December 26, 1862
The USS Red Rover, the first hospital ship of the U. S. Navy, was commissioned on December 26th, 1862, after a year of service in the Army during the Civil War. An article in the November 1968 issue of Proceedings, written by W. T. Adams, commemorates the Red Rover’s brief but successful career, which ended in 1865. Not only was the Red Rover the first ship of her kind, but she also served a variety of capacities for the Union forces during the War, far beyond the demands of an ordinary hospital ship.
To those familiar with modern standards of naval medical care, it may be difficult to visualize the days when treatment of the shipboard sick and wounded was limited to the surgeon working in a makeshift sickbay—with no hope of better facilities until the ship reached a port which might have a hospital, days or even weeks into the future. It was a situation that existed in the U. S. Navy, however, until the chaos of the Civil War produced the USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship.
“No one but those who have witnessed it,” wrote Flag Officer Charles H. Davis of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, “can comprehend the sufferings to which our sick have been exposed by the absence of proper accommodations on board the gunboats and by the necessity for frequent and sometimes hasty change of place . . . When the ship was cleared for action . . . it was necessary to take down their cots and hammocks more than quickly into out of way and uncomfortable places. This must have been attended with pain and distress, if not positive injury. The arrival of the Red Rover will put a stop to all this . . .”
Although the Red Rover was the first hospital ship provided for support of the naval forces, she was by no means the first ship used as a floating hospital during the Civil War. The Army and the Sanitary Commission had begun to use transports and chartered steamers as makeshift hospitals early in the war; however, none of these could even remotely compare with the Red Rover, which has been described as a veritable floating palace.
A side-wheel steamer of 786 tons, the Red Rover was built at Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 1859. Purchased by the Confederacy in November of 1861, she was converted into a barracks ship to provide quarters for the crew of the floating battery New Orleans. Her Confederate service was short-lived, however, for she was captured by the Union gunboat Mound City some five months later when Island Number 10 on the Mississippi River fell into Union hands.
The Red Rover’s conversion into a hospital ship began shortly after her capture, with the work being supervised by Army Quartermaster Captain George Wise, since naval forces on the Western Rivers operated at that time under control of the War Department. Within two months the basic work had been completed. “I wish that you could see our hospital boat, the Red Rover, with all her comforts for the sick and disabled seamen,” Captain Wise wrote to Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. “She has decided to be the most complete thing of the kind that has ever floated,” he continued, “and is in every way a . . . success.”
With the advice and assistance of the Western Sanitary Commission, which had contributed $3,200 toward outfitting the hospital ship, Captain Wise had provided well for the sick and wounded of the naval forces. The Red Rover had “bathrooms, laundry, elevator for the sick from the lower to the upper deck, amputating rooms, nine different water closets, gauze blinds to the windows to keep the cinders and smoke from annoying the sick, two separate kitchens for the sick and well, and two water closets on every deck.”
Although the “regular corps of nurses” on board the Red Rover consisted of males, Sister Angela of the Sisters of the Holy Cross offered the assistance of that order in providing nurses when needed. The offer was gratefully accepted, and various Sisters served on board in a temporary capacity from time to time in 1862.
The Red Rover’s capabilities for care of the sick were further enhanced by an icebox that held 300 tons of ice in storage, while her holds carried enough general stores for her crew for three months, along with medical supplies sufficient for two hundred men for the same period. In short, as Commander Pennock reported when she left the Naval Depot at Cairo, Illinois, on her first cruise, “The boat is supplied with everything . . . for the restoration to health of sick and disabled seamen.”
The facilities of the hospital ship were soon it great demand, and it was necessary to issue a general order specifying the limitations on patients that might be transferred to her. “All sick persons in the fleet are not to be sent on board the hospital boat indiscriminately,” it read. “It will be understood, on the contrary, that only those patients are to be sent to the hospital boat who . . . [are] expected to be sick for some time and hose cases may require more quiet and better attention and accommodation than can be provided on board the vessels to which they belong. Slight disorders and accidents will be treated by the surgeon under whose care they happen to fall.”
During this period, the Red Rover, along with the other ships of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, technically “belonged” to the Army, although they were commanded by naval officers and manned primarily by naval personnel. It was a strange situation. “At first, the naval forces on the Western Rivers were put under the direction of the War Department,” Admiral Porter later write, “as it was supposed the armed vessels would be a mere appendage of the land forces; and there does not seem to have been a man in the cabinet at that time who knew the difference between a gunboat and a transport.”
Others apparently shared Porter’s view, and control of the naval forces on Western waters was the subject of considerable difference of opinion. The matter was finally resolved, however, by an Act of Congress directing transfer of the “Western Gunboat Fleet” to the Navy Department. The U. S. Navy officially took possession of the ships 1 October 1862; although the Red Rover was not formally commissioned until nearly three months later on 26 December.
It was in the same month of December that the first female nurses were officially assigned to a hospital ship of the U. S. Navy, when Sister M. Veronica, Sister M. Adela, and Sister M. Callista were transferred to the Red Rover from the Army hospital at Mound City, Illinois. The first two of these remained with the hospital ship for the duration of the war, being assisted from time to time by additional Sisters of the Holy Cross, as well as other female nurses.
When first commissioned, the Red Rover mustered a crew of 12 officers and 35 men, plus various medical department personnel numbering about 30, although the latter varied from a high of 40 to as few as eight at times during her career. During her seven months of Union Service in 1862, this force could boast a total admission list to Red Rover’s sick wards of some 374 patients, 332 of whom had been discharged, 37 had died and five had deserted.
It was an auspicious beginning for the Navy’s first hospital ship, particularly since the Red Rover’s service was by no means restricted to that of providing medical care. In that day when the status of hospital ships was not so clearly defined as to make them noncombatants, the Red Rover was armed with a 32-pounder and considered to be available for any naval duties that occasion might demand.
She began 1863, for example, as guardship at the mouth of the White River while the gunboats of the Mississippi squadron stood up the river. Later that same month, the Red Rover was fired on by the Confederates, two large shots entering the hospital. With her large capacity for general stores, medical supplies, and ice, she also served as a storeship for the fleet, particularly in the matter of furnishing fresh provisions.
Her primary duty, however, remained that of a floating hospital for the naval forces, where sickness often reached epidemic proportions. “Of the one hundred and thirty men of the mortar fleet, one hundred are sick and off duty,” Flag Officer Davis wrote. “The crews of the gunboats are, many of them, reduced to one half their number . . . the Department would be surprised to see how the most healthy men wilt and break down under the ceaseless and exhausting heat of the pernicious climate. Men who are apparently in health at the close of the day’s work, sink away and die suddenly at night, under the combined effects of heat and malarial poison. . . .”
Operating from Cairo to New Orleans during 1863 and most of 1864, the Red Rover supported the Mississippi squadron along the entire Mississippi River and played a major role in evacuating the wounded from such notable operations as the Fort Hindman expedition, the Yazoo River operations, the Siege of Vicksburg, the Fort Pillow attack, and the Red River expedition. Then, in December 1864, as the war on the Western waters waned, the Red Rover was assigned to her final station at Mound City, Illinois. There she remained, continuing to provide care for the sick and wounded until her last 11 patients were transferred off on 17 November 1865.
When the Red Rover was mustered out of naval service and sold at public auction later in November, her log showed that the Navy’s first hospital ship had provided treatment for 2,947 patients during her career. As so correctly predicted by Flag Officer Davis when the Red Rover first entered Union Service, she had succeeded in putting a stop to much of the pain and distress in the naval forces of the Western Rivers.