By LCDR Tom Burden, MSC, USN (Ret.), Surgeon General, Naval Order of the United States, 8-28-16
Part 1: Tripoli to The Spanish American War
Almost as long as there have been wars fought on or near waters there have been vessels used to care for casualties. Ancient history tells how the Romans used special boats to remove the sick and wounded. The United States, as did other countries with navies, also found a use for such ships.
During the Tripoli piracy era of 1803 and 1804, Commodore Preble designated the captured ketch Intrepid as a ship with hospital duties. Intrepid is better known, however as the ship that sneaked under the eyes of the enemy and blew up the Philadelphia held captive by the Tripolitans.
In 1859, the threat of yellow fever, an epidemic brought on by seamen returning from foreign ports, led to the first floating hospital in America. The infected sailors were turned away by the New York marine hospital, and it was necessary to find a place to treat them. A local physician, Dr. William Adison, recently returned from England where he had studied in the floating hospital ship Caledonian, suggested a similar vessel. After his idea was accepted, the port authorities voted funds to purchase the steamer Falcon. Her engines were removed, the deck was housed over, and other necessary facilities were installed. Fittingly enough the name was changed to the Florence Nightingale, and a number of patients were cared for aboard her.
USS Red Rover
During the Civil War, a captured side-wheel steamer named by its Confederate owner the Red Rover, proved to be the U.S. Navy's first hospital ship. This steamer was used originally as living quarters for the men manning the Confederate States' Floating Battery New Orleans. When New Orleans was bombarded by the Union’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in March 1862, the Red Rover was hit by a shell that pierced her top and slanted through all her decks to the bottom. Although she leaked considerably, the ship was in no danger of sinking. She was captured by the Union gunboat Mound City and almost immediately prepared as a floating hospital for the casualties of the North. Not long after her capture, the Red Rover became a haven for many injured men and officers of the apprehending gunboat. That summer, the ship was renovated by the Army Quartermaster Corps to include laundries, bathroom facilities, elevators to upper decks, operating rooms, nine water closets, separate kitchens for crew and patients, and gauze blinds to keep out smoke and cinders from the convalescents' berth deck. Enough stores were taken aboard for a crew and 200 patients for three months. This included 300 tons of ice. Commander Captain Alexander M. Pennock reported to his Flag officer, "The boat is supplied with everything necessary for the restoration of health for the disabled seamen."
On 11 June 1862, she received her first patient, a seaman from the gunboat Benton, a victim of cholera. At this time the Red Rover was really "half Army and half Navy," and it was only after the Illinois Prize Board sold her to the Navy that she could be called a Navy hospital ship. The reorganization and transfer of the Western Flotilla to the Navy helped to solidify this fact. She was commissioned in the Navy the day after Christmas, 1862.
The first vessel thus designated as a Navy hospital ship had a crew of twelve officers and thirty-five men, exclusive of the thirty surgeons and nurses aboard. Not all of the nurses aboard were male. Four sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross came aboard that Christmas eve and were joined later by several other sisters and some black female nurses.
Unknowingly, this small group proved to be the pioneers of a Navy Nurse Corps which would be organized some fifty years later. Not only was this fledgling hospital ship kept busy with her patients, but she was also pressed into service as a store ship carrying medical supplies, ice, and provisions to the ships of the river fleet. With the establishment of a naval hospital at Memphis, Red Rover, was relieved of some of her duties. As the war between the states drew to a close, so did the need for the Red Rover and she was removed from the service 1 November 1865 and later sold at public auction.