- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

During four years of fighting, Maj. Edward H. McDonald of the 11th Virginia Cavalry had seen action in many of the war’s fiercest battles and countless bloody skirmishes. Although the 32-year-old had suffered a few tough bouts of typhoid fever and dysentery and a stint as a prisoner, he had been wounded — slightly — only one time. His luck changed, however, when a Yankee bullet shattered his jaw on April 6, 1865. The next day, summoning his last reserves of strength, he mounted his horse, Mack, and began an agonizing 65-mile ride to the military hospital at Charlottesville.

Five days earlier, while McDonald was recovering from typhoid at his sister’s home in Richmond, he had attended Sunday worship at St. Paul’s Church. Sometime during the service, the congregation stirred uncomfortably as grim messengers contacted President Davis and other dignitaries, who departed immediately. The Army of the Potomac finally had pierced Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defensive lines near Petersburg.

Although still very weak, McDonald speedily searched for some way to rejoin his regiment. A cousin who worked in the Navy Department got him a ride in a buggy that afternoon with a clerk going to join the retreating army. Guards at Richmond’s bridges, however, prevented them from departing until the next morning, giving the major a front-row seat that night at Richmond’s fiery destruction, with soldiers and civilians all participating.

“It was pandemonium on earth,” he later wrote. “Those drunken people were fighting among each other and plundering the town, which was soon on fire in a dozen places.”

• • •

Once out of the capital, the two happened upon an abandoned wagon full of shoes. Helping themselves, they bartered shoes with locals along the way for horse feed and meals, and when a wheel broke, they gave a blacksmith three pairs to fix it.

On the evening of April 5, according to his privately printed memoirs, McDonald finally caught up with his regiment’s baggage train at Farmville. His friends had brought his horse along, and the next morning he mounted and rode off to find his men. About three miles down the road, he came upon them just as they were getting ready to fight.

After hearing sharp gunfire some distance ahead, McDonald spurred to the front of the column, where Col. M.D. Ball was leading a squadron of graybacks against a large band of Union troopers who were torching some wagons. In an instant, the major was charging with the rest of the regiment to Ball’s aid, slashing his way into the thick of the fray. Soon, gray riders from other commands pitched in, driving off the Yanks.

The Confederates chased the bluecoats through woods and into an open field, where a small band of them tried to rally. McDonald recalled: “When I saw their condition, I felt confident we could drive them again and told the men that we only had to crush the body in front and we could capture the whole command.” Then, just as he was leaning forward and aiming his revolver, a bullet slammed into his chin, stunning him.

When the dazed Confederate was able to stop his horse, he took hold of his head “and shook it to see if my neck was broken.” It was all right; he could breathe, and he slowly guided his mount back about three-quarters of a mile to a coal miner’s house, where a doctor who was sure the wound was mortal didn’t bother treating him. That night, McDonald and some wounded Union soldiers stoically waited to die or for one side or the other to capture them.

• • •

About 4 in the morning, Pvt. Ranney Davis showed up with the Rev. Richard Davis, chaplain of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. The major pulled on his boots, got in the saddle, and he and Pvt. Davis started at a slow gait toward the hospital at Charlottesville.

When they had made their way about seven or eight miles, McDonald almost fainted, and they stopped at a farmhouse. After a few hours’ sleep and a cool glass of milk, they rode on and crossed the James River at Cole’s Ferry, staying that night at the owner’s mansion. Later, some Confederate soldiers arrived and told Cole that Lee had surrendered. An incensed McDonald said, “I told Colonel Cole that Lee had not surrendered and these men were deserters, and if they were allowed to stay in the house, I would leave.” Cole showed the men to the door.

• • •

The next morning, McDonald and Davis moved on. Not far down the road, the major remembered he had forgotten a bottle of medicine needed to wash his wound. Pvt. Davis rode back to get it, but as a result, they became separated and McDonald was forced to continue alone.

For the rest of the journey, the exhausted Confederate relied on the aid of sympathetic strangers At a stop at a roadside mansion, however, his Celtic pride came to the fore when he was told to go around to the kitchen to get help. “I replied that I had never entered a gentleman’s house except through the front door, and I would not make an exception in this case and rode on.”

On the afternoon of April 9, McDonald finally reached the outskirts of Charlottesville, but his dreadful odyssey was far from over. The town was in chaos. Reports that the Yankees were near had soldiers and civilians fleeing the town. One distraught man pointed his revolver at McDonald when the major spurned a plea to trade horses, but he backed off when the major swiftly drew his sidearm and threatened to kill him.

Not long after, McDonald arrived at the Charlottesville General Hospital, where Dr. James Lawrence Cabell, chief surgeon, examined him and promptly assigned him a private room. Ranney Davis showed up the next day and nursed him until the major’s brother, Capt. Will McDonald, arrived three days later. Will, who had fought Northerners for the previous four years, had heard of his brother’s wounding and rushed from Appomattox. Years later, Edward fondly remembered, “A more faithful brother and nurse no man was ever blessed with.”

• • •

For six weeks, McDonald was propped upright in bed with his head bandaged to a board. Not permitted to speak, he wrote a note on his bedside slate to Dr. Cabell, asking for help because of frequent hemorrhages of the wound. The doctor suggested a risky operation. “He told me … that my jawbone was fractured and the artery inside of it could not be reached except by sawing away the bone and tying the artery.” Brushing aside Cabell’s fear that he was too weak to survive the surgery, the major wrote on his slate to try it.

The next Sunday morning, McDonald was carried in a chair to the operating room. Because he knew the patient would strangle if given chloroform, Dr. Cabell ordered two men to hold him down. The major firmly vetoed this, folded his arms, and prepared for the worst.

A number of doctors and students watched intently as Cabell cut McDonald’s chin to the bone and, using a probe, found the bullet embedded in his neck. He removed it and also extracted a number of small pieces of jawbone whose sharp points had been causing the bleeding. Finally, he made incisions above and below McDonald’s wound, into which raw cotton was pushed to close the fracture.

• • •

A few weeks later, although his ordeal had cost him about 70 pounds and he was severely weakened, Edward decided to travel to Berryville with brother Will. They planned to rent a farm and start a home for their many brothers and sisters, whom the war had scattered throughout Virginia. Before leaving Charlottesville, however, he visited the home of the doctor who had saved his life, and the two talked about his surgery over a cup of tea. McDonald proudly remembered Cabell saying that “in this practice he had never seen a man who endured pain without flinching as I had done.”

The brothers remained in Berryville three years, and when Will moved to Kentucky to become principal of Louisville High School in September 1868, Edward followed. Soon he was practicing law. In October 1869, he returned to the Shenandoah Valley long enough to marry Julia Leavell at her family farm, Media, in Jefferson County, W.Va.

During the subsequent years in Kentucky, Edward became partners with Will for a time, publishing a magazine of soldier reminiscences, the Southern Bivouac. In 1891, Edward purchased Media from Julia’s father and returned there the next year. He died in Charles Town, W.Va., on Sept. 20, 1912.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide