Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/The Phenomena of Death in Battle

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IN an article printed in the Monthly for June, 1893, 1 presented some of the phenomena of the soldier's first actions under a death-hurt. A field for investigation lying just beyond that—as I infer from the incomplete records and deductions offered by men of science—is that of the phenomena of death itself. In a casual way I stated in my paper that the symptoms attending death in battle might, in certain cases, be determined by the appearances of the bodies, and cited a remarkable scene at Antietam, where dead Confederates in one place, to the number of several hundred, seemed to have been killed instantly, and to have retained in death something of the last attitudes of their combative life. After my manuscript had been given to the editor, my attention was called to a brief discussion of this question in a sketch by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, in the Century for February, 1892. The views of Dr. Mitchell are not openly declared in his Century article, but he quotes, on the lips of fictitious characters, the opinions of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, and refers to Dr. J. H. Brinton, an army surgeon, who is on record as a very positive witness in this matter. General Sherman, according to Dr. Mitchell, told the story of a soldier killed by a bullet in the brain while kneeling at a spring to drink, who retained his extraordinary attitude naturally in death. General Grant, when appealed to, said that it could not be true, as he had never seen a single instance where a soldier, shot dead, retained the posture held in life, and his attention had never been called to it in the war. General Sheridan stated that he had often seen it. I wrote what I recalled of the Antietam scene thirty years after, and, never having had a doubt raised but such things could be and were not rare in war, I assumed the phenomenon to be fairly well established, and that citation without proof would not tax the credulity of readers. Yet the denial by General Grant caused me to question my own senses or my memory. As against both Sherman and Sheridan, the one sanguine and imaginative, the other impulsive and good-natured, it would seem that, all things being equal, a question of fact would have the more competent judge in Grant. General Grant went no further in his denial than to say that he had never seen the phenomenon. There are veterans who, having had the best of opportunities for seeing all phases of the battlefield, not only say that they never saw a case of the kind, but, resting upon professional knowledge, assert its impossibility. For my own part, I can report only what I saw in my capacity as a combatant—that is, extraordinary attitudes of dead men on certain fields. Reports of comrades of analogous cases, and the quite prevalent belief that the manifestation was possible, led to the acceptance of it as a natural yet withal a rare occurrence. The fact that military men, and more especially surgeons who have been on the field, are skeptical on the point, that such phenomena are comparatively rare, and that scientific observations have been recorded in but few instances, makes the subject one for extreme caution and conservatism in treatment. In my paper on wounded soldiers I cited the cases of oflBcers killed while leading the charge, who in death held their sword-arms out as when last seen in life. The inference drawn was that death must have been instantaneous. The Antietam scene described was of similar character, yet extraordinary in the number of examples of the same order. I confess that I did not see on any other of the score of fields where I was present a scene at all comparable to that at Antietam, but competent witnesses have reported similar things on other fields, as well as on different parts of that field.

The field of Antietam was peculiarly favorable for the development of the phenomenon, which for brevity, borrowing a term from Surgeon Brinton's record of research, I will call battlefield rigor. It was the hardest fought battle in the East—perhaps in the whole country. The Confederates were at bay, with the Potomac River behind them, and the Union soldiers were exultant over the enemy's dilemma, and the fact that for once battle was invited on their own soil. Circumstances have relegated it to the background, but at one time it was deemed worthy the best efforts of descriptive writers. Charles Carleton Coffin, the war correspondent and historian, wrote of one of the scenes there in language that will seem to many overcolored. Speaking of an action almost contemporaneous with that at the north cornfield of which I have written, he says: "The Confederates had gone down as grass before the scythe. . . . Resolution and energy still lingered on the pallid cheeks, in the set teeth, in the griping hand. I recall a soldier with the cartridge between his thumb and finger, the end of the cartridge bitten off, and the paper between his teeth, when the bullet pierced his heart and the machinery of life—all the muscles and nerves—came to a standstill. A young lieutenant had fallen in trying to rally his men; his hand was still firmly grasping his sword, and determination was visible in every line of his face."

Curiously enough. Surgeon Brinton's field records, which form the basis of a paper referred to in Dr. Mitchell's remarks on the subject, include three Antietam scenes. The doctor confesses in the opening paragraph of his article (American Journal of the Medical Sciences, vol. xix, p. 87) that this line of investigation was a comparatively new one at the close of the war, 1865. He says: "I have been greatly surprised at the extraordinary attitudes presented by the bodies of those who had fallen with wounds apparently instantaneously fatal—as in the head or heart. In many instances the body was rigid throughout, and the position unquestionably that of the last moment of life. The muscles had, as it were, been surprised by death, and the limbs remained set and fixed in the position held at the moment of the reception of the fatal wound."

In the cornfield, along the sunken road at Antietam (the scene of Mr. Coffin's description). Dr. Brinton saw a Confederate corpse semi-erect, one foot on the ground, one knee against a bank of earth, and one arm stretched forward on a low breastwork. His musket, with rammer in, lay on the ground, and the appearances indicated that he had been killed while rising to load and fire. He was shot through the center of the forehead. In the field adjoining the doctor counted nearly forty dead Confederates, some with their arms rigidly in the air, some with legs drawn and fixed, and many with trunks drawn and fixed. The positions were "not those of the relaxation of death," but were due to "final muscular action at the last moment of life, in the spasm of which the muscles set and remained rigid." The wounds were chiefly in the chest, though some were in the head and abdomen. His observations were made thirty-six hours after death.

Another Antietam case included in Dr. Brinton's list, but reported by Surgeon Thomas B. Read, was the corpse of a Union soldier with his right arm raised above his head and rigidly fixed, his hand still holding the cap with which he had been cheering on his comrades.

Aside from the desperate nature of the fighting at Antietam, the situation was especially favorable to these phenomena, particularly on the Confederate side. They had fought nine battles and engagements within one month, besides marching over two hundred miles. The troops engaged on the portions of the field under consideration had fought at South Mountain two days before—September 14th—had been alert all night on the 14th, 15th, and 16th, marching, countermarching, and skirmishing constantly, and were run down physically from hunger and general exhaustion. They had subsisted for several days upon green corn and apples, and had been one month on half rations of meal and bacon. The day—September 17th—was about like sultry August weather in the North, close and lowery in the morning, followed by a burning sun. The night of the battle was sweltering hot on the field. These circumstances may have played a part in the development of instantaneous rigor.

The first cases that came to the eye of Dr. Brinton were at Belmont, Mo., November 7, 1861. One was a Union soldier kneeling by a tree, in the act of firing, and shot obliquely through the head, front to back. His warm body rested on right knee and leg, left leg bent, with foot on the ground; the left hand firmly clinched the barrel of his musket, which rested with the butt on the ground. The soldier's head drooped to the chest, and rested against the tree. Attitude generally forward, jaw fixed, rigidity perfect. The doctor supposed him to be alive, and could scarcely believe that death rested upon a statue so lifelike. Another Union soldier, shot near the heart, mounted a straying mule and rode beside the doctor some distance. Soon the glazed eyeballs gave unequivocal signs of death, but the body rode on upright. After a time the mule was needed for a live victim, and the body of the other was so firm and rigid that it required force to loosen the knee-grip on the animal's shoulders.

Belmont was fought in autumn, yet the physical activity was such as to generate great bodily heat. It was a running fight for seven hours through wood and marsh. The desperate nature of the struggle is shown by the list of casualties. On the average during the war the proportion of killed and mortally wounded to wounded was one to three. In four of the five regiments engaged at Belmont the proportion was over one to two. The Seventh Iowa lost 188 killed, wounded, and missing. The death-list reached 74, leaving 114 for surviving wounded—over one and a quarter to two.

At Williamsburg, Va., May 5, 1863, Surgeon Read reported a Zouave with, one leg half over a fence, body crawling forward, one hand clinched and raised to level of forehead, with palmar surface outward, as if to ward off evil. Williamsburg was fought during a rain, but the men wore overcoats, the ground was low and heavily wooded, the troops new to war—like those at Belmont—and the mental strain and excitement would be favorable to bodily heat. That field also brought forth a bit of the kind of historical description termed fanciful. It is from the pen of Warren Lee Goss, who has published several narratives of the civil war. He was a soldier in the Union ranks at Williamsburg, and states that after the engagement he visited the scene of a charge in front of the Confederate fort. "Advancing through the tangled mass of logs and stumps, I saw one of our men aiming over the branch of a fallen tree which lay among the tangled abatis. I called to him, but he did not turn nor move. Advancing nearer, I put my hand on his shoulder, looked in his face, and started back. He was dead—shot through the brain—and so suddenly had the end come that his rigid right hand grasped his musket, and he still preserved the attitude of watchfulness, literally occupying his post after death."

A case reported to Dr. Brinton from Goldsboro, N. C., is one of the most striking on record, and it is to be regretted that particulars as to atmospheric and other conditions are wanting. Otherwise the details are most complete. A party of Union cavalry met some dismounted Confederates, and the latter, taking alarm, sprang to their saddles. The Union men fired a volley, and all of the Confederates rode off save one. He was in position preparing to mount, his face turned toward the advancing enemy, who were about to fire again when their leader restrained them, and told them to capture him. Riding up, they found a corpse with one foot in the stirrup, left hand grasping the bridle and mane of the horse, right hand clasping carbine near muzzle, stock resting on ground. Every muscle was rigid in death, and it was difficult to detach the fingers from the carbine, bridle, and mane. The body was laid down, and the same positions and inflexibility were retained by all the members. There were two wounds, one at the right of the spine, emerging near the heart, the other in the right temple.

Another case reported at second hand to Dr. Brinton, but vouched for to him, was that of a cavalryman of the Fourth Wisconsin, who in a skirmish in Louisiana was shot through the heart. His comrades placed him alone in a buggy, which was dragged for an hour by a rope attached to a saddle, the man dying meanwhile, and his body sitting bolt upright and rigid.

The cases examined by Dr. Brinton were sufficient to fully establish all that he claims—namely, the existence of a rigor peculiar to the battlefield which is as instantaneous as the death with which it is synchronous. He states that he frequently passed without examination corpses holding muskets in grasp, pointing forward as if in a charge; bodies prone, face to earth; trunks bent, limbs apparently rigid. From other sources come reports of similar phenomena in more or less details. In a compilation of surgical reports by J. G. Chenu (Rapport au Conseil de Santé des Armées, 1865), Surgeon Perir, from the field of Alma, Boudin from Inkerman, and Armand from Magenta, named many general and special appearances of the phenomena. At Magenta many bodies held to their weapons, even those lying face downward. The conclusion of M. Armand, appended to his report, was that death came so suddenly that the hands had not time to let go. These were head shots. The fighting at Magenta was again terrific, and it was warm June weather. The struggle on the part of the French side was for possession of the town, the key to the position, and it was carried house by house. On the scene of one hand-to-hand combat a corpse was found with the arms raised in front, one bent, one extended, with fists clutched; also a dead hussar on a fallen horse, almost intact in saddle, but leaning on the right side, holding his saber at a thrust. The Magenta cases were seen by the surgeons when forty-eight hours old.

At Inkerman, fought in November, during a dull, foggy rain, M. Boudin saw numberless cases where the bodies rested on the knees, with guns in firm clasp, cartridges in the mouth, and in some instances arms upraised, as though parrying blows. "Long files of the dead seemed to need but the impulse of vital breath to recommence the action of battle." An eye-witness's off-hand description of scenes on that field is found in W. H. Russell's correspondence to the London Times. He said: "The battle of Inkerman admits of no description. It was a series of dreadful deeds of daring, of sanguinary hand-to-hand fights, of despairing rallies, of desperate assaults, in glens and valleys, in brushwood glades and remote dells. . . .

"The British and French, many of whom had been murdered by the Russians as they lay wounded, wore terrible frowns on their faces, with which the agonies of death had clad them. Some in their last throes had torn up the earth in their hands, and held the grass between their fingers up toward heaven."

At Alma, M. Perir saw a great number of cases. One in particular he reported where the body lay upon the side, legs bent, hands lifted at joints, and head thrown back as if in prayer. Alma was fought in September (in the Crimea). Russell termed it one of the most bloody and determined struggles in the annals of war. The allies charged through the waters of the Alma up the steeps to the Russian batteries on the crest.

Instantaneous rigor following violent death has been assumed to be ordinary rigor mortis, hastened in development by circumstances, or a rigidity of tetanic character. Dr. Carpenter, the English physician, held to the latter theory, and believed that the rigidity ceased after a few hours, to be succeeded by relaxation and ordinary rigor mortis in turn. Dr. Brinton, reviewing all other theories, claimed that the phenomena on the battlefield are unique. "Ordinary rigor mortis," he wrote, "is developed after muscular irritability has ceased, but before putrefaction sets in. The appearance of battlefield rigor is probably synchronous with violent death.

"In ordinary rigor mortis the march is downward; the parts first affected are the neck and jaw; the lower jaw, if previously relaxed, is drawn up; flexor muscles are supposed to be affected in a greater degree. Battlefield rigor affects probably all regions alike at once.

"Ordinary rigor mortis is usually of twenty-four to thirty-six hours' duration; battlefield rigor remains longer than is supposed. . . . The prolonged continuance shows that it is not tetanic nor followed by rigor mortis proper." The doctor saw cases of it twenty-four to forty-eight hours and once sixty hours after death. Armand saw it at Magenta twenty-four hours old and Perir at Alma forty-eight hours after death. Dr. Brinton's paper closes with this brief summary of the distinctive features of battlefield rigor:

"The rigor is developed at the instant of death.

"The cadaveric attitudes are those of the last moment of life.

"The death most probably is instantaneous and unaccompanied by convulsions or agony.

"The rigor is probably more lasting than is usually supposed.

"It is extremely doubtful whether this instantaneous rigor of sudden death or rigor of the battlefield is succeeded by flexibility, in its turn to be followed by ordinary rigor mortis."

This subject lies, of course, beyond the realm of experiment. If rigor mortis is due, as is believed, to solidification of the juices of the muscles by the acid conditions developed therein, marked chemical changes, either rapid or prolonged, follow death under ordinary circumstances. In what degree may the solidification be hastened by extraordinary violence in death? We learn that protoplasm is subject to peculiar changes under peculiar conditions; that it contracts under electric shocks, and that certain forms of it coagulate under temperatures varying from 100° to 122° Fahr., a species of "heat-stiffening" illustrated by the coagulation of the white of an egg. The presence of certain salts will cause muscle juice (myosin) to coagulate at a temperature possible to be attained in the system of a hard-working man on a hot day. and a slight degree of acidity in the muscle juice lowers the temperature for coagulation; so that hard-worked and heated muscles are, upon chemical grounds, susceptible to the onset of rigor. The most remarkable cases of battlefield rigor seem to develop under extraordinary heat. Given heat and the release of blood pressure, the sudden check of muscular energy consequent upon the wound cuts off from the protoplasm all healthy expenditure of waste, and its action may be brought to a halt so sudden and so effectual as to preclude the slightest change of attitude beyond what may be caused by external forces. Reduced to its plainest terms the idea is as follows: Muscular action and excitement develop heat and chemical action. The myosin, or muscle juice, normally alkaline, is by hard work and excitement rendered acid. Heat and acidity being present in the muscles, tetanic or early rigor-mortis contractions might be expected in case of sudden death.

Again, the outstretched hand of the soldier, the grasp of weapons—even the fixing of the eyeballs in angry stare—are acts of the will. If death cuts short the power to will a reaction in the muscles involved by instantly destroying the nerve centers controlling the expanded member, why should the muscles contract any more than they would expand, if death came at the moment of contraction?

The immediate effect of an electric current of lethal energy comes nearest to what must be supposed as the manifestations attending instantaneous death in the heat of individual action. In an electric chair, at the moment of contact with the deadly current, the entire muscular system of the victim is thrown into a state of sudden and severe rigidity, lasting until the electrode is removed. All bodily sensation, motion, and consciousness are suspended at the same time; that is to say, the cessation of consciousness and the physical death—"total paralysis of all the vital organs and the nervous centers by which they are directly or indirectly vitalized, and by which the muscles of the extremities are actuated so that when the current is broken there can be no reflex action of the muscles, such as would indicate the presence of residual life energy or the possibility of resuscitation"—are synchronous. In the case of McElvaine, executed at Sing Sing, February 8, 1892, the reflex action of the voluntary muscles was tested approximately two or three minutes after the breaking of the current, and was found to be "absolutely unresponsive to ordinary mechanical stimuli." Dr. Van Gieson, in his report of the experiment, says: "This tends to show how superlatively complete and far-reaching the effects of the current are in abolishing life, not only in the concrete form, but also in the integral activities of the body, which, in other forms of sudden and violent death, is liable to persist for a time after life is extinct. From observation at this execution, as well as at the subsequent examination of the body, the current appears at first not only to extinguish life in the ordinary sense of the word, so far as consciousness, feeling, and volition are concerned, with overwhelming suddenness, but reaches beyond this, and destroys the energies of the individual component parts of the body, so that they can not be raised into activity by artificial mechanical stimulation, as is usually the case in sudden violent death."

The same thought has been applied to the phenomena of battlefield rigor. M. Armand wrote of the Magenta cases in 1859, "Death came so sudden that hands holding weapons had not time to let go." Dr. Brinton, in 1865, wrote, "The muscles had, as it were, been surprised by death, and limbs remained set and fixed in the position held at the moment of receiving the fatal wound."

Lightning strokes have produced like phenomena. Men and animals have been found dead in upright postures, a horse even standing on all fours, with his eyes wide open and nostrils dilated by the terror which the storm evoked. If rigidity can be instantaneous in any one case, why not in another where similar causes work upon the same elements?

There is still a link awaiting further physiological research to connect the manifestations attending deaths in battle action with those under the electric current. Huxley asserted that the matter of life depends on carbonic acid, water, and ammonia brought together under certain conditions, and that the withdrawal of any one of them puts an end to vital phenomena; also, that every form of human action is resolvable into muscular contractions, or transitory changes in the relative positions of the parts of a muscle. In 1868 he said: "Perhaps it would not yet be safe to say that all forms of protoplasm are affected by electric shocks; and yet the number of cases in which the contraction of protoplasm is shown to be affected by this agency increases every day."

Therefore the sudden appearance of agents in the nature of electricity and heat may change the combination of acid, water, and ammonia that causes the constant transition of the molecules of a muscle, and when that proportion changes and transition ceases, everything is at a dead stop until other combinations set in motion other changes that give rise to a new order of phenomena. The first stage is vital life, the last putrefaction, and the interim rigidity. The electric current causes unconsciousness and muscular death at one stroke. In battle the wound may produce swift unconsciousness. May it not also let loose a stored supply of heat to augment the already intense heat distributed by the energy of passion and physical action and thus stiffen the muscle jelly? Or has the capacity for spasmodic reaction been exhausted by the previous overexertion of the soldier—volition being cut short by the wound?

Some men of science not only admit the validity of the evidence offered as to the appearancce of phenomenal rigor under war wounds as well as electric shocks, but assume it as an established physiological fact, without, however, accounting for it. Dr. Mitchell, in his indirect suggestions before mentioned, leaves no reason to doubt that he believes in it. Dr. Brinton and other army surgeons familiar with the phenomenon have speculated as to its causes, and almost all medical men who are not familiar with it in actual experience are curious as to what proof or explanations may be produced.

There is one other form of manifestations of the battlefield almost as unique, though not so startling, as instantaneous rigor, and being more frequently encountered has doubtless impressed itself more widely upon the minds of soldiers and visitants to the field. At first thought it seems but reasonable that the intensity of battle passion and energy should leave its mark upon the forms and features of combatants who die in the midst of the fray. Per contra, it seems odd that corpses made so by violence in the midst of violence should sometimes wear on their faces the peaceful look of calmness usually associated with quiet deathbeds. I mentioned in the paper of last year, on wounds, that many of the dead appear to have passed away in a state of mental composure and freedom from pain. Often in contemplating these scenes one is surprised at the contrasts between the happy smile on the dead warrior's face and the blood, the spent missiles, the weapons, and other ghastly symbols of the strife that has passed, lying beside him. Here, again. Nature has wrought a good work. Wrath is soon spent, the inciting din of battle quickly hushed; pain and melancholy thoughts, even surprise that life remains, swiftly loosen the chords that once bound the now suffering man to the warrior's terrible trade. Thought, fanciful it may be but yet enchanting, takes him miles and leagues away, the while his torn body lies not ten feet from the cannon that mangled it, and the smoke of the fatal discharge still hovers about the scene. Again he is only a man. He tries bravely to live, forgetting to hate; makes light of his condition, and may be helps another victim supposed to be worse off than himself. Finally, death steals on while some noble or pleasant thoughts play upon the features. We sometimes found our dead comrades a long distance away from the landmarks on the spots where they fell. This brings up a practical suggestion. Those who fall asleep peacefully die as we would have them if die they must. They usually, however, show unmistakably that they survived their wound some little time, and the wound often seems trivial to have caused death. Since surgical aid to all is out of the question, why should not every soldier be his own surgeon? Suppose his pack contained a tourniquet, bandages, and lint, to the use of which he has been trained; also, a draught of some strong cordial which might sustain his own life or that of a comrade in extremities, until the relief corps should appear. A simple knowledge of the tourniquet, of bandages, and lint, and readiness to improvise substitutes, have saved countless lives. Lack of knowledge, sometimes, and sometimes an inexcusable lack of materials, have sacrificed thousands. A wounded soldier of our civil war stopped a severe hæmorrhage in the neck by clogging the artery with balls made of sand and blood-clot. He had nothing better at hand.