Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dr. Gibbon, George French & Miss Mary Courtney

The principal characters here are George W. French, a young Benton Township farmhand who was among the first Lucas Countyans to enlist for service during the Civil War, and Dr. William H. Gibbon, a Chariton physician --- both combat and medical hero --- who tried to save his life, but failed. It's not a cheerful story, but does illustrate a few of the war-related hardships our forebears endured.

Sadly, there are no photographs or other memorabilia related to young French. He left no one behind to tell his stories and has been largely forgotten, at rest among the thousands buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

But Dr. Gibbon (left), a modest man by all accounts, left a number of reminders behind --- including his impressive family stone in the Chariton Cemetery (top), the building on the northeast corner of the square he constructed in 1879 to house his drug store (now the north half of Betty Hanson's Iowa Realty offices) and the family home --- the biggest house on South Grand Street.

We have no idea why George French ended up in Lucas County, nor is it clear --- other than New York --- where he came from. But by the 10th of July, 1860 --- when the federal census-taker called at the home of James and Martha Marsh in Benton Township --- he was living there, a farm laborer age 22.

Little more than a year later, five months after President Lincoln's first call for troops, George rode into Chariton and on 21 September enlisted as a private in Company C, 13th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. Company C was raised almost entirely in Lucas County and these young men would remain together until they were killed, wounded, discharged or --- the survivors --- mustered out. The Lucas County enlistees were enrolled at Camp McClellan near Davenport on 24 September and mustered there on the 28th.

Two months later, on 2 November, Dr. Gibbon --- although married to his distant cousin, Laura, just weeks earlier --- accepted a commission as assistant surgeon of the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry (he was promoted to surgeon the following year). Three of its companies were raised among Lucas County neighbors in Marion, Warren and Clarke counties. This unit was organized at Keokuk during February, 1862.

Both the 13th and the 15th were at bloody Shiloh, April 6-8, 1862 --- and it was here that Gibbon was breveted lieutenant colonel in recognition of his valor. When the Union forces protecting his tent hospital were driven from the field, Gibbon marshaled all the men he could find capable of fighting, formed a new battery with four pieces of abandoned artillery and held off advancing Confederate troops until Union forces could regroup and reclaim the guns.

Both Gibbon and French survived Shiloh (also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing; the 13th lost 24 men killed, 139 wounded and 9 missing), then moved on to Corinth and other engagements.


By late winter 1863-64, the 13th was deployed at Vicksburg and veterans of the unit were offered an opportunity to re-enlist --- with the promise of a month's furlough and an opportunity to return home if they did. 

George re-upped on 1 January 1864 and on the 7th of March headed home to Chariton, where on the 31st of that month he married Miss Mary E Courtney, age 20. They had only a few days together before George returned to his unit --- and they would never see each other again.

Gibbon also had an opportunity to take a furlough during early 1864 and traveled to Ohio to visit his wife, Laura, who was spending the war years there with her family. Their daughter, Anna, was born on 5 December of that year.


Both of these Lucas County men and their units joined Sherman's advance into Georgia, commencing during May of 1864, and fought their way toward Atlanta. On the 20th of July, after heavy skirmishing, Company C was encamped within three miles of Atlanta --- but George had sustained a gunshot wound to a knee and was not with them.

He had been carried to a field hospital manned by Dr. Gibbon --- and Gibbon amputated the wounded leg above the knee. A few days later, George was sent to a convalescent hospital in Rome, Georgia, to recuperate.

Three months later, Dr. Gibbon had an opportunity to visit George, who by this time had been transferred to the U.S. General Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee --- and what he found was discouraging.

There were no antibiotics then and sanitation often was neglected. By the time Gibbon reached young French's bedside, the stump left after the initial amputation had "mortified," or become gangrenous, and a second amputation had been performed. Then septicemia developed.

George died in the hospital at Chattanooga on 23 November 1864 and was buried in what now is known as the Chatanooga National Cemetery.


Back home in Chariton, Mary filed application for a widow's pension on 27 January 1865 with Theodore M. Stuart, first of the Stuarts to practice in Chariton, acting as her attorney. All pension claims were investigated carefully --- and in the absence of instant communication, these investigations took a long time.

The claim still was pending during early 1867 and Dr. Gibbon, who had long since returned home, provided an affidavit sworn to on 8 March to bolster Mary's claim. War-related records had not yet been either consolidated or thoroughly organized and pension office personnel could find no document stating that George had died as a result of combat wounds. Gibbon's affidavit is at the end of this post (right click and hit open in a new window).

On the 28th of May, 1867, Mary's claim finally was approved and a certificiate was issued that entitled her to claim a pension of $8 per month retroactive to 24 November 1864 for so long as she remained unmarried.

Later that year, or early the next, Mary accompanied her parents and other family members west to Oregon, where during 1868 she married as her second husband, William F. Cluster. During 1871, they took up a claim near the town of Pomeroy in old Walla Walla County, Washington, became prosperous and remained there for the remainder of their lives. He died in 1915; she died on 6 November 1922. Seven children survived. William and Mary are buried in the Pomeroy City Cemetery.

It seems unlikely that Mary ever forgot the young man she had married in the midst of war, then lost. But as nearly as I can figure out after scouring various family and other sites --- nearly everyone else has. Except  for you and me now --- we'll remember.

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