Civil War Military Hospitals

This entry is part 10 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Civil War field hospitalLike most organized activity of a military nature at the start of the few doctors knew about setting up and operating a military hospital. If a doctor hadn’t practiced in New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, all cities with charity hospitals, they knew nothing at all about hospitals.

“At the outbreak of the civil war,” the author of the chapter on general hospitals in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion wrote, “this country knew nothing practically of large military hospitals; indeed, most of our volunteer medical officers knew nothing of military hospitals, small or large.”

Newly recruited medical officers, therefore, needed to learn how the military operated as well how hospitals operated. After all, it was the military who requisitioned space, built new hospitals, provided supplies, and needed regular, complete reports of the numbers of sick and wounded.

In the Union Army, each regiment was supposed to have a field hospital. For armies on the march, these were field hospitals, with supplies carried along in wagons and set up in whatever quarters could be found or organized around ranks of tents. For armies encamped, there were post hospitals created out of tents or wooden barracks; these were organized at the regimental or brigade (3 to 6 regiments) level. Remember, all of this in theory.

New systems needed to develop rapidly to cope with the thousands of battle casualties. Triage sorted the wounded by the severity of their injuries and the treatment needed. Near the battlefield, tents often served as temporary field hospitals. Existing buildings were also used, but these were often dark, dirty and stuffy, lacking the space and ventilation of tents. One of the most famous of these is the Graffiti House at Brandy Station in Virginia.

After wounded men were evacuated from the battlefield and treated at field hospitals they were often transported by rail to major Northern and Southern cities. There were 24 military hospitals, plus branches, in the city of Philadelphia at one time or another, in addition to the 22 small civilian hospitals that also treated troops. By the end of the war, Philadelphia hospitals had cared for about 157,000 soldiers and sailors.

On the other side of the line Chimborazo Hospital in the Confederate capital city of Richmond opened in October 1861. The hospital had a capacity of about 3,000 patients at a time. It was spread out over about 120 buildings. It had its own ice house, soup house, bakery, soap factory, etc., operated its own farms, beef and goat herds, canal trading boat. Chimborazo had a medical staff of about 45. Throughout the war it treated about 76,000 wounded soldiers.

Being sent to a hospital was often viewed as a death sentence by soldiers. While no statistics are satisfactory and those for the Confederacy in a state of total confusion, it is a safe generalization that deaths from wounds were as numerous as deaths on the battlefield and that deaths from disease were more than twice both these combined.

Very often wounded soldiers only survived because a family member rushed to their hospital location and nursed them back to health. Other soldiers survived because they were sent home to recuperate.

As the war went on both sides had learned valuable lessons and were able to cope with the increasingly higher casualty rate. THe hospital system at City Point represented the apex in Civil War field hospitals. During the siege of Petersburg, the first-class hospitals built at City Point became capable of treating 15,000 wounded with medical care unsurpassed in a field environment.

Of the seven hospitals eventually located at City Point, the Depot Field Hospital was the largest and was able to provide care for 10,000 patients. Surgeon Edward B. Dalton commanded this tremendous operation of 1,200 tents, which blanketed 200 acres. As the weather cooled, 90 log buildings, 20 feet by 50 feet were built to house the wounded, but operations still required that 324 tents remain in use throughout the winter. Nurses ensured that each patient, who had his own bed and washbasin, was clean and comfortable by regularly providing clean linens and clothes.

These hospitals represented self-contained cities. They operated their own supply system very similar to the modern day network. The hospitals requisitioned, received and stored their own supplies. This system functioned so smoothly that the soldiers never lacked the necessary medicine or equipment.

The hospitals ran their own laundries, dining facilities and dispensaries. These medical facilities even had running water, pumped from the James River, to assist in keeping the hospital as sanitary as possible under field conditions.

These hospitals received vast amounts of assistance from civilian agencies such as the Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. These agencies provided fresh and canned fruit to help lift the health and morale of the soldiers. Each Corps had their own Sanitary Relief Station consisting of two wagons. These relief stations issued 100 tons of canned tomatoes, 1,200 barrels of cucumbers and 17,000 cans of Sauerkraut.

The soldiers at City Point even had a lemonade stand to quench their thirst. Usually, two or three ships, loaded with goods supplied by these civilian commissions, sat at City Point waiting to unload their “treats.”

Today’s military field hospitals around the globe are direct descendants of the ones that General Ulysses S. Grant ordered built in 1864 for the care of his wounded and sick troops.

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