In the early summer of 1861, former Missouri governor and Mexican War hero Sterling Price, a conditional Unionist and supporter of neutrality, sided with the secessionists and took command of Governor Claiborne Jackson’s Missouri State Guard. Less than a month later and before his men ever fought in combat, Price was stricken with severe diarrhea and was forced to return home at Keytesville, Missouri to recover. Just like today, the pro-Union newspapers took the prime opportunity to make fun of the sick general.
For over two years, renowned Union volunteer surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou photographed hundreds of wounded soldiers – both Federal and Confederate – while serving as the chief surgeon of the U.S. General Hospital “Harewood” in Washington, DC. With the unprecedented number of wounded and sick, as well as the variety of grotesque combat injuries, Bontecou began photographing soldiers and recording their information. A pioneer of medical photography, he archived these case studies at the Army Medical Museum (now, the National Museum of Health and Medicine), making him the single largest contributor of medical photography to the museum.
Though Bontecou himself is fascinating, it is the soldier is what I am most intrigued by. Their blank faces reveal their suffering and pain, but it is most important that their are identified. Each of the portraits depict the soldier either before or after their operations, showing off their wounds, injuries, or infections. It is up to the historian to dig apart their stories. Continue reading
In the late summer of 1861, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont authorized the establishment of the Western Sanitary Commission, the western counterpart to the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), based in St. Louis, Missouri via the General Order No. 159. Fremont and many other pro-Union Missouri leaders argued that the USSC was too concerned with the East and its main Federal army, the Army of the Potomac. Between the instability, bloodshed, mass mobilization of armies across the Union-occupied river towns, and the extensive riverine transportation networks, the West needed a sanitary commission that could provide medical services and help to care for the Federal troops mobilized in the region. Fremont, along with St. Louis leaders like banker and philanthropist James Yeatman, educator and civic leader William Eliot, entrepreneur Carlos S. Greeley, philanthropist George Partridge, and businessman John B. Johnson formed the leadership of the Western Sanitary Commission, an organization that rivaled the USSC and saved the lives of thousands of Federal troops in the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters. Continue reading
One of the most fascinating stories of survival and fortitude from the Civil War comes from Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1863. Irish immigrant, surgeon, and now combat officer, Major James Lawlor Kiernan was severely wounded and was nearly captured in the wet, murky swamps near the Mississippi River, following one of the initial engagements of the Vicksburg Campaign.
The son of a British naval surgeon, Kiernan was born in a small Franciscan Catholic farming village in County Galway, Ireland in 1837. Well-educated and intelligent, he was enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin in 1854, but immigrated to the United States soon after, where he subsequently graduated from New York University’s Academy of Medicine in 1857. Living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he and his brother-in-law both practiced medicine and even edited their own weekly medical newspaper named the New York Medical Press until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Continue reading
On May 14, 1863, Massachusetts native and high-spirited nurse Emily E. Parsons sat down in her living quarters to pen her friend Carrie a letter about her daily experiences as the head nurse of the largest military hospital in the Western Theater: Benton Barracks Post and Convalescent Hospital in St. Louis.
“It is a life of hard work, and uncertain work: you never know one week where you may be sent the next. I have gone wherever I was asked since I came here, and nearly killed myself — though I do not mind that, — and now if I get my strength back, I shall keep where I can use it, and not, by getting sick, become of no use or comfort to anybody. We must have our bodies in good order, if we want to do for others.”
As most every student of the Civil War knows, more soldiers died of disease than in combat. Out of the roughly 700,000~ war dead, 400,000 of them perished from illnesses, which included measles, pneumonia, smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, and influenza. Due to a lack of proper sanitation, immunity, and nutrition, thousands of soldiers perished while in camp, in hospitals, and in prisons. Nonetheless, both Federal and Confederate surgeons tried their very best to save lives, even though they did not full understand yet the causes of disease. Major William Watson of the United States Army worked as a surgeon in the Hospital of the Prison Depot at Rock Island, Illinois, where he recorded many cases of diarrhea and typhoid among Missouri Confederate prisoners-of-war in the winter of late 1864. Continue reading