Apologies for this post note appearing over the weekend! As you’ve probably noticed, we had some special and time-sensitive posts over Memorial Day, so the editing team decided to move this post into the early week.
In Hospital and Camp, A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War by Sophronia E. Bucklin
It’s Week 9 of our read-along with extra historical notes and images. If you want to catch up on the chapter notes, just click here for the collection in the archive. This week we are looking at chapters 17 and 18.
In November 1863, Nurse Bucklin accepted a position at Camp Stoneman, a cavalry depot with a hospital about six miles from Washington City. Here, cavalrymen returned and reported to refit or recover from illness or injury. At first, the camp divided into four “Grand Divisions” supporting each of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry divisions and an extra section called “Camp Miscellany.” Each division had a hospital at the beginning, though in August 1864, the medical facilities were combined to create the General Hospital at Giesboro.
Bucklin noted the few female nurses in this hospital and added: “It was a wide field for willing hearts, and no one needed to sit within the limits of that camp with idle hands.” She also described the accommodations: “The tents were the most comfortable I ever saw ; good board floors were laid down, and stoves threw out their genial heat, subduing the biting frost which had settled thickly everywhere with out.”
These chapters are a poignant reminder that more Civil War soldiers died of disease than of bullets or effects of wounds. Typhoid Fever is particularly mentioned, an illness known for its contagion and usually spreading through military camps from lack of sanitation and contaminated water. The disease had about a 60% mortality rate during the Civil War.
Bucklin wrote about sending soldiers’ bodies to their hometowns for burial. Railroad transportation networks linking communities across the north and the practice of embalming allowed this option to be possible for families who could pay. Usually, we think of logistics, science, and medical knowledge in the light of saving living, but another side of those advances during the Civil War meant that some families could have closure and proper mid-19th Century mourning.
She told me of her circumstances—of the four little children she had to leave at home; how she had taken in washing, and gone out to labor to obtain the money to enable her to make the journey to see her dying husband….his descriptive list found, and everything arranged to enable her to draw his back pay, which was for more than a year, on her reaching Philadelphia. We also made up a purse of forty-seven dollars for her, and I then felt that the cold weather, which was already set in, need not be passed by herself or children in want of any of the comforts and necessaries of life.
As shown in this account, assistance from officers, regimental staff, or other military authorities could make a significant difference for a war widow or orphans, especially for accessing the soldier’s back pay or pension.
Nurses and other medical personnel frequently got ill during the Civil War. Bucklin was no exception. First, she went down with measles—an illness which can be very serious for adults and which had no vaccine at that time. One of the challenges for Civil War nurses who fell ill was who would take care of them. In Bucklin’s situation, she did not have support female nurses, but was fortunate to have a doctor realize that she needed help and assigned a responsible orderly to look after her.
After she recovered from the measles attack, Bucklin went back to her duties and hospital kitchen duties. She had nine cooks and was cooking for 500 men. (And we thought Thanksgiving Dinner for ten was a chore one day out of the year!)
We visited St. Elizabeth Hospital, used as an asylum for insane soldiers—used before the War as a hospital for insane persons. Here artificial limbs were manufactured to a great extent, and it was quite curious to see the many intricate appliances harmoniously at work in this locality.
In 1852, Congress designated $100,000 to construct a hospital in Washington D.C. to care for brain disease and improve mental health care. Dorothea Dix’s advocacy for reforms in mental health care had helped to inspire the project and she assisted with wording the legislative bill. Three years later, in 1855, St. Elizabeth Hospital opened and was officially called the “Government Hospital for the Insane.” During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy used one of the hospital wings and the U.S. Army took over another wing for sick and wounded; since the hospital still housed psychiatric patients, the military called their portions of the facility “St. Elizabeth’s Army Medical Hospital.”
One particularly interesting point at the Camp Stoneman hospital (and other Civil War hospitals) was the divisions made by infection and disease. Bucklin noted that they created the measles ward and the erysipelas ward, separating soldiers with these illnesses from others. They still did not understand germs or disease transmission, but from their theories of “bad air” and new observations made in military hospitals, Civil War doctors and medical staff were starting to make changes that would later be proven scientifically sound.
As Chapter 18 ends, Bucklin falls seriously ill again…with details to follow next weekend as we continue the read-along.