The Aftermath of Prairie Grove: Union Letters from Fayetteville

Article excerpt

MOST CIVIL WAR LITERATURE TELLS OF GENERALS and campaigns and battles. Few books or articles chronicle the quiet but desperate struggle to provide adequate medical care for the thousands of wounded soldiers leftin the wake of clashing armies. Nevertheless, the often nightmarish world of Civil War medical care should be of considerable interest to anyone who seeks to understand the military, scientific, or social aspects of the war. The Special Collections department of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, holds a small but valuable collection of documents written by a Federal surgeon and his son while serving in Arkansas. The documents provide a rare view of the treatment of wounded soldiers after the battle of Prairie Grove. They also contain interesting information about life in and around Fayetteville during a time of travail.

The fighting at Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, was extremely intense and casualties were heavy. Federal records state that the Army of the Frontier lost 1251 men (175 killed, 813 wounded, and 263 missing). Confederate records, less reliable and probably conservative, indicate that the First Corps of the Trans-Mississippi Army lost at least 1317 men (164 killed, 817 wounded, and 336 missing). "The troops of the enemy were armed with Enfield rifles, Austrian muskets, shot guns, and a few squirrel rifles," observed a Federal surgeon. "Most of the severer wounds were caused by conical bullets; but the nearness of the contending forces at times gave to round balls nearly the same penetrating and crushing effect." Another Federal medical officer added that the armies were engaged at such murderously close range that "most of the balls passed entirely through, causing lacerated wounds of a terrible character."1

After the Confederates withdrew, the victorious Federals found themselves overwhelmed by the number of wounded, both their own and those leftbehind by the enemy. Little in the way of additional medical expertise or supplies could be found in the war-ravaged frontier region of northwestern Arkansas. A civilian doctor described the situation:

The wounded from this battle were removed to Fayetteville, and public buildings and private houses were taken for hospitals; but there was a great deficiency of means to take proper care of the men, the town and the country around it having been greatly impoverished by the war, and the inhabitants being of the poorest class. There was no adequate supply of bandages, lint, bedding, stimulants, nor means of fitting up the empty houses and making them comfortable, nor of cooking food.

A minister in Fayetteville recorded that "the number of wounded was so great, and supplies so scanty, that for a few days the little I was able to furnish them seemed luxurious when compared with the coarse fare with which they were served." These observers might also have noted that the Army of the Frontier was short of skilled medical personnel, for some of the Federal regimental surgeons and assistant surgeons were practitioners of dubious quality. A medical crisis of serious proportions was developing in the aftermath of Prairie Grove.2

Military authorities in St. Louis responded as best they could to the grim news from northwest Arkansas. Dr. Ira Russell and several other capable surgeons were dispatched to Fayetteville from St. Louis. Russell was a prominent Massachusetts physician with considerable medical and administrative skills. He had risen rapidly in the army since joining the Eleventh Massachusetts Infantry as regimental surgeon in 1861. He quickly was promoted to brigade surgeon, commissioned an officer in the United States Volunteers, and sent to Baltimore to establish a military hospital. His success in Baltimore resulted in his being assigned to St. Louis in November 1862 to establish a similar hospital there. Several weeks later, he was hurrying to Arkansas accompanied by his sons Fred and Erwin, who served as his clerks and aides. …

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