Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

9
Northern Medicine Organized

ON 14 APRIL 1862 WILLIAM A. HAMMOND, WITH great vigor and determination, began his tenure as chief of the Medical Bureau of the United States Army. Armed with the legislative mandate of the Medical Reform Law, which had just been signed by President Lincoln, Hammond threw himself into the challenge of organizing and rejuvenating the antiquated medical services of the Union Army. He set up procedures for the evaluation of the volunteer physicians, began the inspection system envisioned by the law, tightened supervision of hospital construction, appointed carefully chosen subordinates, and improved the system for tabulating medical information.1

Hammond devoted much of his energy toward improving his department's reputation with both the medical and the general public. Complaints about army medicine took two forms. Some critics, especially politicians and newspaper editors, claimed that the Medical Bureau inadequately supervised its poorly trained medical officers. One medical officer admitted that “inefficiency, gross carelessness, and dissipation are intimately associated in the mind of the Northern public with the medical officers of the army.”2 Other critics, generally from the civilian medical community, accused the army authorities of restricting the actions of their eminent physicians. “Red tape, official routine, dull and insensible formalism are the curse of our government,” complained the American Medical Times, claiming that the wounded were without blankets because an administrator “could not unwind the red-tape which bound his official legs.”3

These two forms of criticism seem contradictory, either too little or too much supervision. A less confident surgeon general might have sided with one group of critics to oppose the other, but Hammond countered both simultaneously. He appointed examining boards to approve new medical officers and to discharge those found incompetent. Yet at the same time he authorized the new medical director of the Army of the Potomac to purchase supplies from any source, regardless of traditional procedure, and to hire additional doctors and nurses “on the spot” without the need to check with higher authority.4 The American Medical Times reproduced the Surgeon General's correspondence in their medical journal as an answer to its own editorial of just three weeks earlier that had complained about excessive red tape.5

In his efforts to improve the reputation of the medical bureau, Hammond always responded directly and forcefully to any criticism that he considered unjustified. When Senator John C. Ten Eyck of New Jersey complained on the floor of Congress that hospital patients sometimes went without food or beds, Hammond wrote to the New York Times to explain hospital inspection procedures that guaranteed that such scandals could not occur. He challenged Ten Eyck to identify the specific hospital, but the senator did not reply.6

The new surgeon general responded somewhat brusquely even when he received a request from the president. Lincoln wrote to Hammond that a delegation of Baltimore citizens claimed that soldiers discharged from

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