Sunday, December 22, 2013

Civil War Federal Navy Physicians

Author: John S. Lynch, Msc.

The Federal Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery experienced a substantial loss of officers during 1861. It responded to the loss and the increased demand for its services by augmenting its regular medical officers with volunteer physicians. The medical corps more than doubled in size between 1861 and 1865 as a result of the recruiting efforts. Navy physicians were involved in blockade duty, anticommerce raider cruises, amphibious assaults, riverine duty, and staffing naval facilities ashore. Their services are virtually unknown despite their involvement in most naval activity during the war. This article illuminates their efforts. It does so by analyzing individual service records and reports compiled in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies during the War of the Rebellion. The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery successfully met the demands made upon it during the American Civil War.

The Federal Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery receives little attention in American Civil War-related publications and discussions. Its medical officers are even more ignored. Answers to basic questions like how the bureau was affected by the war; what was the physician rank structure, how experienced were navy physicians, what was the physician attrition during the war, what assignments were available, what maladies did they treat, and how were they recognized for meritorious service are not readily available. This article attempts to answer these questions by analyzing service records and official war-time naval reports.

The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Expands
Dr. William Whelan was Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BMS) during the war years.1 He was a senior surgeon, having joined the Navy as an assistant surgeon on January 3, 1828. (He was promoted to surgeon on February 9, 1837.) His physician corps on January 1, 1861 included 61 surgeons, 25 passed assistant surgeons, and 45 assistant surgeons.2 BMS lost 41% of its January 1861 physician complement by the end of the year. A massive recruiting effort soon began, and BMS rapidly grew as a result. Many civilian physicians volunteered and entered the service as acting assistant surgeons. The volunteer physicians comprised 56% of BMS' medical officer strength by 1865.2 The majority of the volunteers either resigned or received honorable discharges soon after the war ended. The strength of the BMS peaked in 1864 with an average of 463 physicians present that year. 



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