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03.31.01 Calcutt, Rebecca Barbour, Richmond’s Wartime Hospitals, published in 2005

Notes Concerning the Author

Rebecca Barbour Calcutt has completed extensive studies in colonial and Revolutionary-era history.  She has undergraduate degrees in both history and nursing and a master’s degree in antebellum Southern history from the University of Charleston.  A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, she is also the author of South Carolina’s Revolutionary War Battlefields: A Tour Guide.  Mrs. Calcutt is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians.

Our Review

The following article, which appeared in Southern Partisan, Volume XXIV) is reproduced here with the permission author Rebecca Barbour Calcutt.

Two Chances to Die for Your Country: Review of Richmond’s Wartime Hospitals by Rebecca Barbour Calcutt, written by Egon Tausch 

Rebecca Barbour Calcutt is well-equipped to write this excellent book, being both a nurse and a talented and honest historian. The only indication of where her political sympathies lie is in her first endnote, in which she apologizes for her use of the necessarily inaccurate term “Civil War”.

When the War began, Richmond was totally unprepared to be the capital of the Confederacy, much less its medical center. In 1860 there were only five small hospitals in a city of 38,000 citizens. By the end of the War there were over 85 hospitals in a city that had swelled to 150,000, including the huge new military hospitals of Chimborazo, on the far east of town, and Winder, on its far west. Most hospitals were converted tobacco warehouses, factories of various sorts, churches, and colleges.

In the beginning a social stigma was attached to hospital work, or to even being seen in such places. Respectable people were cared for in their homes (which actually were healthier, though impractical).

Before fighting began, diseases caused by crowding thousands of new recruits in confined training areas gave the authorities a preview of what was to come. The sick were burdened with the fact that most physicians still subscribed to the “miasmic theory” that diseases were caused by “humors” seeping up from the ground. Although all seemed to know the danger of gangrene and the value of quinine, antiseptic procedures were still in their infancy; most surgeons still sharpened their scalpels on their boots, left their hands unwashed for long periods of time and re-used bandages between patients. The medical establishment was, however, aware of the value of cleanliness in general, ventilation, and orderliness, having learned this from Florence Nightingale’s work in the Crimean War. The scope of Mrs. Calcutt’s book does not permit extensive coverage of primitive medical tools or procedures—for these, the two volumes by Dr. Gordon Dammann, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment are recommended, though more indicative of carpenter’s tools.

Some Northern merchants, at risk of loss and prosecution, most noticeably S. Mansfield and Ward and McClellan, smuggled medicines into the South. In 1864 the American Medical Association of New York made a motion to lift the ban on medicines, to no avail. Richmonders were forced to learn the pharmacological properties of “Indian turnip, Virginia snake root, wild ginger, dogwood, Jamestown weed, persimmon, partridge berry, juniper, sassafras, red poppy seed, poke root, Georgia bark, Seneka snake root, white oak, bear berry, sarsaparilla, and skunk cabbage.”

As the wounded soldiers began pouring in from the First Battle of Manassas, civilians began to get over their fear and loathing of hospitals. At first, convalescents were used as nurses, but soon free blacks were encouraged to contribute their services, and slaves were hired from their masters. Then white civilian men were used as nurses, but it was not long before the Confederacy realized the huge source of untapped labor they had in women, and the gentler sex was encouraged—nay begged—to volunteer. From then on, many ladies took pride in their work for the hospitals. Often it was the wounded men who objected to female care and resented being “inspected by the ladies”, causing Stuart Hospital to close its doors to the female sex; all hospitals required extremely modest dress among women. Mary Chesnut, famous diarist and wife of Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina, early decided that she was not cut out to be a nurse, but instead took her carriage around the market places, almost on a daily basis, to buy delicacies for the wounded in the hospitals. Toward the end she bravely devoted herself to nursing hospitalized soldiers with the most grievous wounds. Almost all individual citizens volunteered in some way or another; some by going hungry in order to put food in the mouths of their wounded defenders, and others by selling their heirlooms—“Property without liberty is valueless.”
An advantage was the fact that five railroads cut through the city, and all of these were used to carry the sick and wounded. An observer noted that everyone was seen at the depots to receive the wounded: “…the rich merchant, the rough laborer, the heavy features of the sturdy serving woman, the dusky but loving face of the negro, the delicate profile of the petted belle, all strained forward in the same intent gaze as car after car was emptied of its ghastly freight.” As Mrs. Calcutt points out, “Caring for sick and wounded Confederate soldiers became Richmond’s biggest industry in that it directly affected more people in the city than any other concern.”

Reflecting the Southern preference for local control, most Richmond hospitals were assigned patients by state of origin; this practice had the advantage of easing families’ search for their loved ones.

The Peninsula Campaign, or “The Seven Days’ Battles,” brought in the next flood of wounded, greater than Richmond could ever have expected since it was fought in the outskirts of the city itself. The ambulances and buggies were often springless and frequently left the patients worse off than they had been in the field. Robertson Hospital, at the corner of Third and Main Streets, was operated by Miss Sally Tompkins, who received a captain’s commission in the Confederate Cavalry from President Jefferson Davis for her tireless efforts. She even had it declared a military post so that none of the periodic “reorganizations” could affect it. Her hospital was known for its efficient operation, cleanliness, and low mortality rate—only 73 out of the 1,334 patients care for there, died.

The greatest disaster to befall Richmond hospitals and soldiers North and South was U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the exchange of prisoners of war in early 1863, forcing Southerners to feed Northern prisoners when they could barely feed their own fighting men. It eventually led to such horrors as Andersonville Prison where starvation and disease were as common among Union prisoners as confederate soldiers, with the additional hardships of cramped conditions, bad sanitation, and inability to forage. The Union could afford to lose the services of many more captured soldiers than the South could, and not just because of their greater manpower at the beginning of the War. By the time of the siege of Petersburg, according to many sources, over one-fourth of Union soldiers were mercenaries from all over Europe. Gen. Lee spent much of his time begging Richmond for interpreters skilled in Russian, German, Italian, and French, just so his officers could communicate with the captured foreigners. President Lincoln could offer vast tracts of land, and cash, to induce foreigners to enlist (or their princelings to rent them out to die—and modern readers think Southerners were cruel for renting slaves out as nurses?).

The Confederacy was blessed by competent administrators in the medical department, such as Surgeon General Preston Moore, with his experience in the Mexican War. The woefully inadequate graduating class of Virginia Medical College finally permitted each general hospital to be authorized one surgeon-in-charge and one medical officer for 70 to 80 patients.

Mrs. Calcutt describes tragic vignettes, such as the one recounted by Nurse Phoebe Pember, whose patient Fisher’s hip wound caused a deep bone to cut through his artery. Nurse Pember consulted with the physician, and when Fisher asked how long he had to live, she replied, “Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery.” After a few moments he bravely remarked, “You can let go.” Unable to do so, she recalled, “Not if my own life had trembled in the balance. Hot tears rushed to my eyes, a surging sound to my ears, and a deathly coldness to my lips.” Then, for the only time in her four years as a hospital matron, Mrs. Pember fainted.

The only long break for the hospitals occurred when Union Gen. Grant moved his army south of Richmond to besiege Petersburg—a movement not dictated by Union strategy but by stubborn Confederate resistance around the city of Richmond.

When the Union Army finally began entering Richmond, it made sense for the hospitals there to be given over to Union hospitals with both Northern and Confederate inmates and personnel. The Union wounded were horrified not so much by the filth and want, as by “the feeble motions, trembling limbs, and the wan and cadaverous appearance of the Confederate wounded.” The few hospital agents now serving both sides made daily raids throughout Richmond and lay “in wait at the markets and along the highways and pounced on country carts nearing the city.” One nurse had the unenviable task to convince people that maggots in boiled peas added to their nutrition. Such pronouncements sometimes resulted in food fights. The one staple that seemed to have held out to the end—cornpone—was now heavy, sour, full of lumps and husk, and unfit to eat after getting cold. When the cornpone ran out, the War was over for the South.

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