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The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley
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The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, books,
Hunter Holmes McGuire

Hunter Holmes McGuire

By J.R. Goellnitz

Of the many "wide awake, smart young men" as Major Jed Hotchkiss called them on Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan Jackson's (better known by his nom de guerre "Stonewall") staff was a man who would make his mark on both in the fiery ordeal of the War Between the States and beyond. This young man, only 25 at the start of the Civil War, would live to be one of the finest teachers, humanitarians, surgeons, writers, and administrators not only in the history of the south but in all of American history. His name was Hunter Holmes McGuire.

Hunter Holmes McGuire was born on October 11, 1835 in Winchester, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. Hunter was the fifth child of seven, and first son, in the family of eminent eye surgeon Dr. Hugh Holmes and Eliza McGuire's family. Young Hunter was a tall, thin, almost frail looking youth. He was considered to be a studious loner by his peers who in spite of this held him in deep respect for his courage, loyalty, and amiable disposition. Young Hunter took an early interest in the sciences, sometimes riding with his father on his calls around Winchester and accompanying him to his medical college.

Hunter graduated from the Winchester Medical College in 1855. He enrolled the following year at the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia but was forced to return home due to an attack of acute rheumatism. Upon return home, young Dr. McGuire was named professor of anatomy at his alma mater in Winchester though he was just twenty-two. He soon returned to Philadelphia however to continue his studies. McGuire was highly thought of by associates in Pennsylvania including one, Dr. Lunkett who termed Hunter: "...overgrown youth is going to make a mark on the age". He was still studying in Philadelphia at the time of John Brown's raid in 1859 on Harper's Ferry. With the growing resentment towards southerners in the city, McGuire led a group of southern medical students back to Virginia. In the sixteen months between leaving Philadelphia and the firing on Fort Sumter, McGuire moved to New Orleans where he taught medicine at Tulane University.

Hunter was a believer in the sovereignty of Virginia and the ideas of States Rights. His allegiance was to the state of Virginia; therefore, when Fort Sumter was fired upon, there was no question where McGuire would end up. He left New Orleans and joined "The Winchester Rifles," company F of the 2nd Virginia Infantry as a private. McGuire did not remain a private for long. An administrator in Richmond found out who he was, and his services were much more valuable as a doctor rather than a front line soldier. McGuire was made a brigade surgeon and was ordered to report to General Thomas Jackson at Harper's Ferry.

The dour Jackson was not impressed by his new medical director. McGuire was still recovering from an illness and looked frailer and even younger than his 25 years. Jackson sent McGuire back to his quarters and wired Richmond to see if there was some mistake! McGuire and Jackson would soon become fast friends. McGuire would later comment that: "The noblest heritage I shall hand down to my children is the fact that Stonewall Jackson condescended to hold me and to treat me as his friend".

The first meeting of the Union and Confederate forces in the east would be at Manassas, Virginia and Dr. McGuire were there along with Jackson. Jackson was wounded in "the middle finger of the hand". McGuire treated the finger by splinting and bandaging it. After Bull Run, McGuire spent the next three months near Centereville. In November, Jackson and his staff left for his new assignment in the Shenandoah Valley. McGuire must have looked forward to returning to his beloved valley and Winchester.

Medicine in the 1860's was still not a highly revolutionized field. Practitioners had had little prior training or experiences with military surgery and it was reasonable to assume the average physician had never treated a gun shot wound. According to the Union Surgeon General, two-thirds of wounds were to the extremities. The new rifles of the Civil War period were far more accurate and were outfitted with a new bullet the Minie ball. This bullet was conical in shape and had a habit of expanding on impact. Dr. Deering J. Roberts, a physician in the Army of the Tennessee, reported that:

...the impact of a Minie ball or Enfield ball were....both remarkable and frightful, and early experience taught surgeons that amputation was the only means of saving life". Most wounds to the chest, abdomen, and head were fatal because of the shock caused by the Minie bullet. The most deadly wounds were those to the spine and abdomen.

Field operations were done in less than sanitary conditions. The Civil War doctor had no knowledge of Listed and his theories of germs causing disease. They worked with bloody hands, with bloody tools, and on blood stained tables. The most common type of surgery on the field was the amputation. The closer to the body the cut was made, the more chance there was of the patient dying. Such was the case of Civil War surgery that faced McGuire and his contemporaries.



McGuire always marveled at the adaptability of the Confederate doctor who often had less to use than his Yankee counterpart:

The pliant bark of a tree made for him a good tourniquet; the juice of the green persimmon, a styptic; a knitting needle, with it's point sharply bent a tenaculum; and a pen knife, in his hand, a scalpel and bistoury. I have seen him break off one prong of a common table fork, bend the point of the other prong and with it elevate the bone in a depressed fracture of the skull, and save life.

Jackson's command during what would be called the Romney Campaign was about 11,000 men. The weather was bitterly cold during the campaign and as he always did Jackson pushed the troops to the brink of their endurance. McGuire treated many for frost bite. The campaign did not go particularly well for Jackson.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 on the other hand would become Stonewall's masterpiece. It was a campaign of "careful planning, consummate patience, methodical hard work, dazzling marches, unmatched daring, and immutable determination". McGuire enjoyed the opportunity to spend time at home in Winchester occasionally during the campaign.

It was during the Campaign that McGuire set the precedent of releasing captured Federal surgeons, setting a humanitarian precedent that many generals used during the War on both sides.

After the Valley Campaign, Jackson and his staff went east to Richmond where General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were trying to hold back General George B. McClellan outside of the Rebel capital. Jackson did not do particularly do well in the Seven Days battles because he was probably suffering from battle fatigue.

Jackson and McGuire served through the rest of 1862 with the Army of Northern Virginia. Such battles as Second Manassas in August where McGuire amputated General Richard Ewell's leg, a close call for the Army at Sharpsburg in September, and a lop sided victory at Fredericksburg in December capped off a year of victories for the Confederate cause in the East and cemented Lee and Jackson's sterling reputations.

The year of 1863 brought more bloody battles, the first of which was Chancellorsville fought in the Wilderness area around Fredericksburg. In this battle, Jackson was badly wounded in the upper arm by men of his own command during a ride back through his lines after an amazing flank attack. McGuire was quickly on the scene, and remembered that, "His clothes were saturated with blood, and hemorrhage was still going on from the wound". McGuire administered whiskey and took Jackson back to the Wilderness field hospital.

At 2 am in the morning McGuire amputated Jackson's left arm by the ordinary circular operation. Jackson recovered well from the amputation and was moved south to Guiney's Station. It was here that pneumonia set in. McGuire called in numerous other physicians, but it was to no avail and the brightest star in the Confederate heavens burned out on May 10, 1863. His last recorded words were by Dr. McGuire as: "Let us cross over the river and rest beneath the shade of the trees".

The death of Jackson affected McGuire greatly. He would always remember Jackson with the deepest reverence. Jackson's lost was a heavy one to the Confederate cause. After serving as a pall bearer in Stonewall's funeral, McGuire and the rest of Jackson's staff rejoined the Confederate Second Corps now under the command of General Richard S. Ewell.

The Gettysburg campaign in June-July 1863 gave McGuire another chance to return home to Winchester. The Gettysburg campaign was a failure for the Confederates. McGuire was very busy with all of the casualties from the battle and amputated the leg of General Isaac Trimble after Pickett's charge.

It was also in 1863 that McGuire fell in love. He fell in love with a Mary Stuart of Staunton, Virginia. They had met when she needed an escort to a wedding and asked for anyone as long as he was "tall". The 6'3" McGuire with his black hair, Irish blue eyes and handsome mustached face met the bill perfectly. By May 1864 they were engaged but decided to wait until after the War. It would be 1867 before they could marry.

The 1864 Overland Campaign would be a bloody series of battles beginning in May 1864. McGuire served during this with Richard Ewell and then with Jubal Early when Ewell's health was broken. Early went on another campaign in the Shenandoah Valley that was unsuccessful. Of the Confederates that McGuire took care of during this would be his good friend Sandie Pendelton. Sandie died of his wounds within a few days. Union general Philip Sheridan burned the Valley. By 1865, Winchester was occupied by Union troops, McGuire's brothers and father were away at War, and his beloved Valley was in flames. His brother Hugh would die of wounds before the War ended.

Hunter was captured at Waynesboro in 1865 after falling from his horse on March 2nd. In later years McGuire joked about his riding talents telling his wife that: "he and Stonewall Jackson were the worst riders in the Army". Sheridan paroled McGuire and he was with Lee's army when it surrendered April 9, 1865.

After the Civil War, Hunter McGuire returned to Richmond where he started his own hospital and went on to a post war career that was both varied and productive. He had ten children, many of who followed in his foot steps in to medicine. He was president of the American Medical Association and numerous other organizations. He was a competent doctor who specialized in gynecology and served as a brilliant administrator. He also was a gifted teacher and orator who also wrote prolifically. He suffered a cerebral embolism that left him speechless on March 19, 1900. He died before 10 am on September 19, 1900. Hunter McGuire is immortalized by a statue on the grounds of the state house.


Cunningham, H.H. Doctors in Gray: The Confederate Medical Service. Baton Rouge: The Lousiana State University Press, 1958.

Farwell, Byron. Stonewall. London: Norton & Company, 1993.

Krick, Robert K. "Stonewall Jackson's Deadly Calm." American Heritage Dec. 1996 p.56

Schildt, John W. Hunter Holmes McGuire: Doctor in Gray. Chewsville: John Schildt, 1986.

Shaw, Maurice. Stonewall Jackson's Surgeon: Hunter Holmes McGuire. Lynchburg: H.E. Howard Inc., 1993.

Welsh, Dr. Jack. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1995.

Waugh, John C. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox. New York: Warner Books, 1994.

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