Monday, September 9, 2013

Designed to Cure: Civil War Hospitals in Vermont

President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton greeted a proposal from Vermont Governor Frederick Holbrook to open military hospitals far from the battlefront as “inexpedient and impracticable of execution.” By the war’s end, however, the army had created 192 general
hospitals in its 16 military departments. Twenty-five hospitals were in the Department of the East, including three in Vermont.
From: vermonthistory.org
By Nancy E. Boone and Michael Sherman

In 1894 former Governor Frederick Holbrook of Brattleboro described his negotiations with federal officials to establish hospitals in Vermont to treat sick and wounded soldiers from the New England region. Holbrook wrote that following a visit to the field hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., in December 1862, he convinced President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to overcome their doubts that a hospital so far from the front lines would be “inexpedient and impracticable of execution. It was thought that many of the disabled men would die under the fatigue and exposure of such long transportation back to their state; and it was suggested that possibly some might be lost by desertion. It was also said that the plan would be an unmilitary innovation.”

To overcome these concerns, Holbrook assured Lincoln and Stanton that the hospital would operate as a military facility, that the secretaryof  war would authorize transfer of patients from field hospitals, and that
the experiment, as Stanton insisted on calling it, could be revoked in six months’ time if it proved unworkable. Holbrook countered concerns about the costs of building a new hospital by offering to use the existing military campgrounds and buildings in Brattleboro. These had been  hastily built on the town fairgrounds in the summer of 1861 to muster out Vermont’s First Brigade and muster in the Vermont Second Brigade.

Holbrook pledged the State of Vermont to move the military buildings “to a sheltered situation at one end of the grounds, placing them in a hollow square, and to fit them up with plastered walls, nice floors, chimneys, provisions for ventilation, an abundance of pure spring water, and all needed appliances and facilities for hospital purposes.”

By the summer of 1863 the hospital in Brattleboro, under the command of Edward E. Phelps, who had accompanied Holbrook on his negotiating trip to Washington, was treating 1,500 to 2,000 patients. With the barracks buildings full, tents accommodated the overflow. According to Holbrook, the facility easily passed its first inspection by government officials and “was soon credited by the United States medical inspector, with perfecting a larger percentage of cures than any United States military hospital record elsewhere could show. . . . The experiment of establishing this hospital proved so successful that similar hospitals were provided in other northern states.”

The Brattleboro hospital, later known as Smith General Hospital to honor another Vermont wartime governor, J. Gregory Smith, was one of three military medical facilities in Vermont. It handled more patients than either of the other two—4,402 patients between June 1, 1863 and October 5, 1865—but it was not the first to open and in some respects Holbrook’s account is misleading.


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