Official Records of the Rebellion

Official Records of the Rebellion

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No. 11.

Report of Surg. Army, Medical Director Armyof the Potomac, of operations from July 4 to September 2.

Med. Director’s Office, Camp near Falmouth, Va., Mar. 1, 1863.

GENERAL: In compliance with the directions contained in your communication of January 20, 1863, I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the medical department of this army from July 4, 1862, to November 7, 1862, viz:

In obedience to orders from the War Department, dated June 23, 1862, I reported on the 1st day of July following to General McClellan at Haxall’s Landing, on the James River, for duty as medical director of the Army of the Potomac, and after the arrival of the army at Harrison’s Landing was placed on duty as such on the 4th day of that month.

I attempted on the 28th of the previous month to report to the commanding general from the White House on the Pamunkey River, but was prevented from doing so by the movements of the army, and was compelled to proceed by way of Fortress Monroe and the James River to his headquarters. The change which was taking place in the position of the army when I left the White House rendered it necessary that the medical supplies and the transports for the wounded and sick should also be sent up the James River to meet the wants of the army. Upon inquiry, not ascertaining that any orders had been issued in the case, I assumed the authority, and directed Assistant Surgeon Alexander, U. Army, the medical purveyor, and Assistant Surgeon Dunster, U. Army, the medical director of transportation, to proceed up that river with their supplies and vessels with all possible dispatch. They reached Harrison’s Landing in time to be of the greatest service.

The army when it reached Harrison’s Landing was greatly exhausted. The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects upon the health of the men. In addition to this the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog. The labors of the troops had been excessive, the excitement intense. They were called upon to subsist upon a scanty supply of food, and but little time even to prepare the meager allowance. They had little time for sleep, and even when the chance presented itself it was to lie in the rain and mud, with the expectation of being called to arms at any moment. The marching and fighting [211] in such a country, with such weather, with lack of food, want of rest, great excitement, and the depression necessarily consequent upon it, could not have other than the effect of greatly increasing the numbers of sick in the army after it reached Harrison’s Landing.

Scurvy had made its appearance before its arrival there, the seeds of which had doubtless been planted some months previously, and was due not merely to the want of vegetables, but also to exposure to cold and wet, working and sleeping in the mud and rain, and to the inexperience of these troops in taking proper care of themselves under difficult circumstances. This disease is not to be dreaded merely by the numbers it sends upon the reports of sick. It goes much further, and the causes which give rise to it undermine the strength, depress the spirits, take away the energy, courage, and elasticity of those who do not report themselves sick, and who yet are not welL They do not feel sick, and yet their energy, their powers of endurance, and their willingness to undergo hardship are in a great degree gone, and they know not why. In this way it had affected the fighting powers of the army, and much more than was indicated by the numbers it had sent upon the reports of sick.

All these influences were not without their effect upon the medical officers as well as upon the rest of the army. A number of them became sick from the exposure and privations to which they had been subjected, and those who did not succumb entirely to these influences were worn-out by the excessive labor required of them during the campaign upon the Peninsula, and especially by the labor incident to the battles immediately preceding the arrival of the army at Harrison’s Landing.

The nature of the military operations unavoidably placed the medical department, when the army reached this point, in a condition far from being satisfactory. The supplies had been exhausted almost entirely or had from necessity been abandoned; the hospital tents had been almost universally abandoned or destroyed; the arrangement of the ambulances was not in such a state as to render very effective service, and the circumstances under which the army was placed required a much larger number of medical officers to perform the duties which were thrown upon that portion of the staff.

It was impossible to obtain proper reports of the number of the sick in the army when it reached Harrison’s Landing, nor had the causes just referred to produced their full effects. After about 6,000 had been sent away on the transports 12,795 remained. The data on which to base the precise percentage of sick and wounded could not be obtained at this date, but from the most careful estimate which I could make in the absence of positive data the sickness amounted to at least twenty per cent.

On the 1st of July I directed the Harrison house to be taken and used as a hospital, as it was the only available building for the purpose in that vicinity, although entirely inadequate to meet the wants of the army. Only a few wall tents could be obtained at that time with which to enlarge the capacity of the hospital. No hospital tents could be procured.

The rain began to fall heavily early on the morning of the 2d, and continued with little interruption until the evening of the 3d. A few wounded came to the hospital on the 1st and on the 2d, and thereafter for several days they came in great numbers. Relays of medical officers were required to work day and night, and continued to work faithfully until all the wounded who desired assistance had received it. [212] The absence of tents prevented shelter being provided, and the vast majority, being slightly wounded, were obliged to find protection from the rain as best they could, the more serious cases being kept in the building. The labors of the medical officers were excessive, but no relaxation was given until all who required treatment had received it. The greatest difficulty experienced at this time was providing proper food, which very many needed much more than any medical or surgical aid. Very soon large caldrons and supplies of beef stock were obtained from the medical purveyor and hard bread from the commissary department, by means of which an excellent soup was prepared and freely issued, relays of cooks being at first employed night and day. This hospital was afterwards sufficiently enlarged by hospital tents to contain 1,200 patients, and when the army left Harrison’s Landing the tents were removed to Craney Island, near Fortress Monroe, and a hospital established there by Surgeon Stocker, U. Volunteers, who conducted the removal and the re-establishment of the hospital speedily and well.

The transports for the sick and wounded, except those that had been sent North from the Pamunkey River, reached the army on the 2d of July. These vessels were fitted up with beds, bedding, medicines, hospital stores, food, with many delicacies, and with arrangements for their preparation—everything, indeed, that was necessary for the comfort and well-being of the wounded and sick. Surgeons, stewards, and nurses were assigned to their respective boats, and remained with them wherever they went. I doubt if ever vessels have been so completely fitted up for the transportation of sick and wounded of an army as these vessels had been by the orders of the Surgeon-General.

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Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.212-220

web page Rickard, J (19 November 2006)