Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

15
Union Enclaves along the Confederate Coast

COMBINED OPERATIONS BY THE U.S. ARMY AND THE U.S. Navy seized several important points along the coast of the new Confederate States of America. Many people North and South thought that these locations would be springboards for the deep penetration of the Southern interior. Along the Carolina coast, a tenacious Confederate defense never allowed the Union forces to move more than a few miles from the ocean. A series of fevers and illnesses assisted the Confederate defense. The Northern force in New Orleans feared that yellow fever, the stranger's disease, might threaten their occupation.

The initial Union landings were made on .Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Surgeon Frederick S. Wells of the 9th New Jersey was drowned on 15 January 1862 while attempting to rescue food from a foundering boat for his starving regiment.1 From Roanoke Island, Union forces moved to take Newbern, North Carolina.2 The Yankee troops, made up of New England regiments, settled down for a long occupation.

A hospital was built as a local support facility. Stanley General Hospital, named in honor of Edward Stanley, the Union military governor of North Carolina, was located in several buildings in the center of Newbern. In addition, several wooden pavilions were constructed. The total hospital system contained 520 beds. The surgeon-in-chief, J. Baxter Upham, was proud to report that all the buildings that made up the hospital allowed the circulation of air required by Surgeon General Hammond's order. In a directive dated 24 November 1862, Hammond had ordered that hospitals in existing buildings should have twelve hundred cubic feet of space per patient; in a pavilion hospital building with better ventilation, six hundred cubic feet of space was required. Stanley General Hospital was manned by six surgeons and by nurses from the Sisters of Mercy Convent of New York.3 As always, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was present to assist the medical support of the Union troops.

Almost as soon as the hospital was completed, a strange and deadly illness afflicted the Newbern garrison. Young men were seized with pain in the head, back, and legs. Within a day, they were bedridden, usually lying on one side and groaning continuously. Vomiting, delirium, and small red spots over the skin presaged death. The majority of the afflicted were under twenty-one years old. Most went from complete health to death in less than four days.4

To better understand this strange and deadly affliction, the Union physicians performed autopsies. If the disease had killed in just a day or two, the brain was covered with a thin film of creamy material. Soldiers who had survived for several days before succumbing to this terrible illness showed an increased amount of this sticky substance; it had spread over the entire brain and even surrounded the spinal cord. The symptoms and the autopsy findings identified the disease: epidemic spinal meningitis.

The deadly disease continued to afflict both troops and local civilians, especially children, for several days, but then it disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. Dr. Isaac F. Galloupe, the surgeon of the 17th Massachusetts,

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