Joseph Thoburn: The Life Of a Civil War Surgeon
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series featuring Civil War veterans with Wheeling connections. The series will lead up to the planned move of Wheeling’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument from Wheeling Park to the side yard of West Virginia Independence Hall.
Joseph Thoburn was the son of Matthew and Jane Thoburn of County Antrim, Ireland.
The family emigrated to Canada when Joseph was a baby, and soon after moved to a farm in Belmont County, Ohio. Disliking farm work, Joseph turned his passion for reading into a school teaching job and then medical studies.
In 1849, he practiced medicine briefly in Brownsville, Pa., and then became an assistant to the chief physician at the Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus. He later moved to Wheeling, where he set up a practice in 1853. There, he married Catherine (Kate) Mitchell, and the couple had three children – Joseph M. M. (b. 1858), Mary (b. 1860), and Jennie (b. 1862).
As a strong supporter of the Union, he enlisted as the surgeon of the first Civil War unit formed in Wheeling – the First Virginia Infantry (Union) – under Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley. The First Virginia was tasked with guarding the important B&O rail lines and soon found themselves in the little town of Philippi in the first land battle of the war. When Col. Kelley was badly wounded there, Thoburn tended his wounds until he could be brought back to Wheeling to recover. (Kelley later returned to action, was promoted to General, and survived the war. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition to attending Kelley, Thoburn distinguished himself as a soldier. A letter written to the Wheeling Intelligencer by a witness to the battle stated that, “None displayed more daring than did Dr. Thoburn, the Surgeon of the Regiment. Although his place was not to be in the fight at all, he was in the midst of it, on horseback and on foot, and firing as many guns as he could get hold of. … One of our boys said to me, that the Doctor was the most recklessly daring man he ever saw. And, by the way, he made a narrow escape from the guns of our own men on one occasion, who had mistaken him for a ‘secesher,’ and who were about to fire on him.”
Kelley was still recuperating when the First Virginia was re-organized in August 1861, so Thoburn was commissioned as the colonel. He led the command in many small battles and engagements in what became known later as West Virginia and also in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862 and 1863. He was wounded on March 23, 1862 in the First Battle of Kernstown, one of the rare defeats of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. But he recuperated enough to rejoin the First a month later. In 1864, he assumed command of a division in the 8th Army Corps and fought in the Valley Campaigns in the army of General Philip Sheridan.
The heaviest action he saw came on September 19, 1864 during the Battle of Opequon (or Third Winchester). Earlier in the fall, there had been several smaller skirmishes with the Confederate forces under General Jubal Early. The Union forces had to enter the contested area through a narrow canyon road, slowing their approach and delaying attack. This delay allowed the Rebels to strengthen their lines. By noon, Gen. Sheridan ordered a frontal attack. Thoburn’s unit came up from reserve and took position at the edge of some woods. By 3:00 in the afternoon, Thoburn’s men were fully engaged. After about 30 minutes, the Confederate line gave way, resulting in a Union victory in what is said by some to have been the most important conflict in the Shenandoah Campaign. But the cost was great, with one Union general killed and three more seriously wounded in addition to the loss of over 5000 Union troops. Afterwards 14 enlisted men and one officer received the Medal of Honor for their actions that day.
On Oct. 19, 1864, the Battle of Cedar Creek took place. According to a report in the Wheeling Intelligencer, “Colonel Thoburn was in command of a division of Crook’s corps, and while attempting to rally the men in Middletown a rebel in blue uniform rode up and demanded his surrender. The colonel paid no attention to him, in all probability thinking he was a Union soldier, when the fellow shot him through the body.”1 “He was shot just under the lower rib, on the left side, and the ball passed out a little higher up on the right side, apparently near the junction of the ribs with the spinal column … both lungs had been penetrated… The Surgeon of the 10th West Va. Infantry was called in, and he without hesitation decided that the wound was mortal, and that the sufferer could not live over night. When this was told to Col. Thoburn, he replied that the news did not shock him in the least, that he had known after the first ten minutes his wound was mortal, and that he was ready to meet his fate. [He stated] ‘Tell my wife not to grieve for me, and my children to be good and true.’ These are the last words he spoke.”
His remains were returned to Wheeling, where a large public funeral was held in his honor. His tombstone, damaged by vandals years ago, remains as a testament to his service.