Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

Prologue

THE CAPTURE OF AFRICANS AND THEIR SALE AS slaves had been outlawed throughout the Western world for many decades. The navies of the world patrolled the sea lanes looking for miscreants still involved in the slave trade. Even on the very eve of the great American Civil War, a United States naval vessel patrolling off the coast of the African continent came on and captured the ship Nightingale loading captured Africans near the mouth of the Congo River. The U.S. Navy placed a small crew aboard the Nightingale and it headed for Liberia to free the 931 Africans who were chained in its hold. The prize crew consisted of three officers (one of whom was ill), six marines, and twenty-five sailors, but no medical officer. In Liberia, 801 Africans were debarked; the fate of the missing 130 was not specified in the official report; they may have died and been thrown overboard. A terrible fever began among the crew even before the vessel arrived at Liberia. The official report of the commanding officer describes the mysterious epidemic:

The African ship fever made its appearance on
board, and several of the prize crew, as well as
Lieutenant Hays and myself, suffered from it. On
the 3rd of May, 1861, John Edwards, landsman,
departed this life. His remains were committed
to the deep, decomposition following death so
closely in this case that I deemed it advisable to
throw overboard his bedding, etc., to remove
their contagious influence. On the 7th of May,
about 10 PM, we anchored near Monrovia, Libe-
ria, and on the following day landed the recap-
tured Africans. The President of Liberia very
kindly tendered to me any aid in his power,
either official or personal, and by means of his
prompt and efficient cooperation the landing
was effected in so short a space of time.

After filling up with water and purifying the
ship we sailed from Monrovia for New York,
about 4 PM, Monday, May 13. Our crew had be-
come so debilitated and sickly from the effects
of the climate and from continued labors and
exposures that it became very difficult to carry
sail and manage a ship of this size (1,066 tons).
At one time there were only 7 on duty, 3 in one
watch and 4 in the other. On the 17th of May,
Michael Redmond (marine) departed this life.
His remains were committed to the deep. On the
20th of May, Henry Nagle (ordinary seaman) de-
parted this life. His remains were duly commit-
ted to the deep. Both cases were malignant.
Shortly after this the fever began to subside, and
these are all the casualties which it is my painful
duty to remand.

The remainder of the cruise was without im-
portant incidents. At 12:30 last night made Bar-
negat light, bearing W. by N., distant about 17
miles. At 2:30 received on board a New York pi-
lot. At 10:30 came to off the quarantine ground
and was boarded by the health officer and quar-
antined, where we remain.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
John Julius Guthrie, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy1

His duty to the U.S. Navy now complete, Guthrie resigned his naval officer's commission and went South.

-7-

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