Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Civil War Medicine

by Dr Julius Bonello, MD

The Union generals stood silently and watched as the long line of wounded made their way back to Washington. Although the morning had started out as glorious for the United States, it had quickly turned into a military debacle. Almost 2,700 Union Soldiers had been killed or wounded in a battle fought near a meandering stream known as Bull Run. The generals now knew that this engagement would be a long and costly one. They had greatly underestimated the strength of their enemy. They also realized, at that moment, that there were woefully unprepared for what was to come. Medical supplies that had been sent to the battlefield had never arrived and, according to official reports, not one wounded soldier returned by ambulance after the battle.
From 1862 to 1865, the American Civil War would cause almost 10 million soldiers to need medical assistance. At the beginning of the war, the military had only 113 doctors to meet this demand. Something had to be done and done quickly.
The Army Medical Department entered the war unprepared. Its chief, Colonel Tom Lawson, who was more than 80 years old, considered the purchase of medical books an extravagance and was reported to have flown into a rage upon hearing that one post had two sets of surgical instruments. In January 1861, the United States Army numbered 16,000 soldiers and had a medical staff of 113 surgeons. Soon after the war started, 24 surgeons left for the South leaving 89 surgeons to administer the Union army. Although nearly all doctors of this period had received their medical education on an apprenticeship basis, younger ones usually had a medical school diploma. Because medical schools had no standardized testing and licensing requirements, and testing varied state by state, the medical knowledge of a doctor of the 1860s varied in education, skill and experience.

At the time of the Civil War, there were 100 medical schools in the United States. School consisted of two years, the second year being a complete repetition of the first year. At the beginning of the war; some schools reduced their requirement to one year and counted a year on the battlefield as a year of apprenticeship. Some schools required only six weeks of formal learning before their students began an apprenticeship. Since many states had laws that prevented medical students from dissecting cadavers, graduates often did not see internal organs or any major trauma until their first experience in battle.

After the bombardment at Fort Sumter, southern students left the northern schools to attend southern medical schools. However, by 1863, because of the manpower shortage in the South, these medical schools closed, thereby adding to the woes of the southern medical department toward the end of the war.

Once they received their diploma, whether they liked it or not, the doctor of the day was a surgeon. Civilian doctors had little experience. At that time, civilian surgery involved what we would consider minor procedures, i.e. tooth extractions, laceration repair, drainage of abscesses, foreign body removal and similar conditions. Orthopedic practice was limited to splinting, and a joint space was never entered. True surgery was confined to a few obstetrical and gynecological procedures. No one was prepared for the carnage that was coming.

Because of these changes in medical school requirements and apprenticeships, the northern states were able to field almost 12,000 doctors during the Civil War. The Confederacy probably utilized a total of 8,000 doctors during the same time. Surgeons usually carried a rank of major and assistant surgeons were captains. Depending upon their length of service, a surgeon was paid between $162 and $200 per month.

In June 1861, two men met in New York with a group of devoted women, including Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the United States. They formed the Women’s Central Association of Relief for the Sick and Wounded. On May 16, delegates of this group descended on Washington, DC, demanding the creation of a sanitary commission. Lincoln, the Secretary of War and the medical department opposed the idea. Fortunately, General Lawson was at home sick, and his replacement, Dr Robert Wood, saw the logic of this proposal. On June 9, 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission was formed. In theory, the commission was to investigate and advise in matters of sanitation and hygiene; in practice, it effected a purging and cleansing of the medical department; monitored camps, hospital food, clothing, medical supplies, ambulance services and recruitment; sent workers into the fields and hospitals to nurse and nourish; and provided everything from chloroform to tobacco. By war’s end, the commission had distributed almost $15 million worth of supplies, wholly provided by the citizens of the United States. (Table 1)

 Table 1: A partial list of the supplies and goods that the sanitary commission sent to Gettysburg after the July 1863 battle.
Drawers, Woolen
5,310 Pairs
Drawers, Cotton
1,833 Pairs
Shirts, Woolen
Shirts, Cotton
5,818 Pairs
4,000 Pairs
250 Pounds
Basins and Cups
Bandage Linen
110 Barrels
Splinting/Dressing Plaster
16 Rolls
1,200 Pairs

The most significant act produced by the commission was the White Paper of 1861. The commission reorganized itself, created new posts and, best of all, removed Lawson from the position of Surgeon General, replacing him with William Hammond. Hammond was an intelligent, able man with unbound energy and vision. His first move was an order that proper records be kept for all the sick, wounded and killed. This record is available today in a six-volume work found in most urban libraries. 

Hammond introduced a meaningful system for classifying disease, wrote and edited medical journals, accelerated the procurement of supplies and constantly fought to improve medical care. He recommended an ambulance corps, an army medical school and an army museum. He also proposed that the men, who drove ambulances and nursed the sick, be trained by the medical department. In May 1863, Hammond issued a decree restricting calomel (mercurous chloride), a powerful laxative, which had been used to treat diarrhea. The medical thinking of the 1800s focused on the bowels and bladder. If a good bowel movement or a good stream of urine could be produced, a patient was considered healthy. However, Hammond saw the high rate of mortality among patients with diarrhea and wanted calomel’s use restricted. Most medical doctors considered this directive heresy, and they brought their complaint to Washington. Forcing a trial while Hammond was on tour, they found him guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and relieved him of duty. Joseph K Barnes replaced him, but continued all of Hammond’s proposals.

Until the Civil War, nurses in the United States were either veterans of earlier wars or the handicapped and mentally retarded. During the war, some nursing was performed by hospital stewards who were non-commissioned officers. Their duties were fully described by Joseph Woodward, a leading physician of his day. Woodward’s manual for stewards outlined, in today’s terms, the responsibilities of a registered nurse. During battles, the musical band that accompanied every regiment provided nursing care. Although almost every major engagement attracted local women who wanted to help administer medical care, their assistance was generally discouraged. The prospect of young women taking care of young men concerned the conservative faction of the nation.

In 1861, Dorothy Dix, well-known founder of institutions for the mentally insane, offered to provide trained nurses to staff military hospitals. In June 1861, she became superintendent of female nurses. Such a radical idea created a degree of public outcry; however, the plan was generally well received by the military and the US Sanitary Commission. In mid 1861, thousands of women submitted their applications in response to Dix’s call. Each candidate had to be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.” They had to know “how to cook all kinds of low diet” and avoid “colored dresses, hoops, curls, jewelry and flowers on their bonnets.” One such woman was Marianne Bickerdyke of Galesburg, Illinois. While on a trip to Cairo, Illinois, to supply the Union soldiers with medical supplies, she found a number of the soldiers hospitalized on beds of filthy straw laid over muddy tent floors, and dying of dysentery and typhoid. Enraged at Army inefficiency and without authorization, she went to work. She washed the casualties in bathtubs, dug the mud off the tent floors and fed her patients food sent down from Galesburg. For the duration of the war, Bickerdyke rode with the Western Army setting up hospitals, feeding her boys before they went into battle and working in front-line dressing stations. Not surprisingly, she was less popular with the brass. When the wife of an important colonel summoned her to care for her son’s measles, “Mother Bickerdyke” unceremoniously refused stating that she had plenty of soldiers to work for. The colonel complained to General Sherman who replied, “You have picked on the one person around here who outranks me. If you want to lodge your complaint against her, you will have to take it up with President Lincoln.” By the end of the war, 3,000 to 4,000 female nurses had worked for the Union.

At the outbreak of the war, the United States was not operating a single general military hospital. The country began a gigantic building program, and by January 1863, the North had built 151 hospitals with 58,000 beds. By 1865, the North operated 204 general military hospitals with 137,000 beds, and by the end of the war, the Confederacy also had 150 hospitals, with one-third centered around Richmond, Virginia. The largest at Chimborazo held 8,000 beds.

“Island of Mercy: The Pry Mill at Antietam” was painted by Keith Rocco, who is a member of the Society of American Historical Artists. Gordon E Dammann, MD, commissioned the painting to benefit the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.

On September 17, 1862, Samuel Pry’s grist mill near Antietam Creek’s upper bridge served as a field hospital for the men wounded in the Miller Cornfield, the East and West Woods, and the Bloody Lane. At the time, surgeon Jonathan Letterman served as the new medical director of the Army of the Potomac and was reorganizing the medical corps.

This was the bloodiest single day of the conflict, yet the mill where approximately 200 seriously wounded soldiers are being treated seems almost tranquil. A red flag is apparent rather than the more common yellow hospital flag which was finally standardized in 1864. The four-wheeled Rosecrans ambulances are preferred, but the two-wheeled vehicles are still in use. Dr Letterman, who is constantly moving during and after the battle, gives instructions to surgeons in the foreground. Clara Barton and her assistant Cornelius Welles dispense blankets and other supplies that she has personally brought to the soldiers.

Wounded from both sides receive care and medical personnel from the Union Second Corps who wear the green hat bands and half chevrons assist the surgeon in triage before each wounded soldier is carried into the mill on a Satterlee stretcher.

Excerpted from: Wellness Directory of Minnesota

New Book “Anatomy of a Hospital” Tells Fascinating Story of Hospital for Special Surgery


With 537 pages and 150 photographs, “Anatomy of a Hospital” chronicles the history of the nation’s oldest hospital for orthopedics, from its beginnings in a doctor’s home to help destitute children with disabilities to the premier hospital it has become today. From its founding during the Civil War to the present, the book’s history of the hospital parallels the history of medicine, of New York City and of the nation during that time period.

Some might be surprised to learn that Hospital for Special Surgery, a world-renowned hospital for orthopedics, was founded when a kindhearted doctor opened a 28-bed hospital for destitute children in his private New York City residence on Second Avenue, just below 6th Street. Seeking to rescue young street beggars with severe disabilities, Dr. James Knight opened the Hospital for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled, as it was called, in 1863.

So begins the story of Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). It was the middle of the Civil War and, as the book states, disease, poverty and unemployment were rampant in New York City. Most people were poor and had little access to medical care.

In “Anatomy of a Hospital,” Dr. David B. Levine tells the extraordinary story of how the nation’s oldest orthopedic hospital grew to become a world leader in its specialties of orthopedic surgery and rheumatology. The book chronicles the hospital’s challenges and successes over a century and a half of growth. At the same time, Dr. Levine details medical advances over that time period, showing how medical care emerged from the “Dark Ages” to become modern medicine as we know it today.

As New York City expanded to become a leading financial, cultural and social force over 150 years, Hospital for Special Surgery grew into an international leader in musculoskeletal treatment, education and research, building a reputation as a pioneer in joint replacement, spine surgery, rheumatology research and other areas. Famous patients included John F. Kennedy, who had several surgeries to correct a back injury he had sustained during World War II, and Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican artist, who also had spine surgery.

The Hospital for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled was the first hospital in New York City to create a public school within a hospital. Since many children with crippling diseases remained as inpatients for years, school classrooms were provided and Manhattan PS 401 was established in the hospital.

Other interesting facts:
1887: The hospital established the first orthopedic residency program in the United States and a house staff as we know it today.
1907: The polio epidemic brought an increased number of patients to the hospital not only from the city and suburbs, but from upstate New York.
1910: The hospital, at its second location on the corner 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, sold the property it was on to the New York Central Railroad for 1.35 million dollars, and in 1912, moved to its third location at 321 East 42nd Street. Grand Central Terminal was built adjacent to the hospital’s former location.
1971: Dr. John Marshall organized the first Sports Medicine Clinic at HSS, believed to be the first such clinic in New York
Today, Hospital for Special Surgery, located at 535 East 70th Street (near the FDR Drive), is consistently ranked as a leader in orthopedics, rheumatology and rehabilitation. Sports fans know HSS as the team doctors for the Mets, the New York Giants, New York Knicks and the New York Liberty, among others.
Dr. Levine, emeritus attending orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery and professor emeritus of clinical orthopedic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, spent eight years writing the book. A spine surgeon at HSS for 28 years, he served as director of the Scoliosis Service and was later director of Orthopedic Surgery.

A history buff, Dr. Levine has been the hospital’s “self-appointed archivist” since 2003.

He had an extraordinary amount of material on which to base his book, including every annual report from HSS dating back to the 1800s. The hospital also has managed to preserve patient records dating back to the day it opened on May 1, 1863. Dr. Levine also located photos from as far back as 1887 to feature in his book, which he calls “a labor of love.” Other HSS staff contributed various chapters, including the history of anesthesia, how x-rays and other diagnostic tools changed the face of medicine, and current challenges to the modern-day health care system.

Today, Hospital for Special Surgery has 205 patient beds and nearly 4,000 employees. With 35 operating rooms, more than 27,000 surgical procedures were performed last year. There were more than 300,000 outpatient visits to rheumatologists, physiatrists, orthopedic surgeons and other specialists affiliated with HSS last year. The hospital receives millions of dollars in research grants annually from the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

About the Author
DAVID B. LEVINE, M.D., has published more than a dozen articles on the history of medicine over the past 30 years and has lectured widely on Civil War medicine. He is emeritus attending orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery and professor emeritus of clinical orthopedic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is also director of Archives at the hospital and of the Alumni Association. He serves as historian of the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons.

Educated at Dartmouth College, he received his medical degree from Upstate Medical University College of Medicine at Syracuse in 1957. He trained in medical centers in Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles and New York before serving aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy Medical Corps in 1959.

After completing a fellowship in scoliosis in California in 1966, Dr. Levine returned to New York and was appointed to the staff of Hospital for Special Surgery as an orthopedic surgeon. He served as director of the Scoliosis Service and then as director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the hospital. He was a founder and past president of the Scoliosis Research Society.

Retiring from active patient care in 1995, he and his wife, Janet, an artist, moved to Florence, Italy, where he lectured at Careggi Orthopaedic Hospital, restored antique furniture and mastered Italian cooking. They returned to New York in 1997.

About Hospital for Special Surgery
Founded in 1863, Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) is a world leader in orthopedics, rheumatology and rehabilitation. HSS is nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics, No. 3 in rheumatology, No. 10 in neurology and No. 5 in geriatrics by U.S. News & World Report (2012-13), and is the first hospital in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center three consecutive times. HSS has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. From 2007 to 2011, HSS has been a recipient of the HealthGrades Joint Replacement Excellence Award. HSS is a member of the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System and an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College and as such all Hospital for Special Surgery medical staff are faculty of Weill Cornell. The hospital's research division is internationally recognized as a leader in the investigation of musculoskeletal and autoimmune diseases. Hospital for Special Surgery is located in New York City.

Treatment of Wounds: Amputation vs. Conservative Approaches

by Janet King, RN, BSN, CCRN

At the beginning of the Civil War there were basically two schools of thought regarding proper treatment of severe injuries the extremities. One group believed that "conservative measures" should be given a chance, that a limb might be spared. The other felt that prompt amputation was a necessity in order to save life.

Conservatives could cite the European experience of the Crimean War, which showed amputations having a very high mortality rate. Unless the limb was essentially torn apart, these surgeons felt it best to attempt to save the wounded extremity.

Those who favored prompt amputation viewed conservative methods as impractical in a war where mass casualties were common. These surgeons believed that where the limb was badly lacerated or where the bone had penetrated the skin, or was much splintered, that amputation was a must and helped avoid septicemia (usually fatal blood infection). According to a military text of the time, published in 1863, "...the rule in military surgery is absolute - that the amputating knife should immediately follow the condemnation of the limb...When this golden opportunity before reaction (infection) is lost, it can never be compensated for."

It was also felt that, "[T]he soldier's mood on the day of battle will help him withstand surgical shock." These surgeons felt this was the soldier's best hope of survival.

Still, some wounds were not treated by amputation, either because the doctor was of the conservative school, or because the situation did not warrant such, or in some cases where the soldiers did some "persuading" of the surgeon to be conservative. Records were made of soldiers who tried such persuasion, including going as far as to threaten the surgeon at the point of a gun to spare their limb. The term "sawbones" and the soldier's and public's perception of the surgeons as "heartless butchers" may have influenced some to try a conservative approach.

The soldier with a wound which caused a broken bone(s) could be treated as follows. After the surgeon probed the wound to remove any foreign material: bullet, pieces of bone, pieces of uniform etc., a dressing would be applied and the limb placed in some sort of splint or traction. A piece of board or fence, a bit of bark from a tree, or even a bundle of straw could be utilized, though there were splints made specifically for various injuries.

The Hodgen splint had been invented by surgeon John Hodgen of St. Louis and was noted to provide better alignment of the extremity, thus preventing some common complications of broken bones: contracted, shortened extremities. It also allowed the wound to be dressed without disturbing its alignment and thus the healing of the bone. (These are still key elements in splints today).

Forms of traction, such as Bucks traction, where force is applied in line with the leg, were developed. The use of plaster splints were also utilized. For upper extremities a variety of splints and slings could be constructed to keep the injured arm or hand in correct position and at rest.
Although amputation was the "accepted" mode of practice initially, as the war continued and the surgeons gained more experience other approaches and conservative methods were utilized whenever possible.


"Opium-the Poor Child's Nurse"

By Rob Kennedy

This Harper's Weekly cartoon dramatizes the widespread use of opium in the 19th century, emphasizing its application as teething medicine or a soporific to the children of the poor.

Opium use dates back to antiquity, and existed in many cultures, although it was particularly associated with China and India. It was considered to be a medical cure-all until other painkillers and therapeutics began to be developed in the 19th century. In England and the United States in the mid-19th century, physicians prescribed opium readily, yet it could be purchased without a prescription. It was often an ingredient in pills, tablets, cough drops, lozenges, plasters, and other medicinal forms. Opium was used extensively in medicines for gynecological maladies, resulting in a high rate of addiction among women (three times higher than in men).

There was an awareness of the problem of addiction to opium, but druggists were usually ignorant about safe dosages. The invention of the hypodermic needle in the mid-19th century was considered a partial solution because it was erroneously supposed that intravenous use would not cause addiction. Opiates were administered by hypodermic needles to wounded or ill soldiers. The result in the United States was the addiction of thousands of servicemen during the Civil War.

Harper's Weekly reported on the prevalent use of opium in the late 1850's. The journal's inaugural issue of January 3, 1857, carried the essay, "A Recent Confession of an Opium-Eater," and in 1858 and 1859, the newspaper ran advertisements for Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater . News stories and illustrations took readers into opium dens, as well as reported the Second Opium War in which Britain fought to keep open its lucrative opium trade after the Chinese government prohibited the narcotic.

Harper's Weekly alerted the public that the opium habit was spreading in New York City and across America. Custom houses reported 300,000 pounds imported in 1858, estimating 90 percent was intended for recreational use. It was a problem which affected all classes and ethnic groups, from Broadway to the Bowery. The effects of opium addiction could be noted in the "glassy eyes in Fifth Avenue drawing-rooms and opera-stalls," and in the babies of beggar-women. The infants' sleepiness was induced by laudanum (an opium derivative), which kept the children "fuddled continually, and permanently stupefied." It was, in fact, a common remedy used by American and British parents, especially poor ones, for infants who were experiencing teething or other pains.

Not until the late-19th century was opium use identified with the underworld of prostitutes, gamblers, and criminals, more than with medical therapy. By the turn of the century, opium addiction was recognized as a worldwide problem. The first U.S. federal law regulating drug use was the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.


Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Doctor


Mary Edwards Walker, one of the nation's 1.8 million women veterans, was the only one to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her service during the Civil War. She, along with thousands of other women, were honored in the newly-dedicated Women in Military Service for America Memorial in October 1997.

Controversy surrounded Mary Edwards Walker throughout her life. She was born on November 26, 1832 in the Town of Oswego, New York, into an abolitionist family. Her birthplace on the Bunker Hill Road is marked with a historical marker. Her father, a country doctor, was a free thinking participant in many of the reform movements that thrived in upstate New York in the mid 1800s. He believed strongly in education and equality for his five daughters Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia (there was one son, Alvah). He also believed they were hampered by the tight-fitting women's clothing of the day.

His daughter, Mary, became an early enthusiast for Women's Rights, and passionately espoused the issue of dress reform. The most famous proponent of dress reform was Amelia Bloomer, a native of Homer, New York, whose defended a colleague's right to wear "Turkish pantaloons" in her Ladies' Temperance Newspaper, the Lily. "Bloomers," as they became known, did achieve some popular acceptance towards the end of the 19th century as women took up the new sport of bicycling. Mary Edwards Walker discarded the unusual restrictive women's clothing of the day. Later in her life she donned full men's evening dress to lecture on Women's Rights.

In June 1855 Mary, the only woman in her class, joined the tiny number of women doctors in the nation when she graduated from the eclectic Syracuse Medical College, the nation's first medical school and one which accepted women and men on an equal basis. She gratuated at age 21 after three 13-week semesters of medical training which she paid $55 each for.

In 1856 she married another physician, Albert Miller, wearing trousers and a man's coat and kept her own name. Together they set up a medical practice in Rome, NY, but the public was not ready to accept a woman physician, and their practice floundered. They were divorced 13 years later.

When war broke out, she came to Washington and tried to join the Union Army. Denied a commission as a medical officer, she volunteered anyway, serving as an acting assistant surgeon -- the first female surgeon in the US Army. As an unpaid volunteer, she worked in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington. Later, she worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines for almost two years (including Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga).

In September 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland for which she made herself a slightly modified officer's uniform to wear, in response to the demands of traveling with the soldiers and working in field hospitals. She was then appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this assignment it is generally accepted that she also served as a spy. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.

She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension of $8.50, later raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions.

On November 11, 1865, President Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, in order to recognize her contributions to the war effort without awarding her an army commission. She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award.

In 1917 her Congressional Medal, along with the medals of 910 others was taken away when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only “actual combat with an enemy” She refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919. A relative told the New York Times: "Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it." An Army board reinstated Walker's medal posthumously in 1977, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

After the war, Mary Edwards Walker became a writer and lecturer, touring here and abroad on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. Walker prided herself by being arrested numerous times for wearing full male dress, including wing collar, bow tie, and top hat.

She was also something of an inventor, coming up with the idea of using a return postcard for registered mail.

She wrote extensively, including a combination biography and commentary called Hit, a combination autobiography and commentary on divorce in 1871, and a second book, Unmasked, or the Science of Immortality, about infidelity in 1878.

In 1872 in Oswego, Mary E. Walker attempted to vote, one of many women who made the attempt over the years on the road to full suffrage.

In 1890, Mary declared herself a candidate for Congress in Oswego. The next year, she campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat and, the following year, paid her way to the Democratic National Convention.

She died in the Town of Oswego on February 21, 1919 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery on the Cemetery Road. Ironically, the 19th Amendment giving owmen the vote was ratified that same year.

A 20¢ stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker was issued in Oswego, NY on June 10, 1982. The stamp commemorates the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.

In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.

Special thanks to Theresa A. Cooper, President of the Town of Oswego Historical Society and Town Clerk for supplying additional information for this Profile.

The full text of her entry at the U.S. Army Center of Military History of Medal of Honor Citations follows:


Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U. S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickomauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864_August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Ky. Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y.

Citation: Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government. and her efforts have been earnest and llntirin~ in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major_Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soliders, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and

Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and

Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made:

It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.

Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865.

(Medal rescinded 1917 along with 910 others, restored by President Carter 10 June 1977.)

Civil War Soldier Trauma in Unexpected Places

By Kathryn Shively Meier

In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions—strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat—which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy: nature.
In the following post, Meier explains that soldiers reported traumas from unexpected sources.
Since World War I, the language available to describe mental afflictions as a result of military service, as well as diagnostics and treatments, has expanded exponentially. The year 1980 saw the introduction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Lately, the news has been awash with reports linking physical brain injuries to the symptoms of PTSD, further enhancing our ability to understand and treat the mental repercussions of battle in our armed forces. Yet modern conceptions of soldier mental health do not necessarily translate to clearer understandings of soldier mental trauma in the past. Union and Confederate soldiers described a great deal of their mental suffering as incurred outside of combat. In fact, most Civil War soldiers looked forward to combat as a sporadic and exciting break from the taxing and monotonous day-to-day soldiering that wore down their resolve.

Understanding the mental experience of Civil War soldiers requires entering into an era when physicians lacked sophisticated understandings of the human brain and the contemporary lexicon offered few words to characterize mental health. This is not to say that Civil War soldiers did not provide ample evidence of their states of mind while serving. Soldiers used such terms as “the blues,” loneliness, and homesickness to explain their reasons for devolving into alcoholism, defying direct orders, straggling or deserting, and occasionally ending their lives. They relied upon correspondence with those at home to prevent mental decline, often beginning or ending their own letters with a desperate plea for increased communication with loved ones. Civil War surgeons, responsible for maintaining the overall health of regiments, possessed only a few terms for describing mental disorders, excluding all but the most severe cases. Specifically, U.S. surgeons provided official reports on insanity or “nostalgia,” a potentially fatal case of homesickness with the associated physical problems of fever, stomach ailments, and even death, while Confederate surgeons recorded only nostalgia or mania. All other mental ailments fell through the cracks of official reporting and therefore official care.

Civil War soldiers were quite clear about what burdened their minds, though their descriptions may surprise modern Americans. Indeed, soldiers on both sides pegged environmental circumstances as some of the most serious stressors of the war. Privates through non-commissioned officers, common soldiers rarely had traveled far from home before deploying. That meant the vast majority of them were transported to foreign environments that appeared extremely threatening based on popular notions of disease causation. Lacking conceptions of germ theory or insect-borne illness (theories developed in the 1870s and 80s respectively), mid-century Americans widely believed that a sudden change of location or weather and the air, water, and terrain of certain locales (particularly those of the South) caused life-threatening diseases, such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. It was clear to soldiers that disease claimed far more mortalities than combat; indeed, two-thirds of soldier deaths by war’s end would be from sickness rather than wounds. Nature appeared to be the soldiers’ fiercest enemy.

The contemporary disease conception, in turn, influenced soldier ideas about what caused mental debilitation. As described in soldier accounts, leading causes of mental distress included exposure to prolonged bad weather, putrid water, miasmatic swamps, and irritation from insects. Soldiers dreaded falling ill and dying as a fate worse than succumbing to combat wounds. Such a death appeared to deprive them of gloried sacrifice to their Cause. As the men watched their regiments, generally familiar faces from back home, decimated by disease, their loneliness and homesickness compounded. Given that battles were relatively rare in the early years of the war, soldiers had little to do but focus on the misery of camping and marching with flimsy protection from the heat and insects of summer and the bitterness of winter; consequently, they despaired.

Following the war, soldiers reflected in their reminiscences upon the difficult process of becoming hardened to the elements, a process contemporarily known as seasoning. As most veterans wrote memoirs for family consumption, it is apparent that they wished loved ones to acknowledge the mental burden they had suffered, and, in some cases, overcome, while in other cases, still staggered under years later.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the human brain still presents many mysteries for scientists. As an American people again at war, concern for our military servicepeople continues to motivate us toward better comprehension of how soldiering affects mental health. Just as the recent large numbers of news articles, fictional accounts, and histories regarding PTSD reveal our culture’s current fixation on physical brain trauma, the descriptions Civil War soldiers provided about their own mental health provide us with a window into what nineteenth-century Americans feared most.

Kathryn Shively Meier is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of  "Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia".

This Woman Is the Last Civil War Pensioner Alive

Sam Frizell
May 10, 2014

The last living child of a Civil War veteran, Irene Triplett still receives a monthly pension from the federal government

Irene Triplett, 84, receives a $73.13 monthly pension payment from the Department of Veteran Affairs every month. It’s for her father’s military service—in the American Civil War.

Triplett is the last child of any Civil War veteran to still receive benefits for the conflict that ended a century-and-a-half ago, the Wall Street Journal reports. Triplett’s father, Mose Triplett, was born in 1846 and joined the Confederate forces in 1862 before deserting and signing up with the Union. In the 1920s, he married a women 50 years his junior, who later gave birth to Irene.

16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War still receive benefits from the VA. While the last World War I veteran died in 2011, 4,038 widows and children still get monthly payments for their family members’ service in that conflict.


Determined to Serve: Black Doctors in the Civil War

By Charlene Aaron
Monday, February 18, 2013

COLUMBIA, Md. - This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War when the nation was divided over the issue of slavery.

During that time, many freed blacks enlisted in the Union Army, including several African American doctors.

Little is known about these brave men, but there is a move to change that.

Prologue to Change
Retired physician Dr. Robert Slawson is fascinated by two subjects: history and medicine.

Slawson spent eight years as a doctor in the Army and 28 years teaching medicine at the University of Maryland. He is particularly interested in medical history, mainly the contributions that African Americans have made.

After completing a research project on medical education prior to the Civil War, Slawson was assured from all of his readings that there were no African Americans in formal medical education in the United States.

But after further study, he found that several blacks had indeed attended and successfully completed medical school. A handful had even served as doctors during the Civil War.

He wrote about his findings in his book, Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era.

When President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, nearly 200,000 blacks joined the Union Army.

"Of the physicians we've identified serving with the Army, three of them were commissioned officers," Slawson told CBN News. "The other nine were contract surgeons."

"The things they were doing as doctors mostly was taking care of disease," he explained. "They would do examination, take care of people with sickness, give medications."

Alexander T. Augusta
Dr. Alexander T. Augusta was a veteran of the American Civil War and the first commissioned black officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the first black officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Augusta was born to free parents in Norfolk, Va. He was taught to read by a preacher, something that was illegal and dangerous in the state.

He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but that seemed almost impossible in the 1800s. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, but his application was denied.

When he was unable to gain admittance to an American college of medicine because of his race, Augusta travelled to Canada where he enrolled at Toronto's Trinity College.

After six years there he earned a degree in medicine.

"It's hard for me to even imagine the challenges that they had faced," author and health expert Dr. Michelle Gourdine said.

"It had to be magnitudes harder than those of us who are black doctors now went through," she said.

Gourdine said that the hardships black medical professionals before her faced serve as a great encouragement and example to her and other African Americans.

"On top of it being a very difficult and challenging subject matter they had to understand, but to do that in an atmosphere where you were considered less than, where you were considered to be second rate, second tier, where you did not have all of the resources that you need in order to succeed and then to be able to achieve any way... " she marveled.

John Van Surly DeGrasse
After returning to the United States in 1862, Augusta wrote a direct appeal to President Lincoln to serve as a surgeon in the Army.

He was finally allowed entrance and earned a commission in the Union Army after many roadblocks.

Slawson said Augusta's time in the Army was difficult both on and off the battlefield. Most black surgeons in the war worked in military hospitals or recruiting stations because many white surgeons refused to serve alongside them or under their command on the battlefield.

"He (Dr. Augusta) had two assistant surgeons at the regiment with him and they were white and they rebelled obviously," Slawson explained. "The senior assistant surgeon said 'It's not right. There's no other white man working for an African black man, and I shouldn't have to do it either.'"

Dr. John Van Surly DeGrasse, from Massachusetts, was one exception. He and many of the black doctors in the Civil War were of mixed race.

De Grasse was born June 1825 in New York City. According, in 1840 at 15 years old DeGrasse enrolled in Oneida Institute in New York.

He later studied medicine at Aubuk College in Paris. De Grasse received his medical degree with honors from the Bowdoin College's Medical School of Maine in Brunswick in May 1849.

He was the second African American to graduate from an American college of medicine.

After volunteering in May 1863, De Grasse received a commission as an assistant surgeon with the 35th United States Colored Infantry. He was one of only three African American doctors to do so.

De Grasse was the only black surgeon to serve in the field with his South Carolina regiment.

Determined to Serve
Little is written in the history books about these African American physicians and their service to the United States of America.

"The powers that be decided that the acceptable physicians were white men, so a lot of the information on African Americans, as well as the early women physicians, people chose not to record it," Slawson said.

Slawson said, however, that one thing is clear about these men.

"Anybody who wanted to go into medicine had to be determined that that's what they wanted to do," he said.

When the war ended, Augusta went on to serve on the staff at Howard University.

De Grasse returned to his practice in Boston. He received a gold-hilted sword from Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew in appreciation of his service. He died November 25, 1868.

Modern World Forerunners
Slawson often lectures on Black History. He said he is doing what he can to tell the stories of black doctors in the Civil War, each of whom he said deserves a place in history as forerunners of the modern world.

"I thought they were heroes," he said. "These were people who knew what they wanted, went after it and wanted to serve in the best way they could."

"And they were trained physicians and that was the best service they could give," he said. "I don't see a difference."

Image: Dr. Alexander Augusta


Death and Mourning in the Civil War Era

by Amy Gagnon

Romance, sentiment, and strict moral conscience characterized much of expressive life in New England during the 19th century. Attitudes toward death and mourning practices were particularly important elements in this Victorian age. A central belief was the concept of a “good death,” that is, to die in the home, among family, and with a clear Christian conscience. For the dying, it was a time to give advice to family members, be absolved of sins, say goodbye, and peacefully transition to the hereafter. This time was equally important for the living; it allowed them to wake and mourn the deceased in the home with other family members.

The advent of the Civil War in the mid-1800s transformed the ways people in the North handled the death and mourning of loved ones. Because so many Union soldiers died during the war—and died far from home— the problems associated with properly laying the dead to rest and making sense of the unprecedented scale of human loss had a profound impact on Connecticut’s way of life.

Although Connecticut was one of the smallest states in the Union, its size did not stop large numbers of men from enlisting in the Union army. The state mobilized 30 infantries (including 2 African American regiments), 5 artilleries (both light and heavy), and 2 cavalries. In all, approximately 55,000 Connecticut men went off to war. Troops from the state fought in almost every major and minor battle of the Civil War, and casualties numbered in the thousands. Many more died in Confederate prisons or were executed by the Confederacy.

For those back in Connecticut, frequent funerals became a harsh reminder of the war’s toll. To add to the distress, death on the battlefield or far from home denied the deceased and their families the ideal of the good death. Oftentimes, families were not able to locate or identify the dead, and even when the deceased could be located, efforts to ship them home often failed. Still, many of the fallen were brought home. Trains transporting the dead were met at various stations throughout the state by crowds of hundreds, making once-private family grief a very public affair. For the Connecticut families that could afford to travel to recover their dead, the trip was often stressful. One Connecticut father remarked to a local newspaper that transporting his son’s remains from Washington, DC, to Winsted cost $125.00—almost $2,000 in today’s money—and the trip was not possible without “the personal attendance of some friend, and every step is attended by some incidental expense.”

Until 1864, General Ulysses Grant was lenient about permitting civilians to enter battlefields to retrieve their dead to bring them home for burial. As long as this practice did not hinder troop movement, families were allowed to search for their lost loved ones. Connecticut newspapers often reported—along with locations—“Rolls of Missing Men,” long lists of the dead for family members. After the Battle of Antietam family members and undertakers from all over Connecticut met on the battlefield, where they conducted over 200 funerals for the Connecticut troops killed there. Likewise, Connecticut families traveled to the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness to retrieve their dead. It can be difficult for noncombatants today to grasp the impact such direct encounters with the war’s carnage had upon the citizenry.

Finding those who had been buried far from home, also proved difficult. Connecticut soldier Dorrance Atwater, taking his cue from then Civil War nurse Clara Barton, succeeded in obtaining copies of Union soldier interments while employed as a hospital worker. He was able to identify the graves of many Union soldiers who fell in the South so that their families could recover them. (He was later arrested and imprisoned for stealing the records). The rolls were not always accurate, however, and Connecticut newspapers sometimes had to print retractions. For example, in 1863 the Hartford Courant reported the death of Capt. Samuel Fiske of Madison only to retract the report after a witness saw him marching to Richmond as a prisoner.

The War Transforms Funeral Practices
The funeral in the Victorian age was a family event held in the home, with long periods of mourning, but the nature of war-related deaths disrupted such practices. It was at this time that various embalming methods emerged in hopes of returning the dead to their loved ones. But the new methods proved unreliable and rarely effective. When the dead did return to their families, they were often severely decomposed, or worse, not the family member at all. It was also during this time that casket companies began to construct various types of coffins to aid in transport and identification. For example, they made caskets with viewing windows so that the family could more easily identify their dead.

Honoring the Dead through Burial and Monuments
The Civil War era was also the time that local cemeteries began to transform. By the early 19th century, colonial burying grounds and churchyards located in towns and cities were overcrowded and largely ignored. To counter this, and in keeping with romantic sentiments of the Victorian age, the rural cemetery, set away from the town, emerged. Planners designed these cemeteries as park-like settings that encouraged visitors to wander paths, contemplate the solemnity of death, and feel God’s presence in nature. Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery follows this thinking. Even though the first interment at Cedar Hill Cemetery occurred a few years after the Civil War ended, many who had died or served in the war were moved from other burial sites to this new resting place. Those whose remains were re-interred there include industrialist and Civil War arms manufacturer Samuel Colt, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and General Griffin A. Stedman, Jr. of the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

During and immediately following the war, Connecticut towns began to erect monuments to the soldiers who both fought in and were lost in the war. Berlin’s Soldiers’ Monument, erected in 1863, claims to be the first Civil War monument, not only in Connecticut, but in the nation. Today, there are well over 100 Civil War monuments in the state, with memorials still being erected. As recently as 1992, the town of Farmington dedicated a monument honoring the 362 townsmen who served in battle. Most monuments throughout Connecticut are located on town greens or in local cemeteries. They serve not only as a reminder of the Civil War but of the irrevocable changes that the conflict and its death toll left on Connecticut.

Amy Gagnon works as a content developer for at Connecticut Humanities and received her MA in Public History at Central Connecticut State University.


Midwives and the Civil War – Specktown’s Becky Rickert

By Norman Gasbarro, 3-10-11

For a 19th century farmer, having many children was considered a blessing, and boys especially were expected to start working the farm along with their father as soon as they were able.  So, Martin and Betsy set out to have a large family.  Unfortunately for them, their two sons Samuel Rickert (1850-1858) and Henry Rickert (1835-1837) died young – leaving only seven daughters who survived into adulthood.

At the time of the Civil War, five of those daughters had married and several of the husbands were serving in the war.  During the war, four of the daughters gave birth to a total of eight children.  The special responsibility that Betsy had to her daughters was to make sure that they learned the ways and methods of childbirth and that they assumed the responsibility of assisting each other when needed.

The youngest daughter of Martin and Betsy, Hannah Rickert, was born in 1847.  Undoubtedly, her oldest sister Elizabeth Rickert, who was about 18 at the time, was present when her mother gave birth for the last time – as was probably also Susannah Rickert who was 14, and Rebecca “Becky” Rickert, who was only 10.

Rebecca “Becky” Rickert (1837-1918), as previously mentioned, was probably present at the birth of her youngest sister Hannah and was able to assist in some ways at that birth.  During Becky’s early years of life, she suffered from scarlet fever, which left her with some mental incapacity, but not enough that she couldn't continue to assist in the births of her sister’s children and perform tasks in the home that all women were expected to perform.

During the Civil War, she undoubtedly performed the role of midwife or midwife’s assistant at the births of her eight nieces and nephews who were born during the war.

When the mother Betsy Rickert died in 1877, Becky moved in with her sister Hannah and assisted Hannah in the births of her later children.  She became especially attached to Hannah’s oldest daughter Elizabeth “Lizzie” Riegle (1872-1942) to whom she passed on her skills.  It was Lizzie who made midwifery her profession and family oral history confirms that she actually used the title and got paid for her services.

As the 19th century closed, Becky was no longer capable of taking charge in childbirth situations nor was she able to do much more than perform simple household task.  Friends and family members visited her and brought her picture post cards, which she collected, and conversed with her in “Dutch.”  She sat on her rocker, smoked a corn cob pipe, and played with her grand nieces and nephews and other children who came by.  Hannah expressed concern that she would die before Becky and that there would be no one to take care of her.  But that was not true, for if that had happened, Lizzie surely would have kept her and nursed her in her last days.  Becky died about a year before Hannah.

Thus it was that the skills of midwifery were passed down through the generations in Specktown, Lykens Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.  Betsy Rickert and her daughters, especially Becky Rickert, performed this invaluable service during the Civil War.  Lizzie Riegle, who learned the skills from her “Aunt Becky,” made her living by charging families $25 for one months service – two weeks before birth, birth, and two weeks after birth.

Although there were country doctors in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Lykens valley area, and some women chose to rely on their services, the record will show that there was sufficient demand for women who specialized in assisting with childbirth.  The only training they had received was as “apprentices” to elder sisters or to their mothers who also performed the same services.

Today, midwifery is a specialty branch of medicine and is available for those who choose to not have a medical doctor assist in the birthing process.  According to information found on Wikipedia, use of the term “midwife”, common in ancient times, took a long time to return to common usage and that could explain why the Civil War era women did not use it.  In the 18th century and into the 19th century in America, midwifery was associated with witchcraft, particularly because women who practiced it were seen more as “population controllers” because they disseminated birth control information and also performed abortions.  This was the era when it was important to have as many children as possible and anyone who tinkered with that idea was seen as devilish or as a witch.

Excerpted from:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Contraception: Civil War Style


Unique research conducted by Clelia Duel Mosher in the late-nineteenth century has remarkably survived to modern times. Dr. Mosher, a researcher at Stanford University, surveyed forty-seven married women about health issues, and among the topics examined were sexual practices and birth control. By no means is the study an exhaustive, scientific one. All of the women were from the North and well-educated, clearly biasing the sample selection, but the study lends an extraordinary rare glimpse inside Victorian life.

For the purpose of keeping the study directly related to the Civil War, I have narrowed the field of forty-seven women to the seventeen who were born before the war. Of these, five women would have been mature and one a teenager by the outbreak in 1861. All but one woman admitted to resorting to the use of some sort of birth control with the most popular methods being condoms, withdrawal, the rhythm method, and douching. Five women, married from nine months to fifteen years, had no children with only one admitting to taking no precautions. The remaining women had from one to eight children. Four of these stated they had children by choice, five by accident, two a combination, and one woman with eight children left it all to chance.

During the Civil War, women were forced into many nontraditional roles. Yet little notice, except for technological advances, has been given to reproductive control during the era. Contraceptive knowledge became public before the war, and with a growing awareness of science and choice, demand came about for better methods that paved the way to modern birth control.

History of Coffins & Caskets


The word coffin comes from the Old French cofin and from the Latin cophinus, which translates into basket. The word was first used in the English language in 1380.  A coffin is defined as a box or chest for the display/burying of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

Coffins have been used since ancient Egypt when a body was mummified and placed in a sarcophagus before being buried in pyramids.  In Europe, around 700, the Celts began fashioning burial boxes with flat stones.  But the majority of people throughout time have been buried wrapped in a shroud, or in a wooden box.

A casket is defined as a fancy coffin by Merriam-Webster. The word casket is used mainly in North America; a casket has four sides, a top and bottom, (rectangular shaped.) A coffin has six sides, with a top and bottom, (hexagonal shaped.)

As Nathaniel Hawthorne put it in 1863, “Caskets! A vile modern phrase, which compels a person ... to shrink ... from the idea of being buried at all.”

During the Civil War, so many coffins were needed to transport the dead that the mass production of coffins began and the casket industry developed by the late 19th century.

Coffins/caskets have been made from wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, even gold. Ornamental trim could be carved from whalebone, elephant ivory or precious metals.

Reusable Coffin
In 1784, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared that reusable coffins were to be used in order to save wood. The coffins were equipped with a trap door on the bottom that would drop the body into the hole and allow the coffin to be pulled back up and used for another funeral. Due to public outcry, the law was cancelled within the first six months.

1850 Cast Iron Coffin
Cast-iron coffins were made from the 1850’s through the 1870’s.  Almond Fisk patented the first cast-iron casket in 1848.  It was shaped like a sarcophagus, weighed over 300 pounds, and cost up to $100. Wooden coffins sold for $1 to $3.00, (around $40 to $60 today.) Unfortunately, Fisk’s manufacturing building burned to the ground in 1849.  Fisk died in 1850, penniless, having mortgaged his patented rights to John G. Forbes in order to get loans to continue building his metallic burial boxes. Forbes and his family restructured the company, changed the name, and continued making the metallic burial cases until 1888 when the company folded.

Grant's Iron Casket
But metal coffins had caught on with wealthy families. The affluent purchased them to deter grave robbers. In 1885 General Ulysses S. Grant was buried in an iron casket that was created in New York.

Casket with Escape System:Rope Attached to Bell
The fear of being buried alive was rampant in the late 1700 and 1800’s.  This was due in part to the cholera epidemic and rumors of live burials that had occurred.  Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” didn’t help matters.  In response to these fears a safety coffin was developed.  The coffin would include a mechanism that allowed the occupant to signal that s/he had been buried alive.  Usually it was a cord attached to a bell.

Steel Casket
At the turn of the 20th Century, wooden caskets were still the most popular.  But by the 1960’s, steel casket production had grown to 50% of the market.  By the 1970’s, nearly two-thirds of all caskets were metal.

Today, it is mainly stainless steel caskets that are used. Caskets are available in 16 – 18 – 19 (a combination of 18 & 20 gauge) – 20 and 22-gauge steel.  Metal coffins can also be made in bronze and copper.  The less expensive metal caskets are made of the higher gauge of stainless steel.

Cloth Covered Casket
Cloth covered caskets are made from pressed wood, softwoods or corrugated fiberboard.  Caskets that are cloth covered and less expensive than hardwood or steel caskets.

Maple Casket
With the interest in cremation growing, and the beliefs of many religious groups, wooden coffins continue to have a place in our burial traditions.  Hardwood caskets are made of solid wood.  Selected woods include mahogany, walnut, cherry, maple, birch, oak, pine, poplar and willow.  Other wood can also be used such as ash, elm, cedar, and redwood.  A veneer-finished casket is less expensive than one of solid wood.

Sealing Gaskets
But remember that regardless of any claim, even if the casket has a gasket that seals, it will not protect the body from decay, or protect the public from disease.  In fact, an airtight coffin can cause the body to liquefy.  A coffin that permits air to pass through, such as a wooden box, allows for skeletal remains.

Regardless of the type of coffin/casket or lack of burial container, a burial, cremation or committal ceremony is a way for the living to honor the deceased.  It is a chance to say a final goodbye and pay tribute to a life well lived. And that is what truly matters.

Image: Grant's iron casket

Civil War Doctor: Modern-day Physician Explores Battlefield Practices Of Predecessors

February 21, 1990
By Janette H. Rodrigues

GLOUCESTER — Monday through Friday, Col. Adrian Wheat, M.D., is a physician with the Army Medical Corps. On weekends, he steps back into the past and dons the uniform of a Civil War surgeon.

Wheat, who is chief of surgery at McDonald Army Hospital at Fort Eustis, is a Civil War re-enactor. Approximately six times a year he and others can be found on a mock battlefield, wearing the Confederate gray or sometimes Union blue, bringing the War Between the States to vivid life.

A collector of Civil War medical artifacts, Wheat says he became interested in this historical period when he was a small boy.

He missed out on participating in activities during the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s, so when he got the chance to become a re-enactor he took it.

"I joined a unit when I was in medical school at the University of Tennessee."

He likes to portray the role of an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Army because it allows him to participate fully in re-creating the historical period. "It gives me a reason for being in the action."

While a Confederate Army regiment - a military unit of about 100 men - was assigned two medical officers, a chief surgeon and his assistant, it was the latter who tended the wounded on the battlefield.

"When troops got ready for a battle it was the assistant surgeon's task to accompany the soldiers to the front."

In his research of Civil War doctors, Wheat has learned that an assistant surgeon carried with him only simple medical instruments, wooden splints and anesthetic drugs.

Although there were no major scientific advances made y surgeons during the war, improvements were made on standard medical procedures, says Wheat.

"They learned by trial and error."

A surgeon's job during the Civil War was focused more on saving soldiers from disease than wounds.

For every man that died from battle wounds, two men died from illnesses brought on by infection.

"It was an improvement over the Revolutionary War," he says.

According to Wheat, the cause of death ratio was 12 to 1 with disease killing more soldiers than anything else.

Some of the medicines used during that period in time, from 1861 to 1865, were more harm than help. "Sometimes it was a blessing in disguise when they ran out" of medical supplies, says Wheat.

Helpful drugs like laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol, were useful. But other concoctions, like drastics, were not.

Drastics, were used to purge a patient's system. These medicines contained ingredients like lead, mercury and arsenic, that are now known to be poisonous.

The most common diseases soldiers suffered from were dysentery and malaria.

Medical personnel never became great military leaders. The highest rank they could reach was that of major.

Wheat says he prefers portraying a captain.

"It's more flexible," he says. The higher ranking officer's job was more administrative; the chief surgeon's responsibilities included managing a support staff of about 20 people including such medical personnel as medics, nurses, orderlies and litter bearers.

Wheat attends annual events above and below the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland that separated the North from the South.

Every Memorial Day he and fellow re-enactors set up a military hospital in Yorktown, which as well as being a Revolutionary War site is also an area of Civil War activity.

Some day when he retires, Wheat says he hopes to finish writing a book he has been researching on Confederate surgeons.

"I've been working on this book for years," he says, "I'm in no big hurry to finish it."

Wheat says finishing the book has turned into a long-term project because he enjoys doing the research so much.

The doctor lives in Gloucester Point with his wife, Marla, a clinical social worker, and their daughters, Courtney, who attends the University of Virginia, and Brittney, a Gloucester High School student.


The Magic of Morphine


Morphine is a drug that is used as an anaesthetic. It is derived from opium and it affects the central nervous system relieving pain.

The discovery of morphine:
The origins of morphine can be traced back to 1522 when the scientist and alchemist Paracelsus is said to have used laudanum, as a pain killer. He advised that this should be used sparingly. The popularity of laudanum increased with the East India Company’s interest in opium trade in 1757. In 1804 the German scientist Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as an alkaloid extracted from the poppy plant. 13 years later morphine was marketed as a drug to cure alcohol and opium addiction. It was only later that they realised that morphine could be equally addictive. The drug was extensively used during the American Civil War.

The discovery of the hypodermic needle:
An important factor in the adoption of morphine as a pain killer was the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853. French surgeon Charles Pravaz and Scottish physician Alexander Wood independently invented the hypodermic needle. Wood had a patient who was suffering from neuralgia which was a sharp pain in the nerves. Using the device he was able to administer morphine to ease the pain.

How is morphine made?
Morphine is made from opium poppy. Latex is gathered from unripe poppy pods. Another method of manufacturing morphine uses poppy straw which you get from the dried stem and pods of the plant. The crushed poppy plant is treated with sulphuric acid. The resulting mixture goes through numerous extraction processes. Finally alkaloids are precipitated ammonium hydroxide or sodium carbonate. This is further purifying morphine from other opium alkaloids. In 2003 it was discovered that a very small quantities of morphine are found to be produced in the body by natural processes.

The uses of morphine:
Morphine can be used to treat a number of ailments. A few of these include patients suffering from heart attacks, pain associated with surgery, trauma and chronic pain like cancer. It is used as general anesthesia, a substance that puts you to sleep if you need to have a surgery, so that you don’t remember it.

Morphine is used as general anesthesia, a substance that puts you to sleep if you need to have a surgery, so that you don’t remember it.

The side effects of morphine:
Like everything else, too much of morphine is not good for you. It can cause constipation. If taken in excess it can even lead to cardiac arrest. Morphine can cause blood pressure to fall. It may make you feel faint, make things look blurred, give you shortness of breath or slow breathing. So even though morphine relieves stress remember too much of it is not good.

Surgeons' Uniforms


Dr. Murray is wearing a double-breasted frock coat, which is partly buttoned showing the closure. The buttons have a rim indicating that they are general staff type buttons, which are regulation for a surgeon. His shoulder straps are those of a staff major, the typical grade of a surgeon. Their fields should be the dark blue of a staff officer, although a rare surgeon may have worn green. His hat is turned so we do not see its insignia (if it even has one), but it should be a staff wreath with the letter U.S. in silver. His trousers should be dark blue with a thin gold cord. When he worn a sash it was a unique green color that was only worn by medical officers.

This photograph is identified as that of Robert Murray, who was one of 114 Regular U.S. Army surgeons on duty on the eve of the Civil War. With the onset of war Regular Army surgeons were called east and found themselves in charge of a chaotic, sometimes disorganized system swamped by ill and wounded soldiers. In the end the Medical Corps responded to the challenge and devised an efficient system of medical care. Dr. Murray served as Medical Director of the Army of Ohio, under Buell and Rosecrans.

Image: Robert Murray, Regular Army Surgeon


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