The Bravest of the Brave – Part 2

The Battle of Upperville, which had seen artillery duels, infantry attacks and sweeping cavalry charges across broad vistas of rolling country, ended in a deadly, man on man, street brawl in a narrow road intersection. In that brief but deadly maelstrom Wilson Vanatta was struck by a carbine bullet just below his right knee.

The operations he endured are detailed in the Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War. He arrived at Stanton Hospital, Washington, D.C., on June 24. For several days his wound appeared to be healing well, without surgery. Then, on July 6, his condition deteriorated quickly and morphine did nothing to assuage the sudden onset of intense pain. His leg was amputated in the lower third of the thigh the following day. He recovered quickly, or so his doctors believed, and he was transferred to Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia on October 2.

Three days after arriving at Turner’s Lane Hospital doctors performed a second operation, and removed an additional four inches of bone. “The shock of the operation,” was severe and Vanatta “was rallied with difficulty.” Still, by mid-November he appeared well enough to be transferred to Haddington General Hospital, also in Philadelphia.

In fact, there were still problems with the wound. A medical inspector later asked the Surgeon in Charge at Turner’s Lane Hospital to explain how Vanatta was reported “as having his stump ‘healed,’ when in reality there remained a fistulous opening, from which [additional] bone has since been removed.” The surgeon at Turner’s Lane Hospital offered the following explanation:

“I beg leave respectfully to suggest as a possible solution of the difficulty that the stump of Vanatta may not have been minutely examined by the Surgeon in Charge of Haddington, until a few days after Vanatta’s arrival, and that in the meantime the stump may have reopened. Or, granting that the stump was actually open at the time the patient arrived at Haddington Hospital, it does not seem impossible that though the stump was healed at the time he left this hospital, the jolting of the ambulance over the rough stones on the way may have torn asunder some of the tender adhesions between the flaps of the stump.”

By January, Wilson Vanatta was well enough to go home on furlough. He was discharged in June and began receiving a pension of eight dollars a month. Two years later the pension was increased to fifteen dollars a month. Unable to return to farming, Vanatta sought to supplement his pension income by buying and selling horses. With limited capital to support the venture, Vanatta used his pension certificate as collateral, letting the seller hold the certificate until Vanatta could sell the horses for a profit and pay off the loan. In time, Vanatta elected to ignore his debt and reported his certificate as having been destroyed in a fire, thereby receiving a duplicate.

Like many young men after the war, Vanatta began drifting westward. When an unpaid creditor leveled an allegation of fraud against him in February 1869, he was found to be a resident of the National Asylum of Dayton, Ohio. By the end of the year Vanatta had paid his debt in full, but he had also been “dishonorably discharged from this asylum at his own request. He had often been in the guard house for absence without leave and drunkenness.” His pension certificate, which had been suspended pending full payment of his debts “was delivered to him on his being discharged.”

On August 27, 1871, he married Margaret ‘Maggie’ Smith in St. Joseph, Missouri. The following year his pension was increased to $18 per month. Two years later he received another increase to $24. When he sought another increase in 1884, Vanatta was living in Omaha, Nebraska. He claimed he was losing the use of his right arm due to rheumatism, contracted in the swamps of the Peninsula in the summer of 1862. Four years later a doctor deemed his right arm “almost helpless,” a condition Vanatta then attributed to a fall from his horse near Potomac Creek in February 1863. By then the veteran was addicted to opiates to ease his pain. In 1890, Wilson, Maggie and their two children were living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was now nearly helpless and dependent on others for even the “minor details” of life.

Wilson Vanatta died on August 9, 1891. He was found in a room at the Grand Pacific Hotel in St. Louis, and taken to the hospital but died the same day of paralysis. The only thing of value found by the police was a $16 money order which was forwarded to his wife. His pension was $45 per month.

Four years later a complaint was made against his widow, charging her with “living in open and notorious adultery,” in Omaha. The pension investigator returned his report on September 25, 1895.

“I have no doubt that the charge is true, and I think the evidence here presented will show this pensioner is living in open and notorious adultery with one Harry Hodges, though both of them try to ward off suspicion by claiming that he is a ‘boarder’…. They live in the “bottoms,” among a class of people, notoriously immoral, shiftless and degrading, and this woman and her paramour are perfectly well qualified to take a leading position among their neighbors.

These people form a community peculiar to themselves; they are constantly in the police court and are devoid of shame, honesty and morality. Many of them, especially in the immediate vicinity of this pensioner, are Russian Jews and Poles who speak no English and who know nothing and care nothing about their neighbors, so long as they themselves are not disturbed. This makes it all the harder to get competent testimony in a matter of this kind. Nevertheless, in my judgment, I think the testimony here presented is about as “clear, positive and to the point in issue” as is required.

To be sure the reputation of all these witnesses is none of the best, but they are just as good as the pensioner, no better, no worse, and they are just like all the people who live in the “bottoms,” a people whose chief occupation seems to be to raise hell, dogs and bastards. Still, I think the witnesses whose testimony I have taken are among the best of them, and in this instance, I have every reason to believe that they have told the truth…

The claimant’s daughter, Naomi Vanatta, was strongly biased in favor of her mother. She is a prostitute…but in my opinion her testimony alone establishes the fact that the pensioner and her paramour are living together in open and notorious adultery. This witness, by reason of her experience in police courts and that gained by contact with her kind of people, is bright and cunning and will not hesitate to swear to a lie whenever it suits her purpose. She tried lying to me but I knew her history and that of her mother so well that I surprised her and would have none of it…

No matter what may be the reputation of these witnesses I think their statements are perfectly reliable and truthful, and in my judgment they fully establish the charge.

The pensioner and her paramour are desperate liars, and I have not the least doubt in the world if they ever get a chance in rebuttal, that they will offer the most positive and overwhelming testimony as to the virtue, morality and sobriety of the pensioner, but I do not think she can produce any that can overcome that of her own daughter who was a very unwilling witness in this case.

I think the evidence here presented is sufficient to warrant the Bureau in giving the pensioner the 30-day notice required…as a preliminary in dropping her name from the rolls…”

In December 1895 Margaret Vanatta was dropped from the pension rolls. She reapplied for her husband’s pension in 1918 but was again denied, based on the report cited above.

Officers, especially senior officers, and enlisted men had little personal interaction during the Civil War. There was a rigid divide between officers and enlisted men. A warm, friendly relationship between an enlisted man and an officer would have been rare, but orderly duty provided an exception, and Wilson Vanatta had been an orderly at regimental headquarters for several months. The truly heartfelt tone of Lt. Col. William Doster’s regimental order, describing Wilson Vanatta’s gallantry at Upperville, suggests that he knew Vanatta and respected him as both a man and a soldier.

It also seems likely that Doster had checked on Vanatta’s recovery and learned that he had lost his leg. The colonel’s words suggest his personal anguish at the loss of a valiant soldier. His pain, combined with the lifetime of pain endured by Wilson Vanatta, reminds us of the true cost of war.

One might think the colonel’s description of Vanatta’s heroism at Upperville would have earned the crippled soldier a Medal of Honor. There is no indication, however, that Vanatta or any member of his regiment submitted his name for consideration. Instead, after two amputations and several lesser operations, Vanatta, who had been a respected soldier of good character, was reduced to a life of pain, misery and drug abuse – a life in which a hero and his family were reduced to degradation merely to survive.



Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Vol 11

Wilson Vanatta’s Compiled Service and Pension Records, as well as regimental records from the National Archives

6 thoughts on “The Bravest of the Brave – Part 2

  1. An excellent treatment of the story, Bob. The purpose of all those battles was to produce human wreckage, and stories like Vanatta’s remind us of how many wrecked bodies, souls and lives drifted through those post-war decades. Years and years of suffering. Thanks for posting this.


  2. Painful, painful story. Our hearts go out to Wilson Vanatta, good soldier, true and brave. His postwar spiral into the moral abyss was no doubt a direct result of his terrible wound, and although tragic in its ending, Trooper Vanatta’s courage–and the admiration of his wartime superiors–must trump all else in his life’s legacy. The war wound destroyed a good man, pure and simple.


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