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19, 1865.
On the first day of the battle, Rice was first wounded in the leg but refused to leave the field and it was that act of bravery that would dramatically alter his future. Before the fighting ended that day, a gunshot wound through his right arm severed the brachial artery above the elbow. The amputation of his arm was performed nearly two months later on May 7, 1865 – this is called an ‘intermediary’ amputation rather than a ‘primary’ one. Despite the high risk of dying from blood loss and infection after the delay of an intermediary amputation, Rice survived and received an artificial arm in September 1865.
The very next day after his discharge on October 17, 1865, Rice completed his original application for a Federal pension with the assistance of an agent from the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He returned to his hometown of Cheshire, New Haven County, Connecticut to resume life as a farmer, although his ability to perform manual labor would never be the same.
His pension was approved in March 1866 and Rice started receiving $8 per month pension payments. Having this secure income, Rice married Caroline (“Carrie”) Holbrook in May 1868 and they eventually became parents to four children.
However, Rice’s luck ran out again as he aged. Medical affidavits from several doctors who treated Rice starting in the 1890’s provide a detailed picture of what he endured as a result of his war wound. They describe his arm stump as being in such a “diseased condition” as to prevent the use of any artificial arm, and he tried two. His stump was soft, sensitive and painful with a sharp protruding bone. The severe pain had “broken his health.”
As a consequence of his failing health, Rice’s farm was advertised for sale in 1892, described in great detail in a Connecticut State Board of Agriculture catalog. For the price of $2,500, Rice parted with 17 acres and improvements including a residence, cow, poultry, wood and ice houses, pasture and crop land, and an orchard of apple, pear and peach trees. The locality was described as “very pleasant and healthy, with plenty of fishing and hunting.”
Beyond his farming years, three different doctors were employed by the family to treat Rice’s many ailments. One physician argued that the amputation caused nerve pain to travel through his shoulder, chest muscles and into his stomach. As a result, he suffered from gastritis, diabetes, dizziness and weight loss due to his inability to digest food. He was confined to bed by nausea and vomiting that continued for days and became more frequent.
“His system is weakened by the shock of the wound and operation and contribute largely to the train of diseases that exhaust him.” one doctor observed. “…if he long survives it must be through constant and careful daily medical attention and judicious nursing.”
Another doctor concluded, “His condition in a general way is as bad as it well can be and if it weren’t for his strong will and superior intellect, he would be absolutely helpless. His trouble is, in my opinion, largely due to the nervous shock from loss of arm and the disadvantage to which this loss put him in his efforts to support himself and his family by hard and exhausting labor.“
Rice received regular increases in his pension as allowed by law, and was collecting $55 per month when he died on January 9, 1915 at his home at 7 Parmalee Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut. He persevered for 71 years and the cause of death was rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Rice was remembered in a death notice in the local newspaper as the father of New Haven’s Mayor, Frank J. Rice, and as having the most unexpected job in his very last years — as the Connecticut state Senate doorkeeper.
Private David M. Merrifield – 5th Michigan Calvary
“Come on, you Wolverines!” shouted Brigadier General George A. Custer
David Merrifield was born in New London, Huron County, Ohio in 1834. He later moved to Michigan where he met and married Martha E. Cooley in 1855. By the time he enlisted in August 1862, he was the father of three young boys and Martha was pregnant with their fourth.
Private Merrifield joined the ranks of the 5th Michigan Cavalry – one unit of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was nicknamed the “Wolverines.” They soon became famously known as “Custer’s Brigade” when newly appointed Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer led the Michigan troopers on the farm fields southeast of Gettysburg to end the fighting on Northern soil.
At 23 years old, Custer was the youngest general in the Union ranks at that time and was about to face his first major battle on July 3, 1863. It would arguably become the most important and decisive cavalry action in the Civil War, certainly a critical turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg – but a victory that came at a very high price for Merrifield.
Confederate forces under General George Pickett were readying a frontal assault on the center Union line while Confederate cavalry General “Jeb” Stuart prepared his men to simultaneously strike at the Union rear to exploit any success realized from Pickett’s charge. Custer, with a much smaller force, was assigned to defend the Union rear by riding the Michigan cavalryman out to meet the enemy head on.
A surviving fragment of Custer’s official report of the battle appeared in Frederick Whittaker’s 1876 biography of the general. Custer reported that Merrifield’s unit was first positioned directly to the left of the battlefield as dismounted skirmishers, but were soon needed to repel the Confederate cavalry who appeared on the ridge of hills directly in front of his center line.
“To repel (the enemy) advance, I ordered the Fifth cavalry to a more (forward) position, with instructions to maintain their ground at all hazards. Colonel [Russell] Alger, commanding the Fifth, … made such admirable disposition of (his) men behind fences and other defenses, as enabled them to successfully repel the repeated advances of a greatly superior force. I attributed their success in great measure to the fact that this regiment is armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, which, in the hands of brave, determined men, like those composing the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, is in my estimation, the most effective fire-arm that our cavalry can adopt.”
The Michigan men were outnumbered five to one, but advanced toward the enemy undaunted. The Fifth Cavalry troopers held their ground until all men had exhausted their ammunition and were compelled to fall back. This allowed the Confederates to charge with two cavalry regiments, mounted and dismounted.
Custer next ordered the Seventh Michigan Cavalry to charge the advancing Confederate column while a considerable number from the Fifth Cavalry quickly regrouped, mounted their horses and “gallantly advanced” from the flank to assist the Seventh. The combined efforts of the Fifth and Seventh were still not enough, however, so the First Cavalry advanced next at full gallop. Dramatically riding up to within yards of the enemy line, the men of the First Cavalry sabered “all who came within reach” and the Confederate column finally gave way in a “disorderly rout.”
The wild, feverish waves of horsemen had collided for forty minutes. But General Custer, fighting fearlessly alongside his “flying devils of Michigan,” had succeeded against all odds to break up the Confederate advance toward the Union rear and force their opponent to retreat.
Major James H. Kidd, commanding officer of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry, later wrote to his father: “The Wolverines idolized George Custer and would have followed him to hell, had he asked them to do so.”
Merrifield certainly must have felt that Gettysburg was a place worse than hell. His service record contains a medical history written by Assistant Surgeon Henry C. May (of the 145th New York Infantry) on the day Merrifield was admitted to the General Hospital at Gettysburg, August 20, 1863. Dr. May captured these details about the moment that changed Merrifield’s life:
“When wounded (he) was mounted and on a charge, the enemy’s cavalry being dismounted and deployed as skirmishers. (Merrifield) saw his antagonist about to fire, being four rods from him – turned his horse quickly and received the ball from the enemy’s carbine through both arms. … Was wounded at noon of July 3 and (arm) amputated at noon of July 4th.”
Despite having the advantage of a Spencer repeating rifle, Merrifield was the one who was shot. He saw the man who aimed at him and fired. This one shot passed through both his left and right arms severing the ulnar nerve in the left and severely fracturing the humerus bone in the right. Documents in his pension file indicate that it was necessary to amputate his right arm at the shoulder joint in the field, and that the nerve damage in his left arm caused a “prickly” numbness down to his fingers.
Newspaper accounts reveal he also suffered sabre cuts to his head, arm and side.
For three years after Gettysburg, Merrifield could not use his left arm well enough to feed himself or accomplish simple tasks such as combing his hair. He testified that even light work was very difficult.
Just as General Custer described the men of the Fifth Cavalry as “determined,” so apparently was Merrifield after the war to persevere and provide for his family. Federal census returns track the family from Michigan in 1870 where David owned a hotel, to Jefferson Township, Dickinson County, Kansas in 1880 where David settled a 320-acre homestead. His farm is described as having a variety of livestock, apple and peach orchards, and fields of grains and potatoes. Merrifield apparently relied on the physical labor of three sons to work this farm, with the likely assistance of his oldest son who lived next door. Meanwhile, he spent much of his time teaching school where his disability did not impede his work.
By February 1883, the nearby Abilene Gazette newspaper noted that Merrifield had left the farm completely in the care of two sons and moved to the city of Abilene – ready to embark on a new business venture.
A year later, Merrifield announced the opening of his new grocery and provision store on Cedar Street. He started placing regular advertisements in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle newspaper. He soon became a successful and respected merchant in Abilene, growing the business until 1886 when he sold it to his sons Luther and David. It seems that his work was finally done.
The year 1886 also brought government legislation that allowed for an increase in the pension rate for Civil War amputees. Merrifield applied for an increase under the Act of August 4, 1886 and was soon receiving $45 each month as a disabled veteran whose arm was amputated too close to the shoulder joint to allow for use of an artificial arm.
It appears that Merrifield had overcome his disability to lead a productive life, providing for both the welfare and future of his family and earning the respect of his community. However, remaining documents in his pension file show that throughout decades of selfless and diligent work as a provider for his family, he endured years of physical pain and suffering.
When it became apparent to his neighbors in Abilene that he was gravely ill, Merrifield was held in such high regard that it was printed in the newspaper:
Merrifield submitted yet another application for an increase in 1899, but he died on August 6 before the Bureau of Pensions could render a decision. The supporting documents for this claim reveal the “hell” this gallant cavalryman suffered long after leaving Gettysburg. Dr. H.B. Felty, the doctor who attended him during his last days, described the constant suffering of the pain in his right arm stump which caused Merrifield to lose his appetite, weight and sleep, and resulted in “prostration (weakness) in physical condition.” James Adams, a neighbor, testified that he spent several full nights with Merrifield and witnessed such intense pain in his stump arm that “someone had to hold and rub it all night.”
The Bureau’s Medical Division posthumously recorded their rejection of Merrifield’s last “increase” application. Their decision stated that his death was caused by acute dysentery rather than his pensioned disability – ignoring the medical opinions of the physicians who attended Merrifield in later years.
Clearly, Merrifield or his family – or both – realized even before his death that they could no longer keep their property.
Merrifield is buried at Abilene Cemetery in Abilene, Dickinson County, Kansas. His widow, Martha, remarried in 1902 to another Michigan Civil War veteran named Washington Topping who was a witness at her wedding to Merrifield. Topping was by then a widower himself with five children to add to Martha’s seven. She began collecting her widow’s pension of $30 each month after Topping’s death in 1919. Martha died on January 2, 1923 in Washington state.
- Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Your Questions Answered by Jackie Budell, Text Message Blog
- Act of August 4, 1886 (Google Books)
- ‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’ – Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861 – 1885 by Claire Prechtel-Kluskens (National Archives Prologue magazine; Spring 2010)
- Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North by Sarah Handley-Cousins (University of Georgia Press, 2019).