Colonial Williamsburg Market House

Posted on August 15, 2017


Aerial photo of the Colonial Williamsburg Market House
Aerial photo of the Colonial Williamsburg Market House
Market House reconstruction begins, Winter 2014-2015

The Market House Today

Today, this is the site of the Colonial Williamsburg Market House, but like many of the buildings in Williamsburg, another building stood here during the Civil War. During the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, if a building wasn’t originally located here during the colonial era, it was either demolished or relocated.

The Civil War

The structure that was here during the Civil War was the Williamsburg Baptist Church, a large white church with massive columns and grand steps leading up to its entrance, built in the Greek Revival style architecture. The church was one of 30 buildings used as a hospital in the aftermath of the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. The Civil War was longer and bloodier than most anticipated. Many thought the war would last four months, not four years.

The first major battle of the war resulted in more dead than in all of the previous wars fought by the US. The number of wounded was enormous, and neither side was prepared or equipped to properly bury their dead, or to treat the scores of wounded men. It was not unusual for the dead and wounded soldiers to lie on the field of battle for up to one week before being buried or brought to a hospital for treatment. During this time, it was common for wild animals to tear at the flesh of wounded and dead soldiers, as their screams filled the atmosphere. New ammunition called the Mini Ball contributed to higher casualties.

Mini Ball

When fired, the bullet flattened out and created massive wounds. If you were shot in the head or stomach, you were dead. The surgeons wouldn’t treat you, because you were not priority.

Williamsburg Baptist Church

If you were shot in the extremities, the mini ball would shatter your bone irreparably and shred through your tissue. Fortunately, the surgeons could save you. Their only prescription was amputation. If an amputation was being performed on you, the chances are you would not have any form of anesthesia. Chloroform was available to only a few. So you would be awake during the procedure. The average amputation took about 12 minutes to perform, as the surgeons would saw off your arm or leg and then mend the wound.

You had about a 77 percent chance to survive the amputation, and for every one surviving wounded soldier two more would die from disease and infection like gangrene. Surgeons didn’t stop to wash their hands, and quickly moved on to next patient as they attended to so many amputations. The Union Army boasted 98 surgeons at the start of the Civil War. By the end of the war, it grew to 12,000. In the 1850s, 50 percent of all doctors in the US had no medical degree or medical license.

Surgeons Were Learning On The Job

The thousands of volunteer surgeons, like the one assigned to the Williamsburg Baptist Church, were learning on the job. The surgeon assigned to the church here had a name given to him by the surviving Confederate troops under his care: The Head Devil. This volunteer surgeon earned his name because those who survived his care claimed that the man amputated limbs that were not wounded and did not require amputation. They said that he was even responsible for the death of many who suffered minor wounds.

The survival rate of the patients in his hospital was below 30 percent. A local woman wrote that the blood from the church was so plentiful, that for days the blood steadily poured out the door, down the steps, and into the moody street where you’re now standing.

She described the stench of decaying flesh as unbearable. It is believed that the head devil was a sadistic man who volunteered as a Union surgeon so that he could fulfill his sick and twisted desire to inflict pain, suffering, and murder on other men. His real name was lost to history, and the confederate soldiers who sought him out after the war could not find him.

The Market Square Tavern

Next to the site of the Colonial Williamsburg Market House, you will find the Market Square Tavern. The Tavern is a small hotel in Colonial Williamsburg. Often before bed, guests have reported looking out their window to see what they believe to be an interpreter dressed in a grey uniform or clothes walking outside their window.

Others walking by outside would see a man crawling on the grass with his hands, as a leg was missing. They would then see these apparitions make their way near the Colonial Williamsburg Market House and begin to dig. You might ask yourself why they would dig in the ground here. Well, this happens to be the location of where the amputation pits were dug, the place where the amputated limbs were buried. It is believed that the victims of the head devil occupy this area and are seen in search of their amputated body parts.

One family that lodged at Market Square Tavern remarked, “We saw a young man digging in the ground directly under our window. We couldn’t imagine what he was looking for at that time of night. As we watched, we realized he was dressed in a Confederate uniform. We naturally assumed he was an actor who worked on the grounds some time earlier that day. It wasn’t long before we noticed he had only one arm. He was desperately pawing at the ground with his only hand.”