The Colonel Who Became a Surgeon 

by Michael Dreese
Colonel Henry Morrow (Library of Congress)
Colonel Henry Morrow (Library of Congress)
On the evening of July 3, 1863, a pair of ambulances meandered through the fields west of Gettysburg, where fierce fighting had raged two days earlier.  The swinging lanterns clutched by the searchers revealed a macabre scene.  The unburied corpses of hundreds of Union soldiers were strewn across the ground in no discernible pattern.  They lay singularly or in groups, some in grotesque positions, others appeared relaxed as though they were sleeping dreamily under the stars.  In the heat and humidity, the fallen heroes had turned an ashen black and were swollen far beyond their normal size.  Nearly all had been stripped of their clothing by destitute Southern soldiers.

The rescue team threaded its way carefully around the dead as they listened intently for the barely audible moans of the wounded.  The leader of the small party was not a surgeon, or even a medical orderly, but oddly enough a Union infantry colonel who possessed no prior experience or training for his impromptu style.  Just as peculiarly, he was a Southerner by birth.

Henry Andrew Morrow was born in Warrenton, Virginia in 1829.  He received his education at the Rittenhouse Academy in Washington, D.C., and later worked as the page in the United States Senate.  When war broke out with Mexico in 1846, Henry enlisted at the age of seventeen and fought at Monterrey and in the Tampicoan Campaign.  In 1853, Morrow settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he studied law.  Admitted to the bar a year later, he was subsequently elected City Recorder for two terms and then as first judge of the Recorder’s Court.

Responding to President Lincoln’s call for additional manpower to fight another war, in 1862 Judge Morrow announced his intention to raise a regiment of volunteers from Detroit and surrounding Wayne County.  As one of the city’s most respected leaders, he experienced little difficulty attracting recruits.  In just two weeks, the required quota of one thousand men had been accomplished and the roster of officers completed.

Henry Morrow was commissioned colonel of the newly designated 24th Michigan Volunteers on August 15, 1862.  His excellent education, administrative talents, and leadership ability boded well for his military career.  Full of promise and buoyed by enthusiasm, the men of the 24th departed Detroit at the end of the month.  By the close of their enlistment term, they would compile an illustrious combat record and earn the respect of friend and foe alike.

The early service of the regiment and their commander was anything but auspicious. On October 29, 1862, they joined the Army of the Potomac in Virginia.  The regiment was assigned to the Iron Brigade, a veteran organization consisting of the 19th Indiana, and the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin regiments.  These battle-scarred members of the First Army Corps had participated in some of the bloodiest campaigns of the war to date, including Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam.  Everyone from the rank of private to major general considered these men among the best combat units in the Federal army.

When the new Michigan soldiers were drawn up in front of these bronzed warriors, they received an icy reception.  Colonel Morrow, a brilliant orator, introduced his regiment with a flowery speech.  Upon his conclusion, the brigade commander called upon his men to give three cheers to the newcomers.  There was no response.  The men of the 24th would have to earn the respect of their peers, on the field of battle.  They would not have to wait long.

Colonel Morrow and his troops received their first taste of battle at Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862. While supporting the Union battery south of town, the regiment received a severe pounding from Confederate artillery.  In the midst of the inferno, Morrow paced his men through the manual of arms to keep their frayed nerves calm.  The new recruits stood firm and suffered the loss of 36 men killed and wounded.  The battle, while a disastrous loss for the Union, served as an initiation for the men from Detroit into the brotherhood of veterans in the Iron Brigade.

General Abner Doubleday praised these “Wolverines” for their courage and alacrity, while brigade commander Solomon Meredith proclaimed that the men had behaved splendidly.  Major Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin was equally impressed.  “ No soldiers faced fire more bravely ,” he said, “ and …Colonel Morrow was equal to all requirements, enterprising, brave and ambitious; he stepped at once into a circle of the best and most experienced regimental commanders in the Army of the Potomac .” 1   

Morrow was described as an eloquent man who was affable and courteous.  Although not a strict disciplinarian, he quickly earned the respect of his men.  The regimental historian declared that “ No braver man ever drew a sword .”  He also claimed that Morrow’s “ own Twenty-Fourth loved him, believed in him, and would always follow where he led .” 2 

That devotion was fully tested on the bloody fields at Gettysburg.

The Iron Brigade was among the first Union infantry troops to arrive on the fields west of Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863.  Immediately upon their arrival, the men of the Iron Brigade turned General James Archer’s brigade of Tennessee and Alabama troops on McPherson’s Ridge.  The brigade was then deployed in Herbst Woods (also known as McPherson’s Woods or Reynolds’ Woods) and instructed to hold them at all hazards – instructions they would carry out to the letter.

The 24th Michigan suffered over 73 percent killed, wounded, and missing in action – approximately 420 men.  Their casualties ranked as the highest total loss of any Union regiment at Gettysburg.  Most of these losses were incurred during an epic struggle with the 26th North Carolina for possession of Herbst Woods.  The sanguinary nature of the fighting is revealed by the fact that the Tarheels of the 26th suffered there the highest losses of any regiment from either side for the entire war.

Contesting every inch of ground, the men from Michigan were slowly pushed back as the North Carolinians lapped around their exposed left flank while relentlessly attacking their front.  Colonel Morrow reported that “ the field over which we fought, from our first line of battle in McPherson’s Woods to the barricade near the Seminary, was strewn with the killed and wounded .”  The regimental flag was pierced by 23 bullets.  Nine men had forfeited their lives in holding high the sacred banner.  Twice Morrow had grasped the standard himself to rally the troops. 3 

As the Union forces dug in on Seminary Ridge during the afternoon of July 1, Morrow was struck in the head and stunned by an enemy bullet, forcing him to relinquish command of the regiment.  With blood streaming down his face, the colonel staggered onto the western fringes of Gettysburg, where his wound was dressed by a compassionate lady civilian.

The beleaguered soldiers of the First Corps retreated, at times chaotically, through the streets of town, rallying at last on Cemetery Hill.  Their tremendous sacrifice had bought time for the remainder of the Union army to arrive and take the choice high ground south of Gettysburg.  The survivors of the 24th Michigan were posted on the summit of Culp’s Hill, and though a battle ensued there, they experienced little combat during the remainder of the conflict.

The adventures were just beginning, however, for the Michigan commander.  Colonel Morrow was captured by the Confederates and spent the evening of July 1st in a large field about four miles from town, with a large collection of fellow prisoners.  The next morning, a Confederate surgeon dressed his wound.  Like Morrow, the surgeon was a Freemason, and concluded that his fraternal brother was not fit to march with the other prisoners.  Morrow was escorted back to Gettysburg and released.

Henry obtained lodging at the David Wills home on the town square.  After a day of rest he was able – and eager – to move about town.  In preparation for his freelance activities, Morrow cut off his shoulder straps.  Mrs. Wills created a clever disguise by producing a green scarf.  Morrow threw the article of clothing over his right shoulder in the manner worn by medical officers, and thereby became, in his words, “ a sort of surgeon .”

Morrow’s ruse was nearly discovered when a Confederate officer, who had been captured by the 24th Michigan near Fredericksburg a few months earlier, recognized him.  Coolly, Morrow asked the Confederate if he had been treated well by the Federals.  When the man replied in the affirmative, Henry asked that he return the favor.  The rebel agreed not to say a word.

Colonel Morrow climbed the steeple of the Court House and witnessed Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3rd, the final day of the battle.  While perched in his post, a shell from the Confederate lines struck the steeple, only a few feet from where he stood.

Later that day, Morrow learned from some of the Confederates that many Federal wounded were still lying in the open from the first day’s fight.  Morrow audaciously approached Confederate commander John Gordon and requested his assistance.  Gordon agreed to look into the matter, and shortly afterward he returned with the promise that a train of ambulances would report to Morrow that evening.  By nightfall, however, only two vehicles arrived carrying wounded.

Undeterred, Morrow gathered a few men together and the small band set out for McPherson’s Ridge.  There, they collected all the wounded they could find and sent them to places of shelter.  For Morrow, the moans and cries were especially heart-rending as they were the boys he had led there.  After exposure to the elements – and intense heat – for two days, some of the men were in a state of delirium.  The memories of that awful evening replayed in the colonel’s mind for the rest of his life.  He always maintained that General Gordon’s humane and Christian conduct saved the lives of many Federal wounded.

An amusing incident took place that same night in the midst of an otherwise dismal scene.  As Morrow approached the point where his first line of battle had formed on July 1st, he was halted by a Confederate picket, who, in a tremulous voice and excited tone, called out, “ Who goes there ?”  Henry quickly responded, “ Federal surgeon in search of wounded .”  The lonely sentinel confided to the bogus surgeon that he had no orders and could not determine why he had been posted in such a dreary spot.  He gratefully accepted the contents of the canteen Morrow offered him – one of many the colonel had brought for the Union wounded.  The rebel vidette informed the Federals that more wounded were located a short distance away. 4 

The weary colonel turned surgeon labored until after midnight, then returned to the Wills House and collapsed.  The next morning, he awoke to the shrill scream of a woman outside who claimed that a Confederate soldier was trying to confiscate her prize chicken.  Morrow rose and went outside, where he soon discovered that Lee’s men had withdrawn from Gettysburg.  He immediately sought his regiment.  When he saw the pitiful remnants of his command, he realized the steep price of victory.

General Solomon Meredith of the Iron Brigade wrote to Morrow that “ No troops ever fought with more bravery than did the Twenty-Fourth Michigan on that occasion…You and your officers and men are justly entitled to a full measure of honors won in that great conflict and will receive the gratitude of all who love our glorious Union and its holy cause .” 5 

A shadow of its former strength, the 24th Michigan continued to fight through 1864.  Morrow received another wound, this time to the leg, during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5th of that year.  In January 1865, he received the promotion to Brigadier General, an honor that many believed was long overdue.  Abner Doubleday, who had recommended Morrow’s ascension in rank, considered Henry “ among the most distinguished for skill, coolness, and bravery ” at the Battle of Gettysburg. 6 

Near Petersburg, Virginia in February 1865, Morrow was wounded a third time.  He as later brevetted for gallantry in the Petersburg Campaign – the last major action in the Eastern Theater of the war.  He was present at Appomattox Court House, witnessing his long sought objective when General Lee surrendered his army there.

After the war, Morrow’s affinity for the military led him to join the Regular Army.  He was promoted as colonel of the 21st Infantry in 1879.

Despite his illustrious military career, Morrow’s fondest memories were reserved for the 24th Michigan, and his adventures in leading them, and later searching for and succoring them at Gettysburg.  Near the end of his life, he wrote to one of his former officers:  “ What I desire most above all things in this world is to hear of the health and prosperity of the remnant of the dear old comrades who stood with me, elbow to elbow, in the battle’s storm of those horrible but splendid years when the Nation’s life was saved by the Nation’s valor….How quick come back the camp-fires, the weary marches, the dreadful preparation for battle, the long lines, the glittering bayonets, the inspiring cheers, the awful roar of musketry, the deep thunder of cannon, the sickening carnage, the cries of the wounded, the ambulances, the mounds of fresh earth!  Alas! Alas!  God has been good to spare us so long to witness the glorious fruits of the sacrifices of patriots of 1861-1865 .” 7 

Less than a month after penning those words, Morrow informed another veteran of the 24th Michigan that he was losing another battle:  an illness that afflicted him so that he could not speak above a whisper.  He somberly and correctly predicted that he would soon “ be on the side of the majority to welcome you when your form shall appear on the opposite shore .” 8 

Henry Morrow died on January 31, 1891 at Hot Springs, Arkansas, while still on active duty.  He was returned to Michigan and buried in Niles, his wife’s hometown.  His funeral was attended by many of his old comrades of the 24th Michigan Volunteers.

With a life devoted to his country and for the good of mankind, Morrow’s bravery, compassion, tact, and ingenuity made him a stellar commander and leader – including the summer night at Gettysburg when he worked for a brief time as a surgeon, saving the lives of those who had followed him in battle.

Sources: Curtis, O.B. History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade, Known as the Detroit and Wayne County Regiment. Detroit: Winn & Hammond, 1891. Ladd, David L. and Audrey J. Ladd, eds. The Bachelder Papers: Gettysburg in Their Own Words. Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, 1994-95. Official Record: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol. 1, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880. Smith, Donald L. The Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1962.

End Notes:  

1.  Smith, pp. 64-65.   

2.  Curtis, p. 478.   

3.  Official Report, p. 269.   

4.  Ladd, p. 335.   

5.  Curtis, p. 186.  

6.  Smith, p. 235.   

7.  Curtis, p. 478.   

8.  Ibid. 

Michael Dreese is an author and photographer from Snyder County, Pennsylvania.  He is a frequent visitor to Gettysburg and is an expert on Gettysburg’s first day of battle.  

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