In the shade of an old beech tree at the Christ Church cemetery in Port Republic sits a dark gray headstone pockmarked with splotches of moss.
While his grave may be unassuming, the life of First Lt. Milton Barkley Mackall was anything but.
After being seriously injured in World War I, Mackall spent six years confined to a bathtub.
“Lt. Mackall’s story shows one of true heroism even though not awarded as such,” Maryland Secretary of Veterans Affairs George Owings said. “Meaning that he literally gave of himself far beyond what could be expected.”
“I thought somebody down there should know this story,” said Brian Reynolds, who has been a volunteer at Fort McHenry with the National Parks Service since 2009. “Mackall’s story is the most unique from that era because of his circumstance of treatment.”
Mackall was born July 4, 1893, in Baltimore, but at the age of 9 went to live with relatives in Great Mills, presumably after his mother Anna died in 1902 at the age of 30.
He enlisted in 1916 with the Fourth Regiment, which morphed into 115th Infantry Regiment as part of 29th Infantry Division, also known as Blue-Gray.
Mackall listed his next of kin as an aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. I.P. Bowen of Great Mills.
In October 1918, Mackall was fighting in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in France. The 47-day battle, which involved 1.2 million U.S. soldiers, was the deadliest in the history of the U.S. Army, and resulted in more than 350,000 casualties, including 26,277 American lives.
Mackall was crossing an area known as No Man’s Land — the area between opposing trenches — when a sniper’s bullet partially severed his spinal cord in the thoracic area.
Mackall was sent to Army General Hospital No. 2 at Fort McHenry on April 8, 1919, and, in an attempt to lessen the strain on his spine, spent his days in a bathtub suspended by floating bags.
“I’m not sure why that was done, other than the fact that [maybe] it was considered a form of traction,” said Jean-Marc Voyadzis, who is the associate professor of neurosurgery at MedStar Georgetown University hospital and the Director of Neurosurgery Service at Calvert Memorial Hospital. “If he had a severed vertebrae then perhaps [doctors were] applying some traction to elongate the spine to permit the spine from collapsing further. It’s hard to say without knowing exactly what kind of injury it was.”
Over time, Mackall was able to use a wheelchair, which Voyadzis said “would certainly improve his overall well-being.”
In her memoir “Fort McHenry As I Saw it During the War,” nurse Emily Raine Williams said Mackall was “of sunny disposition, making friends readily, always grateful for little favors.”
Wilson added that Mackall received visitors, including from a “tall attractive girl, blond, with a cheery smile, who had been engaged to him before he went overseas.”
Mackall met President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Harding. The president left an autographed photo with Mackall, which remained a treasured keepsake.
Mackall stayed in the hospital for 1,205 days — Reynolds said the average stay at the time was 30 days — before he died in July 1922.
“I would say that in general, 100 years ago a severed spinal column was a very severe and serious injury that probably had a very high mortality rate over the first one to two years,” said Voyadzis, who added Mackall’s pain would have been “quite severe.”
“This is before the option of surgical intervention, before advances in pain management strategy and before the era of antibiotics to reduce infection, so I definitely think this gentleman beat the odds of surviving this long,” the neurosurgery professor said.
“I just can’t get over what he lived through,” Owings said. “He was brave on and off the battlefield.”
The New York Times ran a story at the bottom of Page 7 titled “Four Years in Bath, Wounded Officer Dies,” which was wedged between ads for Cuticura (“Keep hair in curl on hot or windy days”) and four-piece golf suits by R. Altman & Co.
The actual day of Mackall’s death remains foggy. The Calvert Gazette lists it as July 25, 1922, and Mackall’s tombstone says July 27, though the Times published its story July 26.
Reynolds said Mackall’s funeral “was accorded honors never before rendered to any soldier, irrespective of rank.”
The mayor of Baltimore was in attendance while the Hardings sent a floral bouquet.
Williams wrote, “The hospital personnel and all the patients who were ambulatory were lined [up on] both sides of the walks from the chapel down to the gates; while all stretcher cases that were not strapped to the beds were along the roadway …. That attendance was the most precious symbol that proved the handclasp of understanding among service friends and especially patients in veteran’s hospitals.”
Williams added that one woman later named her newborn Milton Barkley Mackall Smith in honor of the soldier.
Mackall will be one of eight individuals portrayed during a cemetery tour during Christ Church’s 350th anniversary on June 4.
“I think it’s a story that deserves attention and my real hope would be that somebody will say, ‘Hey, That’s my great-great uncle Milton,’” Reynolds said. “I’m hopeful that someone in Southern Maryland knows that story.”
If anyone can shed further light on the story, email Brian Reynolds at email@example.com.