Presence and Precedents: The USS Red Rover during the American Civil War, 1861-1865

By Roca, Steven Louis | Civil War History, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Presence and Precedents: The USS Red Rover during the American Civil War, 1861-1865


Roca, Steven Louis, Civil War History


ON JUNE 10, 1862, a vessel left Cairo, Illinois, and entered the Federal army's Gunboat Service on the Mississippi River. By all accounts, it was a large and aesthetically pleasing craft. In many respects however, it was a singular vessel, distinct from its fleetmates.(1)

The USS Red Rover had been extensively refitted, first at St. Louis, then at Clairo, into the first hospital ship in U.S. naval history. Throughout its career, Red Rover's crew included significant numbers of African Americans, and, for the first time on board a U.S. warship, women were employed, Catholic nuns and African Americans among them. Several of the latter became the first female nurses in the U.S. Navy.

On April 7, 1862, following the three-week battle for Island No. 10 in Missouri, the Federal gunboat Mound City discovered Red Rover. It had been a commercial sidewheel steamer, purchased by the Confederacy in November 1861 for use as an unarmed accommodations ship or floating barracks.(2) During the battle for Island No. 10 it was struck by plunging shot that penetrated all of its decks and caused flooding, To avoid sinking, it was run aground and then abandoned. Mound City's engineers made temporary repairs so that the captured vessel could be towed upriver to St. Louis.(3)

At the time of Red Rover's capture, the Union needed every vessel which it could procure and convert for service on the sprawling Mississippi and its tributaries. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, however, ordered Fleet Capt. Alexander M. Pennock "to procure a good comfortable steamer to be fitted as a hospital boat with surgeon, steward, etc., complete" to support the Union army's Western Flotilla. Red Rover was selected and underwent refitting as proposed by Quartermaster George D. Wise and approved by Comm. Charles Henry Davis. Pennock oversaw the hull and engine overhauls, while Wise procured items needed to equip a hospital boat. On May 25 he reported that "I am in St. Louis preparing the Red Rover for a hospital for our sick and wounded. The Sanitary Commission have rendered me valuable advice and aid, and the Red Rover will have every requisite for the purpose she is intended."(4)

At the time, facilities for the care of sick and wounded were limited and primitive. Various steamers temporarily housed and transported casualties but lacked the personnel and facilities required for proper medical treatment. Red Rover was to ease the burden of the Western Fleet by removing casualties from the fighting vessels. It would also serve as a transport, delivering medical supplies and provisions to fleet vessels wherever needed. To meet these requirements, Red Rover was refitted in innovative ways, making it a unique vessel. The refit transformed Red Rover into a craft that emphasized both comfort and sanitation. The Western Sanitary Commission provided medical and other supplies worth $3,500 and arranged for two well-respected Boston physicians, Drs. George H. Bixby and George H. Hopkins to become the ship's senior medical officers. Bixby served in that capacity until the ship's final decommissioning in the fall of 1865.(5)

Red Rover featured separate operating and amputating rooms and distinct crew and patient galleys with below-deck kitchen facilities. An aft cabin's walls were opened to provide better air circulation for patients suffering from communicable illnesses, and the windows were covered with "gauze blinds... to keep the cinders and smoke from annoying the sick." Several enclosed or canvas-covered barges were assigned to Red Rover to accommodate those with infectious diseases and moored along protected banks of the Mississippi. Other additions included a separate steam boiler for laundry, nine bathrooms and water closets, three elevators to move patients and supplies, and a cold-storage locker that held three hundred tons of ice.(6)

Red Rover carried sufficient medical supplies and provisions to support its crew and two hundred patients for up to three months. …

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