Call it odd, but whenever I read about Civil War battles and come across a peculiar case where a soldier, officer, or civilian was supposed to die from a fatal wound and then lived, I tend to pay a little closer attention to that human interest story. One such case comes from a Union colonel in the II Corps named Nelson Miles.
Nelson Appleton Miles was born on his family’s farm in Westminster, Massachusetts on August 8, 1839. While he worked in Boston as a clerk in a crockery (pottery) store, he studied military tactics and history, even though he was not a soldier. Perhaps he foresaw the coming conflict between the states and wanted to be ready. Whatever it was that inspired his studies, it worked in his favor.
At the age of twenty-one, he enlisted in the Union Army on September 9, 1861 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, after the first major battle at Manassas. He earned the rank of lieutenant within the 22nd Massachusetts, but later was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 31, 1862. He was second in command to Colonel Francis C. Barlow at the battle of Antietam. At the Sunken Road (later known as Bloody Lane), Colonel Barlow was critically injured and out of the fight to drive the Confederates from their entrenched position. Miles took up the lead and led the final advance that swept the gray coats off the field. For his initiative, Miles remained in command of the 61st New York Volunteers and was promoted to colonel.
A few months later at Fredericksburg, Miles would again take his regiment into heavy battle against the Confederates storming Maryes Heights. Like his predecessor at Antietam, Miles would be wounded, but not severely. He sustained a injury to the neck, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of command.
Come May of the following year, 1863, Miles would earn greater distinction. Part of the II Corps under General Darius Couch, Miles helped to form the line of advancement on May 1st and subsequently covered the following retreat after the Union was repulsed by the Confederates coming from Zoan Church. They fell back to the Chancellorsville Mansion and then positioned themselves along the defensive just northeast of the house. Sitting between Slocum and Meade’s Corps, the II Corps under Couch would face the Rebels head on.
Miles, understanding the importance of fortifying their line, ordered his men to dig rifle pits just beyond a stretch of marshy ground. The Confederate assaults against the Union left flank on May 2nd and 3rd would become some of the heaviest fighting of the battle. All the while, Miles held his line. All around him, other regiments couldn’t do the same. General Winfield Scott Hancock would send in more units to bolster the line, but they were led by junior officers. Once more, Miles would step up and take the lead astride his horse, going up and down the lines to keep up the morale and courage of his men. Hancock would later remark that Miles was “worth his weight in gold” for the stubborn defense he put up against what Miles himself called “desperate assaults”. General Couch as well made the statement that he would have been proud to serve under Miles’ leadership one day. Whether that statement was spawn from his frustrations with the Union General Joseph Hooker at the time, I’ll let you decide.
In Miles’ report, he details the severity of the battle he engaged in. ““We were constantly engaged skirmishing with the enemy during the day, and at about 3 p.m. the enemy commenced massing his troops in two columns, one on each side of the road, flanked by a line of battle about 800 yards in front in the woods. Their orders could be distinctly heard. They soon advanced with a tremendous yell, and were met with a sure and deadly fire of simply one line. A very sharp engagement continued about an hour, when the enemy fell back in disorder. Their charge was impetuous and determined, advancing to within 20 yards of my abatis, but were hurled back with fearful loss, and made no further demonstrations…. About 9 a.m. of the 3d instant, I received a detachment of 250 men, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel McCreary, of the One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania, as support. Soon, after, my line was vigorously attacked by the enemy on the left, and engaged the entire line. This continued for about half an hour , when I deployed about one-third of my reserve on the left, and was about to order up the remainder when I received a severe wound in the abdomen, and was obliged to leave the field….”
When a commander puts himself in a vulnerable position (on a horse, elevated, exposed), injuries are bound to happen. The wound to his abdomen was critical enough to remove him from the battle. Years later, he described the moment. “The result was an instant deathly sickening sensation. I was completely paralyzed below the waist. My horse seemed to realize what had occurred; he stopped, turned, and walked slowly back.”
He was taken from his horse and to the Chancellor Mansion, but the medics claimed there was nothing they could do. It was a mortal wound, and they probably assumed that too many of his organs would be in danger if they tried to take the bullet out right there in the field hospital. So, adhering to the principles of triage of the time, they left Miles to die.
Only, he didn’t. As the Chancellor house was fired upon, General Hancock ordered Thomas Henry with the 140th Pennsylvania to evacuate the house. They rescued 33 wounded soldiers, Miles likely amongst them, and was moved to other field hospitals in the area. Amidst flame and artillery fire, he hung on long enough for his brother to find him. The battle for Chancellorsville would be lost, the Confederates taking command of the ground along the Rappahannock while the Union retreated. Miles would be taken back to Massachusetts and to his family who were ready to grieve for his passing. But, his story doesn’t end there.
A surgeon asserted that he could safely extract the bullet and successfully did so. Against all odds, Miles would make a full recovery when the doctors said that the soldier had fought his last battle. Any other man might have stayed home, but the military was so ingrained in Miles’ being that he couldn’t. At the earliest chance, Miles reenlisted with the II Corps and would go on to fight some of the bloodiest and most devastating battles in the final years of the war.
During the Overland Campaign in the summer of 1864, he would earn a brevet promotion to brigadier-general of volunteers for his service at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. He would return to the same area where he was mortally wounded to continue the fight for the Union cause. The army took him to Petersburg and ultimately Appomattox where the Confederates surrendered.
Miles would continue with the United States Army, earning the rank of major general in October of 1865. His commission utilized him in the Indian Wars out west and he played a part in suppressing Native American tribes alongside Armstrong Custer. While there was (and is) a lot of criticism for his involvement at Little Big Horn and his other unfortunate actions taken against the tribes, he regarded the Wounded Knee Massacre as “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children”. He worked to get compensation for the survivors in the years following.
His escapades went on well into the 20th Century, and they are worth studying when you have the time.
But out of all he had done (courageous and questionable), he was most noted for his bravery and commendable leadership at Chancellorsville. In July of 1892, Miles was awarded the Medal of Honor, one of the highest commendations a soldier can receive. His citation reads: “Distinguished gallantry while holding with his command an advanced position against repeated assaults by a strong force of the enemy; was severely wounded.”
At his death in 1925, Miles was the last surviving Union major general.
Sources and Further Reading
Nelson Miles’s Report of the Battle of Chancellorsville, written May 5, 1863; Official Records
A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925 by Peter R. DeMontravel
Serving the republic: memoirs of the civil and military life by Nelson Miles
Wooster, Robert (1996). Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army. University of Nebraska Press.
Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964
Greene, Jerome A. Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War, 1876–1877. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 1991.