In the 1860s, Randolph County, Alabama, abutted the heart of the Black Belt of Alabama–a region of rich black soil that first produced food. In time, as the cotton market expanded, food crops were swapped for cotton, and enslaved people were brought to the plantations to cultivate the land, giving the regional nickname a tragic double meaning.
When Kate Cumming met John Ragan (or Regan, as she spelled it), he was in decent spirits, particularly for a man whose leg had just been amputated. Cumming had just arrived at the Old Tishomingo Hotel, which had been converted to a field hospital to handle patients from The Battle of Shiloh.
If my supposition about the records is correct, John Ragan had already suffered a lot in his twenty-two years. He was a farmer from Randolph County; before age fifty, Ragan’s father had died, leaving Rhoda Ragan with a farm, six daughters, and one son. When the recruiting drive came through the county, that one son, John, followed the call and joined the 22nd Alabama Infantry in Montgomery, Alabama.
The unit headed to Mobile where the men trained until they were deployed to Corinth and then on to Pittsburg Landing. Like the 21st, the 22nd was part of Braxton Bragg’s Corps, and as such, they saw heavy action throughout the two days, including multiple charges on the center of the Union line.
John took a minie ball to the leg. Ambulances had not yet come to the Civil War battlefields, so John most likely hobbled to the rear on his own, then joined a wagon of other wounded to be transported to Corinth. Ultimately, he made it to the Old Tishomongo. Minie balls were soft, and when they hit bone, they flattened and expanded, shattering bones into fragments. Limbs with broken bones were automatic amputations. Contrary to movie depictions, nearly all amputations in the Civil War were conducted with anesthesia–usually chloroform or ether. Surgeons were expert at administering the anesthesia, quickly removing the limb, stitching the veins and vessels, and stretching the skin back over the stump for final stitching. Had most amputations been conducted with sterile instruments, outcomes would have been far better. However, news of Louis Pasteur’s experiments showing the growth of germs would not reach the United States until after the war. Hence, surgeons reused their amputation tools over and over, typically cleaning their blades on their filthy aprons and sharpening them on the soles of their shoes.
When Cumming met Ragan, he had become friendly with Texan Eli Wasson, a fellow amputee. Their biggest complaint was a lack of food, and despite her unfamiliarity with the hospital, Kate quickly secured them and six other amputees food. While administering it, Ragan and Wasson told her of their mothers and sisters. Both were weak from their surgeries, and unknown to them, weakness was growing as illness, probably from their surgeries, was also growing.
Four days later and eleven days after his wounding, Ragan was feverish and hallucinating, and the doctors told Kate that his death was imminent. A faithful Episcopalian, Kate wished to speak with John about his readiness for death, but found him unable to focus. She managed to get Rhoda’s name and address from him, and then shortly after, he succumbed to his illness.
Where does John rest today? It is hard to know. The cemeteries in Corinth have hundreds, if not thousands, of unmarked Confederates in them. The Old Tishomongo Hotel would serve as a field hospital for the Confederacy again in October during The Battle of Corinth. It would fall into Union hands and become a Union hospital, and finally, be burned to the ground to keep it from being of service to the Confederacy any further.
Local sources from the day indicate that the grounds of the Old Tishomingo contained hundreds of buried dead. By the time the Union occupied it, hundreds of Confederate bones had resurfaced and were exposed to the elements, which Union soldiers did nothing about while burying their own dead sufficiently deep to avoid exposure. One source noted that only Colonel Rogers of the Confederacy was buried deep enough to avoid being exposed by rains, and this was only done because of General William Rosecrans’s personal oversight.
Was John Ragan buried on the grounds of the Old Tishomongo? It’s hard to say. In other hospital stays, Cumming would note that the dead from the hospitals were buried neatly and marked by headboards. Even in such cases, the headboards wore away quickly in the elements, and even well-marked graves became unmarked. It is likely that Kate wrote John’s mother; it is likely that a burial crew removed him within an hour or two and made room for more wounded coming from the fields. And when they removed him, the only trace left for history was his Confederate service record, one mention in a Census, and Kate Cummings’ short record of her care for him.