Thomas A. Nichols - 1864 Photo courtesy of Paul Ditchey, descendant of Thomas Nichols.

Thomas A. Nichols – 1864
Photo courtesy of Paul Ditchey, descendant of Thomas Nichols.

It was December 26th, 1864, Christmas had come and gone. Perhaps Thomas had received a letter from home, which would have brightened his spirits since he had reported back to Louisville early in the month. The weather was mild that morning compared to the Pennsylvania winters. Although his foot wound had healed enough for him to be on sedentary duty, it still caused him discomfort and he walked with a limp to avoid putting pressure on the scar tissue. Thomas entered the first floor of Louisville Military Prison, Barracks No. 1, where he was on duty as the commanding officer. What happened next was completely unexpected.

On the second floor of the wooden barracks a private in the 13th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was on duty. While he examined his rifle, it accidentally discharged. The Minié ball shot through the floorboards at a speed of 950 ft./sec and struck Thomas. If Thomas had been a few inches to the left or the right, it could have meant his death, or escape from another injury. Instead the Minié,  or“minnie” ball as the soldiers referred to it, penetrated Thomas’s left arm 3” above his wrist, tore through the flesh, shattered the radius, and exited the arm below the elbow near the ulna.

Minié Balls - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Minié Balls – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

At the beginning of the Civil War the Minié ball was a new invention, and a very destructive one. Made from soft lead, the 2 oz. conoidal balls lost their shape as they penetrated the victim’s body. “The effect on bone and tissue was incredibly devastating. It would smash, tear apart and disintegrate what it hit. Most of the amputations that occurred were because of this devastation.”

Leg Wound from Minié Ball. Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine

Leg Wound from Minié Ball. Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine

As unlucky as Thomas A. Nichols was to be accidentally shot twice, he was fortunate each time to be near a military hospital. If he had been in the field where mass casualties overwhelmed the doctors, his chances of survival would have greatly decreased. Every surgery in the field was septic.”The surgeon operated in a blood and often pus-stained coat. He might hold his lancet in his mouth. If he dropped an instrument or sponge, he picked it up, rinsed it in cold water, and continue work. When loose pieces of bone and tissue were removed the wound would be packed with moist lint or raw cotton, unsterilized, and bandaged with wet, unsterilized bandages. The bandages were kept wet, the patient  kept as quiet as possible, and he was given small but frequent doses of whiskey and possibly quinine.”

Thomas transferred to the Louisville Officer’s Hospital where his care was superior to that of a field hospital. Amputation was the standard procedure for an extremity wound particularly when the bone  shattered. Was the doctor a “conservative” who favored sparing a limb, or did Thomas use persuasion and plead for the surgeon to save his arm?

Medical Diagram of wound area - Thomas A. Nichols. Image courtesy of NARA.

Medical Diagram of foot and arm wounds – Thomas A. Nichols. Image courtesy of NARA.

After the wound was probed to remove any foreign materials: bullet, pieces of bone, pieces of his woolen uniform etc., a dressing was applied. Bacteriology was not understood during the Civil War and many soldiers died from their infected wounds. The wound became red and inflamed, and oozed pus, but suppuration was viewed as a sign of normal healing. Next, Thomas’s arm was then placed in some form of traction, perhaps a wooden splint.
For the next 3 months, Thomas convalesced at the Louisville Officer’s Hospital. Early on in the war, medical authorities realized the need for general hospitals to treat the thousands of wounded soldiers, and a plan was developed for their construction. Although by our current standards the hospitals were unsanitary, they were preferable to being treated in the field.

Memphis Hospital Ward. Image courtesy of Historic-

Memphis Hospital Ward. Image courtesy of Historic-

Due to his wounds, Thomas was granted a 30 day furlough on April 4, 1864, and then honorably discharged June 3, 1865. After his return to Pottsville, he applied for a pension and was granted 1/2 disability effective June 1865. He received $8.50/month, which converted to today’s economy is approximately $118/month. The partial disability was based on a government rating scale that determined if a veteran was capable “for procuring a subsistence by manual labor”, including “the lighter kinds of labor which require education and skill.”

Discharge Papers for Thomas A. Nichols. Image courtesy of NARA

Discharge Papers for Thomas A. Nichols. Image courtesy of NARA

Discharge papers

Special orders No 275  War Department Adjutants General Office Washington June 3rd, 1865     1st Lieutenant Thomas A. Nichols, Adjutant 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry is hereby honorably discharged the service of the United States, on account of physical disability, with condition that he shall receive no final payments until he has satisfied the Pay Department that he is not indebted to the Government.                                              

By the order of the Secretary of the War    E. D. Townsend

Lieut Thomas A Nichols 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry Pottsville Penna                                                        Post Office Pottsville Pa  June 8, 1865                                                                                                             I hereby certify that the Discharge was delivered to Lieut Thos A Nichols this day,     D Krebs Clerk

Ten months after he was wounded, October 1865, Thomas’s requested an increase in his pension. The gunshot wound in his arm continued to suppurate and made it difficult for him to work as a clerk, his prewar occupation. The increase was denied.
Back in St. Clair, PA, Thomas knew he couldn’t rely on his pension to provide for his family. His eldest son John was 8, Bertha was 2, and Charles was a baby, only a few months old. He could not support his family on $8.50/month. He had to find a job.

©Kendra Hopp Schmidt 2014- Present


Genealogy Sketch

Name: Thomas Ackley Nichols
Parents: Matthias Nichols and Sarah Ackley?
Spouse: Helena Knerr and Lillian Watson Bull
Children: John, Bertha, Charles and Mary, Florence, Howard

Relationship to Kendra: 3rd great grandfather

  1. Thomas Ackley Nichols
  2. John Mathews Nichols
  3. Mabel Elvina Nichols Hyde
  4. John Frederick Hyde Jr.
  5. Jean Hyde Hopp Eichorn
  6. Kendra

About treeklimber

An interest in history and travel lends itself to a passion for genealogy. The more I research, the more I realize there is to discover. It is a never-ending puzzle.
This entry was posted in Biographies, Military Service, My Family Ancestry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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