For over two years, renowned Union volunteer surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou photographed hundreds of wounded soldiers – both Federal and Confederate – while serving as the chief surgeon of the U.S. General Hospital “Harewood” in Washington, DC. With the unprecedented number of wounded and sick, as well as the variety of grotesque combat injuries, Bontecou began photographing soldiers and recording their information. A pioneer of medical photography, he archived these case studies at the Army Medical Museum (now, the National Museum of Health and Medicine), making him the single largest contributor of medical photography to the museum.
Though Bontecou himself is fascinating, it is the soldier is what I am most intrigued by. Their blank faces reveal their suffering and pain, but it is most important that their are identified. Each of the portraits depict the soldier either before or after their operations, showing off their wounds, injuries, or infections. It is up to the historian to dig apart their stories.
A 22-year-old native of Louisiana, Missouri in Pike County, Joseph Young enlisted in the 32nd Missouri Infantry Regiment in September 1862. Young fought in every major engagement with his unit – Chickasaw Bayou, Siege of Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Ezra Church, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Bentonville. He made it through all those battles unscathed, even as a non-commissioned officer. However, on May 29, 1865, Young was accidentally shot in camp, just days after the Grand Review, which was the reason why this Westerner was admitted to a Washington, DC hospital.
According to Bontecou’s notes, Young was wounded by a round ball through the abdomen and into the right forearm, luckily missing the bone and vital organs. The day after his wounded, he was admitted to Harewood “much exhausted and was compelled to lie in a horizontal position on his back.” Nonetheless, he was “strong and robust” throughout his hospitalization, which certainly helped him improve and heal quickly. On June 30, 1865, Young was discharged from the hospital and sent home to Pike County and worked as a bar keeper.
1. Reed Bontecou, Joseph A. Young Report, 1865, Contributed Photographs Collection, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives, Washington, DC.