By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
“War is all hell.” “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” These words of William Tecumseh Sherman, which encapsulate the ethos of war, are familiar to Civil War enthusiasts. But sometimes even in the midst of hell, some small speck of heaven is present, an unexpected act of kindness for the enemy that runs counter to the primary objective of the perpetrator. One such incident that occurred at the battle of Gettysburg was the encounter between John B. Gordon and Francis Barlow. Surprising as it seems, that was not the only one.
James Jackson (Jack) Purman was a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. In July 1862, he enlisted in the army and became first lieutenant in the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. About a year later on July 2, 1863, the 140th Pennsylvania was among the Union forces that fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. Unable to withstand the Confederate assaults, the Union troops, including Purman and the 140th Pennsylvania, fell back. Almost 50 years later, Purman wrote, “After fighting for nearly two hours with the loss of all of our field officers and with 241 out of 340 of my regiment out of combat and surrounded by the enemy on three sides, we fell back in some disorder.” As Purman and a sergeant of the regiment, James M. Pipes, were scrambling to safety, they heard a voice call out to them for help. It was a wounded comrade pleading to be carried off the field. Purman and the sergeant knew that that was not possible, but they moved the wounded soldier, John Buckley, to a nearby place of safety out of the line of fire. When Purman continued his flight from the Wheatfield, he heard Confederates yell at him to stop. Purman continued running toward his own lines and was shot in the left leg just above the ankle. Purman later wrote, “Many have attempted to tell how it feels to be shot. At first there is no pain, smarting nor anguish. But that delusion soon passes, and the acute pain follows, and you know that a missile has passed through the tender flesh of your body.”
Purman spent that night on the field among the many dead and wounded of both sides, which was, in Purman’s words, “a ghastly scene of cold, white upturned faces.” As difficult as that night was, the following day was much worse with the hot sun and the minie balls that passed across the field. Sometime during the day, Purman was struck in his other leg. Since he was closer to the enemy’s lines, he called out to a Confederate soldier for water. Initially the soldier refused because he feared being shot by a Union sharpshooter. But after further pleading from Purman, the Confederate crawled to Purman and gave him a canteen. Purman then prevailed upon the Confederate to carry him to the Confederate lines. Again Purman’s request was initially refused when the Confederate said that, with all the minie balls whizzing by, both of them would likely be shot. However, Purman convinced the Confederate to crawl back to his lines with Purman on his back. After they made it, the Confederate left Purman in the shade of a tree with a canteen.
That evening Union forces took possession of the area, and Purman was transported on a stretcher to a Union field hospital where he spent the night. On the next day, July 4, his left leg was amputated. Purman later learned that the man he had moved to safety died on the field. But for his self-sacrificing heroism, Purman was awarded the Medal of Honor, as was Pipes, the other man who moved Buckley to safety. Purman received one other reward for his act of heroism. When he was convalescing from his wounds, he met a nurse named Mary Witherow, who later became Mrs. Purman.
After the war, Purman sought to identify the Confederate who carried him to safety. When he was lying in the Wheatfield after receiving his first wound, Purman had the presence of mind to notice that the colors of the Confederate unit that charged past him bore the name 24th Georgia. He also noticed that the person who brought him to the Confederate lines was a lieutenant. With this information and some assistance from ex-Confederates, including Alexander Stephens, Purman was able to identify the person who saved him as Thomas P. Oliver. In 1874 Purman “succeeded in locating my confederate friend who had saved my life at the risk of losing his own” and “kept up a pretty regular correspondence with him ever since.”
When Purman first contacted Oliver after the war, this must have been quite a shock for the former Confederate in light of Oliver’s last thought while parting from Purman on the Gettysburg battlefield. Oliver said in a post-war interview that when he left Purman near the Wheatfield, “I…bade him good-bye, never for a moment believing that he would live.” Purman and Oliver finally met in Washington, D.C. in June 1907, which was the first time that they were in each other’s presence since their encounter on the Gettysburg battlefield. The timing of their post-war meeting was extremely fortuitous, because Oliver died six months later on December 7, 1907. Of his life-saving act, Oliver said after the war, “I have never regretted taking the chances I did to save his life.” Purman died in 1915, his life extended 52 years thanks to one of his wartime enemies. In an account of their battlefield encounter that Purman gave for a newspaper, Purman said, “For the brave and generous act of this ‘old reb’—Thomas P. Oliver, adjutant 24th Georgia Infantry—I shall ever hold a warm spot in my heart—I love him.”
Anecdotes such as this and the Gordon-Barlow incident seem in some ways to be the height of incongruity. Here are two large bodies of men that are organized for the sole purpose of killing and maiming each other, and when one chapter of that endeavor has ended, some of the participants make an effort to heal the wounded adversaries whom they were trying to kill only moments before. In light of the overall goal of those involved in the conflict, this is completely irrational. But maybe this irrationality makes complete sense, because acts like these do not arise so much from careful reasoning, but from a common humanity. Maybe incidents like these are evidence of an indomitable compassion in human nature, even at times of utmost hostility. Maybe the lesson in this is that, despite the inhumanities that human beings too often inflict on other human beings, Homo sapiens is a species whose existence is worthy of continuing.