Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War

By Frank R. Freemon | Go to book overview

6
Union Hospital Ships along the Western Rivers

WEST OF THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CHAIN, RIVers formed the natural conduits for armies to move toward their objectives and for the detritus of war to flow back from the battlefield. The cities along the great rivers became supply and hospital centers.

The first great battle in the Western theater occurred on 10 August 1861 near Wilson's Creek in the southwestern corner of Missouri. The wounded were hauled overland in wagons to the nearest railhead at Rolla, then shipped in rail cars to the hospitals in St. Louis. The jostling train ride was so painful that the soldiers improvised a system of placing poles in boxcars and hanging stretchers from the poles. This system threatened to collapse with every creak of the railroad cars, frightening the wounded and their accompanying medical personnel.1

The city of Cairo, Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers became a major base for Union military activities in the Western theater. Most of the city buildings were taken over for use as warehouses or hospitals. John H. Brinton was selected to command this hospital center. His disdain for female nurses was noted in the previous chapter. At the start of the War, this young Philadelphia surgeon had scored so well on the military entry examination that he had been appointed a brigade surgeon, a doctor not assigned to any specific regiment. When he arrived in Illinois, he found that a large number of the new soldiers were seriously ill with mumps or measles. All the hospitals in Cairo were soon filled and Brinton commandeered warehouses in nearby Mound City, Illinois. The Union wounded from the Battle of Belmont crowded into these newly adapted hospital buildings. Brinton personally supervised the evacuation of the wounded from Belmont, Missouri, by boat up the Mississippi River.2

The Confederates planned to prevent penetration of their nation's rivers with a series of well-defended forts: Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, Fort Henry on the Tennessee, Island Number 10 on the upper Mississippi, and two forts below New Orleans. Combined forces of the U.S. Navy and Army pushed past all these defensive positions in spring 1862. Three of the largest cities of the Confederacy surrendered rather than suffer naval bombardment from the Northern river flotillas. Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans became major Union bases and hospital centers.

In the first months of the War, the medical evacuation of the Union army by riverboat was confused. The civilian captains of these vessels looked upon the sick and wounded as just another type of cargo; they refused to depart until the vessel was fully loaded. Very sick soldiers waited aboard without treatment and sometimes even without food until enough sick were available to fill the vessel. On other occasions, the sick and wounded were taken part of the way to the hospital center, but had to wait at an intermediate port while other cargo was handled. On the worst occasions, a line officer would insist that the ship, half loaded with wounded and half loaded with ammunition, must return to the battlefield to deliver the important cargo of ammunition. The sick and wounded were held at the intermediate port until other transportation be

-61-

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