Shooting Oneself by Accident or by Design

When I first started working on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, the following question occurred to me: how often did soldiers accidentally shoot themselves? It may seem like a strange thing to contemplate, but I thought that if one gave rifles to a thousand men who were mostly in their twenties, a number of people were bound to make a mistake either through carelessness or inexperience and shoot themselves. And lo and behold, I soon discovered the story of Frederick Manning, the 5th New Hampshire’s first casualty.

On October 29, 1861, the regiment boarded a train in Concord, NH, bound for Washington, DC. Edward Cross, the regiment’s colonel, had made arrangements to prevent anything untoward from happening on the trip. Among other things, General Order No. 5, which he had issued three days before, stipulated that officers were to stay with their companies to “preserve good order and perfect sobriety,” ensure that the men followed regulations, and prevent soldiers from leaving the cars “without urgent necessity.” Non-commissioned officers were instructed to keep an eye on their squads to prevent drunkenness and misbehavior. Cross promised deserters and drunkards that they would be swiftly arrested and punished. Interestingly enough, most of the soldiers were unarmed; Cross ordered each company commander to bring only five rifles for “guard purposes” since the regiment would be issued with its weapons once it arrived in Washington, DC.[i] All well and good, but still not enough to prevent Frederick Manning of Company I from shooting himself. Before the regiment boarded the train, Manning (see image below, courtesy of David Morin) started loading a pistol that went off in his hand, sending a ball traveling up his forearm. It’s not clear who tended to Manning, but according to the Nashua Telegraph, this person “cut four great ugly gashes in his arm at different points between the wrist and elbow, without finding the ball.” Manning somehow ended up on the train, and by the time it reached Nashua, he had almost passed out. He was removed from his car, and Governor Nathaniel Berry, who happened to be aboard, sent for Dr. James B. Greely to take care of Manning. Greely promptly found the ball and removed it.[ii]

Stephen H. Holt belonged to Company K, but he hailed from Francestown, NH, only a short distance away from Manning’s residence of Lyndenborough, NH, and he appears to have known of Manning. Holt related the incident in a letter to his grandparents:

Tell Mr. Smith that that Manning that went from Lyndboro was loading his pistol just before we started and it went of and it struck right in the middle of his hand and went up his arm to his elbow. The Doctor cut his arm all to peices and then did not get it he said that it had lodged some where in among some of the bones of the elbow and if it matterated his arm would have to be cut of but he said it might heal up.[iii]

This story reminds me of the following commercial.

Manning recovered from his encounter with the inept doctor. He was later wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862) but unfortunately was killed in action at Gettysburg (July 2, 1863) during the hard fighting in Rose Wood near the Wheatfield.

Aside from the incident involving Manning, Ayling’s Revised Register only refers to two other cases where men accidentally shot themselves. While on guard duty at Camp California near Alexandria, VA, John Merrill, Jr. of Company D was approached by a boy with a loaded pistol. As he and several other soldiers examined the weapon, it went off and the bullet struck Merrill in the chest. Two surgeons were on the scene within ten minutes, but nothing could be done to save the stricken soldier.[iv] According to a letter from the regiment to the Farmer’s Cabinet,

He called for “Andrew,” a number of times, his messmate, who was standing over him all the time—His last call was for his wife [Sarah], whose miniature was held before him, but he could not see it his eyes were fixed, and he died without a struggle. I sent to camp for his Captain [John Murray] and some of his friends as soon as the accident happened, but they were about two minutes too late to see him breathe his last.[v]

This depiction of the scene bears all the hallmarks of a “good” death: the dying soldier is surrounded by his comrades and casts his last thoughts to his loved ones at home.[vi]

Miles Peabody of Company K reported the incident in this way:

we had a sad accident in Camp last night causing the death of a soldier he was accidently shot by a revolver in the hands of a soldier. He was a member of Co. D. he left a wife and two children.[vii]

The other accident referred to in Ayling’s Revised Register involved Enoch J. Quimby of Company A who was wounded accidentally in March 1862 (the date was unspecified) and discharged on account of those wounds on May 24, 1862. I have no information concerning Quimby’s wounding. James Larkin, the 1st Lieutenant of Quimby’s company, makes no mention of it in his correspondence.[viii]

But there were more accidents than just the ones referred to in Ayling’s Revised Register. Towards the end of January 1862, Major E. Parker (yes, “Major” was his first name) of Company E shot himself by accident while on guard duty at Camp California. Ayling’s Revised Register records that Parker was discharged disabled on February 3, 1862, but indicates nothing about the cause of the discharge. However, 2nd Lieutenant William Moore, who was in Parker’s company, wrote home to his sister about the accident:

Major E Parker of Lisbon, who accidently shot off three of his fingers while on Guard in the night, will be discharged from the service in a few days. He has been a good faithful soldier and we regret the loss of him.[ix]

The seriousness of the wound is hard to determine; Parker later enlisted in the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery in September 1864 and served in that unit for ten months before being mustered out.[x]

How many men accidentally shot themselves and were not listed as having done so in Ayling’s Revised Register? It is impossible to say unless, as in the case of Parker, we encounter evidence from other sources.

Thus far, we’ve discussed men who clearly shot themselves accidentally. But as I looked at surgeon’s reports for several battles, a particular line of inquiry got me thinking that some men may have sought to injure themselves with their own firearms. On several occasions after major battles, the New Hampshire Statesman printed copies of the surgeon’s report for the 5th New Hampshire.[xi] These reports don’t totally jibe with Ayling’s Revised Register (some men appear as wounded in the surgeon’s report but not the Revised Register, and vice versa) but they do seem reliable. The results are as follows.

Battle of Fair Oaks

Of the 164 casualties listed for this battle, 12 were wounded in the hand or finger. Six of these wounds resulted in amputation (out of a total of 11 amputations performed).

The Seven Days Battles

One-quarter of the casualties suffered during this battle (12 out of 48) were wounds to the hand or finger. Five of these 12 wounds necessitated amputation. Only a total of six amputations were performed—the sixth one being that of a foot.

Battle of Antietam

The surgeon’s report listed 111 casualties with a total of 12 wounds to the fingers, hand, or wrist. Of the 14 amputations performed, half involved a hand or finger.

When I first saw these figures, it seemed to me that the number of wounds to hands and fingers was rather large. After all, the head, torso, legs, and arms occupy far more surface area than hands and fingers. I did not know how to explain these numbers. And thus the matter rested—in the back of my mind. . . .

Until I ran across the following post on Mysteries & Conundrums: Exploring the Civil War-era landscape in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania region. The post briefly discusses self-inflicted wounds during the Overland Campaign (1864). It begins by quoting a May 1864 passage from the diary of Darius Starr of Company F, 2nd United States Sharpshooters (he belonged to one of the two New Hampshire companies in the regiment) to the effect that he seriously considered wounding himself to avoid combat during this period.[xii] The post then goes on to quote Assistant Surgeon John Billings who claimed that many men shot themselves in the hand during this campaign to avoid combat:

A very large number of wounds of the palm of the hand and of the fingers have been observed. In many of them the skin was blackened with powder, and the injury was self-inflicted. The usual cause alleged is the accidental discharge of their own or a comrade’s musket. Amputation of the injured fingers, in such cases, has been usually performed without the use of an anaesthetic.[xiii]

Undoubtedly, many wounds to the hands and fingers were legitimate. And undoubtedly, the Army of the Potomac in 1864 was not what it was in 1862. But the foregoing makes me wonder: how many men were shooting themselves in the hand in 1862 to avoid combat?


[i] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 10-11.

[ii] Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 43-44.

[iii] Stephen H. Holt to grandparents, November 1, 1861, Stephen H. Holt Papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.

[iv] See Pride and Travis, My Brave Boys, 64.

[v] Farmer’s Cabinet, February 27, 1862, 2. “Andrew” may have been one of three men—Andrew J. Mitchell, Andrew J. Pinkham, and Andrew T. Reynolds, all of Company D and all from Dover, NH, Merrill’ hometown. See Ayling’s Revised Register.

[vi] See Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2009).

[vii] Miles Peabody to parents, February 19, 1862, Peabody Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society. It is interesting to note that the Farmer’s Cabinet claimed Merrill had four children. According to the Census of 1860, Merrill then had three children. See “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WY-D23 : 14 December 2017), John Merrill, 1860.

[viii] Larkin’s papers are located at the New Hampshire Historical Society

[ix] William Moore to Sister Bettie, January 30, 1862, Moore Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.

[x] Parker, however, appears to have died only ten days after mustering out of the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery. I write “appears” because although his family tree in FamilySearch states unequivocally that he died on June 25, 1865 in Lisbon, NH, I could find no documentation to confirm this date. See https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/landscape/94DD-PJ7

[xi] New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2; New Hampshire Statesman, July 19, 1862, 2; New Hampshire Statesman, October 4, 1862, 2.

[xii] Starr’s admission was all the more poignant since he was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness and later died at Andersonville. See Ayling’s Revised Register, 981.There is one problem though with the passage cited in the post. According to the post, the diary entry was from May 9, 1864, but Starr was captured on May 6, 1864.

[xiii] The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (1861-1865) Part I. Volume I. Medical History (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870), “Report of Assistant Surgeon J. S. Billings, USA,” 202.

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