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, October 28, 2014

Simon Pollak and Ophthalmology in St. Louis During the Civil War

By Stephen Logson
March 8, 2012

On Thursday, April 12th at 4:30 pm ]2012], the Bernard Becker Medical Library in collaboration with the Center for the History of Medicine presented the 24th Historia Medica Lecture.

The presentation, "Simon Pollak and Ophthalmology in St. Louis During the Civil War," will be given by Dr. Robert Feibel, Professor of Clinical Opthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Simon Pollak (1814-1903) was a prominent physician in St. Louis who was the first in the city to specialize in ophthalmology. He played a key role in advancing education for the blind and visually impaired as one of the founders of the Missouri School for the Blind and was the first to introduce the Braille system of reading for the blind in the United States. He served energetically on the side of the Union in the Civil War, and established and conducted the first ophthalmology clinic in the city hospital of St. Louis. He championed the role of women physicians in organized medicine, and was able with considerable difficulty to obtain membership for one, Dr. Mary McLean, to the St. Louis Medical Society. Dr. McLean was the Society’s first female member.

The presentation took place in the King Center on the seventh floor of the Becker Library at the Washington University School of Medicine at 660 S. Euclid Ave., St. Louis.


Abortion in the Civil War

By Charles A. Mills

Abortion, rather than contraception, was the primary form of birth control during the antebellum and Civil War era. In the Civil War era it is estimated that there was one abortion for every five live births. William Buchan's Domestic Medicine contained prescriptions for bringing on delayed menstrual periods, which would also produce an abortion if the woman happened to be pregnant. The book prescribed heavy doses of purgatives that created violent cramps, powerful douches, violent exercise, raising great weights and falling down.

By the early 1860's most states had laws restricting abortion, but these laws were directed at unqualified abortionists and were intended to protect women. Procuring an abortion was not a crime in South Carolina and was illegal in Massachusetts only after the fetus had "stirred". Most Americans of this period did not regard abortion as a crime until the fetus had "quickened" (begun to move perceptibly in the womb). According to the prevailing view of the time, the fetus had no soul before quickening and had not demonstrated its independent existence through movement. Until quickening, the fetus was regarded as an extraneous part of the pregnant woman that could be removed without ethical constraint.


A Pocket Surgical Kit

By Lori Eggleston

We [National Museum of Civil War Medicine] received an exciting donation recently of a collection of pocket surgical kits.  These small leather kits were carried by surgeons during the Civil War and contained the instruments they were most likely to need out in the field.  These instruments are smaller than the ones found in the surgical or amputation kits.  Many of these instruments were also designed to be folded into their handle when not in use, to make for a more compact kit.  There are several sizes of pocket kits, depending on the types and number of instruments they contained.  Let’s take a closer look at one kit and its contents.

The George Tiemann company, located in New York City, was a major supplier of surgical kits and instruments to the Union army during the Civil War.  His company is still in business today.  According to their website, they have been suppliers of “fine surgical instruments” since 1826.

Images: 1) This pocket kit was made by George Tiemann & Co. The exterior of the case is leather and the interior is lined with purple velvet and cloth. The flaps you see on the sides fold in to protect the instruments when the case is closed. You can see that the top flap of the kit is now detached, but the instruments are in very good condition.
2) This odd-looking little instrument is a comb and lancet, used for blood-letting and vaccinations. During the Civil War, doctors would vaccinate soldiers against smallpox using scabs from a person who had been infected with the disease. The lancet or the comb would have been used to make little incisions in the arm in order to insert small bits of the scabs.


Portrait of a Civil War Surgeon

By Lori Eggleston

Part of my job here at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine involves helping to tell the stories of the men and women who were involved with medical care in the Civil War.  Sometimes that is accomplished using their personal belongings or their medical instruments and supplies.  These things can certainly give insight into aspects of their lives or the medical techniques and technology of the time, but it’s not quite the same as being able to see the face associated with the objects.  I think it is far more compelling to be able to show that these were real people in the stories that we tell.  So, today I thought I would share the story and the image of one Civil War Surgeon.

At the start of the Civil War, Orange B. Ormsby was a young physician in Greenville, Illinois.  On June 25, 1861, at the age of 25, he enlisted as a Private in the 22nd IL Infantry, Company E.  His enlistment papers describe him as being 5’ 10” tall, with blue eyes, light hair, and a fair complexion.  In August of that same year he transferred to the 18th IL Infantry, Company S and was commissioned as an Assistant Surgeon.  His claim to fame was that during the Siege of Corinth, he was working behind Confederate lines and assisted in saving the life of General Richard Oglesby, who was wounded in the chest and back.  After the war General Oglesby went on to serve three terms as the Governor of Illinois, and also served as a U.S. Senator.  The town of Oglesby, IL, is named for him.

By 1863, Orange B. Ormsby had enlisted as a Surgeon in the 45th IL Infantry, Company S, also known as the “Washburn Lead Mine Regiment.”  The 45th IL was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee, and during his time with them Ormsby would have been in battles in Mississippi, including the Vicksburg Campaign.  In fact, there are monuments to the 45th IL Infantry in Vicksburg.

On October 29, 1864, Ormsby was discharged for disability (lumbago and rheumatism) and went home to his wife and family in Illinois.  He received an Army pension starting when he was age 55 and died on June 13, 1899 at the age of 63.  Another interesting note is that his youngest son, Oscar Burton Ormsby, followed in his father’s footsteps by attending medical school and serving in the medical corps in World War I.

Surgeon Ormsby’s CDV was donated to the NMCWM by one of his descendants.  He shared the story with me of searching for Ormsby’s grave:  I visited Murphysboro, Illinois in 2004 and found his grave.  An invisible string led me to it as I had no prior indication where it was but was led (by accident?) directly to it.  I went to the cemetery which was quite large and stopped at a random site, got out of the car to survey the area and found I was inadvertently located next to his plot.  The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention!  Perhaps Orange’s spirit was helping me.  I don’t know but it makes a good story.

Though the CDV image is somewhat faded, we still wanted to display it.  In this case, the best option was to digitize it.  The digitized image and a brief biography of Orange B. Ormsby are currently a part of the NMCWM’s video display, “Faces of Civil War Medicine.”  This way Surgeon Ormsby’s image and his story can be shared with the public, while the original CDV image can be better preserved for the future.  I hope Orange’s story can be preserved this way as well!

Image: Here is a carte de visite, or CDV, of Surgeon Orange B. Ormsby in uniform, which was probably taken in 1863 or 1864. A CDV is a type of small photograph, usually an albumen print mounted onto a thicker paper, which was patented by French photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854. They were inexpensive and easy to mass produce, so they were quite popular during the Civil War. Soldiers had them made to send home to their families or sweethearts, and those back on the home front had them made to send to the soldiers.


Beverly National Cemetery, Beverly, New Jersey


During the Civil War, numerous Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns that lined the Delaware River provided support services for the Union. Several military hospitals cared for wounded troops. Soldiers not well enough to return to active duty, but not needing intensive medical care, stayed at Beverly's convalescent hospital. In 1864, the U.S. government purchased a small one-acre plot to bury those who died at the hospital.  From 1936 through 1951, the cemetery expanded and now totals 64 acres.  Interments number more than 40,000, and include veterans from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War.

In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, wounded soldiers crowded Philadelphia’s military hospitals.  To make room for more critically injured patients, a convalescent hospital was established in Beverly, New Jersey, 20 miles north of Philadelphia on the east bank of the Delaware River.  The War Department converted a rope factory in to a facility to care for soldiers well enough not to need full hospital care yet not fit to return to active duty.

The river steamer John A. Warner transported soldiers from Philadelphia to Beverly’s hospital. The steamer sounded its whistle in advance of its arrival at the town’s wharf, signaling the town residents who brought wagons to transport the patients to the hospital. As the procession began, church bells pealed and Beverly residents lined the streets offering coffee and food to the soldiers.

Doctors at the convalescent hospital performed surgeries as necessary, including amputations.  Local tradition holds that amputated limbs were buried in a vacant one-acre lot owned by Christian Weyman.  Weyman conveyed the property to the U.S.  government in August 1864, under conditions that the acre be properly enclosed and serve as a burial ground for U.S. servicemen. Officially established as a national cemetery, the first burial took place on August 29, 1864.

By the close of the war, 147 Union soldiers, all but 10 identified, were buried at the Beverly National Cemetery. A rubble stone wall originally enclosed the small cemetery.  Starting in the 1930s, expansions to the cemetery necessitated the removal of the 1877 stone wall. Today, wrought-iron fencing stands along Bridgeboro Road, while the remainder of the property is enclosed by modern fencing.  In 1949, a new wider main entrance gate on Bridgeboro Road allowed for the passage of motorized vehicles.  Service gates are located along Green Street on the cemetery’s south side.

To the right of the cemetery’s entrance gate in the northern-most section of the cemetery is the superintendent’s lodge.  The lodge is a one-and-one-half story brick building designed in the Second Empire style, notable for its mansard roof and dormer windows.  The lodge’s design is of the standard plan created by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs.  It is one of the 17 remaining Meigs lodges found at the Civil War-era national cemeteries.  Originally constructed in 1879, a kitchen has an addition that dates from 1907.

The cemetery’s rostrum stands east of the lodge.  Constructed in 1937, the rostrum resembles an open-air Greek temple. The structure, primarily constructed of limestone, consists of a raised rectangular platform with three Tuscan columns rising from each corner. The columns support a simple entablature with pediments at either end.  A seamed copper roof covers the rostrum.  Limestone benches, arranged in a shallow arc, form a small amphitheater around the rostrum.

Other structures located on the cemetery’s grounds include a 1957 brick administration building, a brick and concrete garage built in 1941, and a  service building with restrooms constructed in 1936.

In 1875, the state of New Jersey erected a 70-foot-tall monument to Union soldiers. Deterioration of the monument became evident in 1950 and led to its deconstruction in 1951. The monument was stored on site until 1953 when the local American Legion Post requested the statue of the soldier that had crowned the monument.  The statue, along with part of the intricately carved base, now stands at the local American Legion Post at 700 Melbourne Street in Beverly, a few blocks north of the cemetery.

Beverly National Cemetery is the final resting place for Medal of Honor recipients, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

Seven unknown Revolutionary War soldiers lay in the cemetery’s Section F. Initially buried in Camden, their remains were transferred to Beverly National Cemetery in 1955.

A Civil War Preventative

By Lori Eggleston

I’ve posted previously about dealing with a moth infestation on my first day on the job at the museum [National Museum of Civil War Medicine].  My second day on the job was memorable as well. I’d gotten a quick look at the collection room the previous day, but I wanted to get a closer look at the artifacts stored there.  It was partly to ensure that the moths hadn’t infiltrated the collection room, but mostly because I was curious about the artifacts!  So I started opening drawers.  The contents of the very first drawer I opened caused me to do a double-take though. I had to check the label to be certain that it was what it appeared to be.  It really was a Civil War era condom! 

By the 1860s, animal skin and rubber condoms, sometimes called “preventatives” or “French letters”, were available for use.  Typically they were used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.  Syphilis and gonorrhea were common in both armies during the Civil War.  However, this condom was accompanied by a circular which also touted its use for married couples as a birth control device.

Sex was not a topic which was discussed openly at that time, so it is interesting to note the language and euphemisms used in the circular.  You can see how carefully he words his description, “…as to the nature of the article, they are called CUNDUMNS, or Preventatives; they are used for a private purpose by males when having intercourse with the opposite sex.  The object in using them is as follows:  Single young men use them to prevent themselves from becoming diseased when having intercourse with women of a public character…” 

He continues and points out the merits of using them as contraceptives, “…but where I sell one for the above purpose, I sell a hundred for domestic use, for the husband to use with his wife…  Indeed, all wives when they become acquainted with this article, they become strong advocates for the husband to use the preventative with them, and they certainly show their good sense in doing so, for the wife saves her own health, and can have just as many children as they can comfortably raise, and need not have any more than they think fit.”

Being a good salesman, he then lists the price, “$3.00 per single paper or dozen.  Also on hand Yarners or Ticklers, at $3.00 per dozen.”  That was a bit pricey for the time, which may explain why it is reported that sometimes condoms were washed and reused!  Surprisingly though, they did appear to be effective at preventing the transmission of diseases.

Displaying the condom presented some challenges.  The animal skin is delicate and very prone to damage from light, heat, and relative humidity (RH) at both ends of the spectrum.  A high RH can promote the growth of mold or mildew, while a low RH can dry out the skin and cause it to shrink or crack.  I had to ensure that the conditions in its display would be appropriate for it. 

There was also some apprehension about the public’s reaction to a condom on display.  I had several conversations with the museum’s director about the pros and cons of displaying it, and how to most appropriately display it.  In the meantime, it went out on short-term loans twice, which gave us a chance to gauge the reaction to it.  The displays in both venues, Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington, VA, and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, had positive reviews.

Ultimately, we felt that that the condom did help to tell the story of the Civil War soldiers, and was in line with the museum’s mission of preserving the legacy of Civil War medical innovation.  We did put it in one of the higher cases though, so that it is not in obvious view of our youngest museum visitors.

So I guess the lesson this week is to be careful which drawer you open!


Image: This condom is made of sheep or goat skin. The thin ribbon across the top was not used to tie it in place, but added stability and helped to prevent the condom from splitting.

Learn more about condoms during the Civil War  at

Prosthetic Leg

Credit: Medical Science, Division of Science, Medicine, and Society, National Museum of American History

This type of prosthetic was used to replace a severed foot.

During the Civil War about 7 out of 10 wounds were to extremities. These were the wounds that were treated as a shot to the chest or abdomen meant a sure death. Amputation was the most common type of surgery done. A patient was administered an anesthesia, a new tool in the surgical arsenal. Then the skin and muscle were cut exposing the bone which was severed with a bonesaw. The bonesaw earned the doctors a nickname; they were called “Sawbones.”


Field Case Surgical Set


Many of the surgical sets used during the American Civil War were made to the specifications of the Union Army. This Civil War surgical set was made by George Tiemann & Company of New York City. Tiemann, who emigrated to America from Germany in 1826, was considered one of the finest surgical instrument makers of the 19th century.

This set contains instruments needed for wounds inflicted on a battlefield— amputation knives, saws, a tourniquet, retractors, and bone and bullet forceps. The mortality rate from wounds inflicted on the battlefield was very high. Damage done by a minie ball to an arm or a leg could be extensive, creating gaping holes, shattering bones, and tearing muscles. Over 250,000 wounds from bullets and almost 30,000 amputations were recorded during four years of war. It was often more prudent to amputate the limb before infection set in.

Also included in the case are eleven admission and matriculation cards from the Medical College of Ohio. Issued to John B. Cline, the cards date from 1850 to 1853, and allow admission to classes such as "Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children," and "Materia Medica and Jurisprudence."

The surgical set includes forty-four instruments housed in a rosewood case with brass trim.

Walter Reed and Armory Square: Saying Goodbye to 2 Historic D.C. Military Hospitals

By Diane Wendt

As I read in the papers about the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I am reminded of the closing of another military hospital in Washington, D.C., nearly 150 years ago.

From the last issue of the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, August 21, 1865:

"Last Monday it was decided to close Armory Square Hospital, at once. This announcement was not wholly unexpected, vague rumors having been in circulation for a week or two past. We had hoped that our hospital would be the last to close . . .

"During the last three years, thousands of our brave soldiers have been inmates of Armory Square . . . One cannot conceive of a gun-shot wound that has not been treated here. Of nearly every disease in the catalogue we have had examples. Such an opportunity for the practice of surgery, or the study of pathology and the treatment of disease, will not probably occur again soon. God grant that the stern emergency of a bloody civil war, which rendered so many asylums for our wounded and sick soldiers a necessity, may never again arise to curse with its mildew blights our native land.

"We now bid adieu to Armory Square—but not without some regrets . . . Within its walls we have learned many a lesson of wisdom, of patience under suffering—of the keenest grief—of faith, forgiveness, of true manhood . . ."

Armory Square Hospital was built in the second year of the Civil War on land adjacent to the Smithsonian Institution, approximately where the National Air and Space Museum stands today. The hospital is the subject of a small display showcasing the diary of a woman who served as a nurse there. Armory Square was open for only three years (1862-1865), but in that time it administered to over 13,000 wounded and sick soldiers. In addition, the hospital employed individuals from privileged backgrounds as well as newly freed slaves, and served as a temporary home for a staff of several hundred people, including surgeons, clerks, attendants, nurses, cooks, laundresses, and guards.

Diane Wendt is Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.

Image: Wounded soldiers in Armory Square Hospital, Washington DC. Man with amputated arm at left


Lost and Found at the Battle of Shiloh: One Half of a Very Fancy Denture

By Judy M. Chelnick, June 9, 2014.

Here in the [Smithsonian] museum's Division of Medicine and Science, we're undertaking an inventory of the museum's dental collection, and we discovered one half of an interesting denture. The upper palate appears to be made of silver and it has eight porcelain or mineral tube teeth. Each tooth has a "central canal" which is secured to the palate with pins. Two teeth are missing.

The museum's dental collection has dozens of dentures made from these exact materials. What makes this denture interesting are the two inscriptions: In pencil or ink on the top of the palate it reads, "FOUND AT SHILOH BATTLEFIELD"; and etched into the bottom of the palate "FOUND AT BATTLE OF SHILOH".

When curators like myself find a cool object like this, with little identifying information to place it in context, we immediately have a lot of questions. What information can we glean from this artifact? Was it really lost at the Battle of Shiloh? Who lost the denture? What do we know for certain about the denture?

The denture was given to the museum in 1969 by dentist D.L. Crowson of Petal, Mississippi. In a letter to Curator Audrey Davis, Dr. Crowson wrote, "I have no history on this denture except I was told by the person who gave it to me that it had been picked up on the Shiloh battlefield site".

When the Civil War began in 1861, there were few university-trained dentists on either side of the conflict. However, just as now, people suffered from tooth decay diseases that made dentistry as essential on the battlefield as on the home front. The surgical sets supplied to Union surgeons included dental tools for the extraction of teeth. Many of the soldiers who participated in the Battle of Shiloh had probably lost a tooth at some point in their lives, but false teeth would have been relatively rare, especially a denture of this quality.

Porcelain teeth were developed in 18th century Europe and brought to the United States in the early 19th century. The so-called "tube teeth," artificial teeth with a vertical hole in the center cemented to a metal post attached to the base of the denture, were developed in London around 1840 by Claudius Ash. Gold, silver, tin, lead, and eventually gutta-percha, a plastic cultivated from the sap of trees found in Malaysia, were also common materials used to form the palate in the 19th century. That being said, it is possible that this denture was worn during the war, but how can we know for sure?

Technology has given us some new tools to test our objects without harming them in order to do some material forensics. Here at the National Museum of American History's Object Conservation Lab, Conservator Beth Richwine uses an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Spectrometer to determine the elemental composition of different materials. We took the denture to the lab to have Richwine analyze the metal content of the palate.

The XRF found the palate was composed of silver, copper, lead zinc, and bismuth. The analysis showed that the palate was probably an alloy known as German silver, predominantly coin-grade silver, but mixed with small amounts of lead, tin, zinc and bismuth. Richwine explained the trace materials would contribute to the malleability of the metal during processing. "This makes sense because they very well could have been added to the mix to help with the forming process of the palate," she reported. German silver was developed by a German industrial chemist named E. A. Geitner in the early 19th century and was often used in dental applications throughout the 1800s.

Therefore, it is very possible, given the materials and its construction, that the denture is from the time of the Civil War.

But questions remain: Who might have worn this, and how did they lose it? In this period, only the well-off could afford dentures, especially those with a high silver content. So we have to assume the owner was probably an officer, someone with the means to purchase dentures. When the average person lost a tooth, they went without; the unfortunate person walked around with a gaping hole.

Despite all of our evidence, we still do not know for sure if the denture was lost at the Battle of Shiloh and are still left with some unanswered questions. We would love to find a diary entry or letter from the time in which someone mentions dropping their denture on the battlefield to solve our mystery, but so far none has turned up. There is also the grisly possibility that this denture was removed from a corpse, but the high casualties (around 3,400 Americans died at Shiloh) make even this theory a difficult avenue for research.

What do you think? Have we missed an angle? Is there any information you can add to help us solve the mystery of the Shiloh denture?

Judy M. Chelnick is the curator of medical and dental instrumentation in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. 

Image: The mystery denture in our collection

Learn more about Civil War dentistry at

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Searching for Anna Lowell: The Mystery Behind a Civil War Nurse's Photo Album

By NMAH, July 13, 2011.

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a series featuring additional context about "So Much Need of Service": The Diary of a Civil War Nurse, a joint exhibition with the National Library of Medicine that documented the experiences of those who contributed to the Civil War effort, such as nurses Amanda Akin and Anna Lowell.

A couple of months ago, I went for a walk here in Washington, D.C. My destination was 1228 N Street NW, just two blocks south of Logan Circle. My mission was to stand before the building described in a Washington Post article as a "plain three-story brick house ... with a lawn of velvety grass [and] the words 'School of Cookery'" lettered on the western façade. But when I arrived at my destination and saw instead a hulking apartment building and no lawn, I realized that wishful thinking—or, rather, the relentless passage of time and perhaps even demolition cranes—had gotten the better of me.

In fact, the aforementioned Post article is dated May 3, 1896. The quaint house at 1228 N Street and the School of Cookery no longer exist. In 1906, the school’s founder Anna Woodbury (née Lowell) died in her home several blocks from the school at 1319 Massachusetts Avenue—another house that I later confirmed on the same walk is no more.

I've been drawn to Anna Lowell and inspired to take walks like this in search of her story after encountering an artifact from her life that, unlike the School of Cookery, still exists. At the National Library of Medicine, one can view a photographic album  presented to Lowell in 1864 by a group of attendants in D.C.'s Armory Square Hospital. In 1862, having recently been trained as a nurse, Lowell had traveled from Cambridge to D.C. and immediately gotten to work. Lowell—niece of the famous poet and critic James Russell Lowell—initially served as a nurse on a hospital ship, the Daniel Webster, and, for the remainder of the Civil War, volunteered in Ward K of the Armory Square Hospital.

I have had the good fortune of spending some time with Lowell's album. I enjoy showing the album's lovely inscription to groups touring the NLM’s historical collections. Photograph albums were common gifts among people during the period, and in Lowell's, one finds 142 cartes de visite (card photographs), including scenes from the Civil War, images of monuments, and portraits of individuals ranging from military figures like General George Custer to royalty like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. All of the photographs in Lowell's album are available for view in the NLM's Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) database.

In addition to her work as a nurse in Ward K, Lowell was in charge of the hospital's special diet kitchen. (Take a moment to read about Akin's run-ins with Lowell about special diets in Akin's published memoirs; see page 240, for example.) The museum's joint exhibition with the National Library of Medicine features issues of the hospital's newspaper, Armory Square Hospital Gazette, whose final issue, dated August 21, 1865, lists the hospital nurses, including Lowell. While Akin left the hospital before the end of the war, Lowell stayed until the institution closed in the summer of 1865.

Why did the Ward K attendants, in the midst of a war, gift Lowell with a photographic album? I wondered, was it her birthday? Was it a farewell gift?

With a little sleuthing, I came upon what I believe to be the answer. I discovered that both of Lowell's brothers, James Jackson Lowell and Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., died in service during the war, in 1862 and on October 20, 1864, respectively. Anna learned of Charles' death two days after, directly from General Custer, another brigade leader at the Battle of Cedar Creek where Charles had been mortally wounded. Anna met with Custer at Secretary of State Edwin Stanton's offices, where she had gone in search of news about her brother.

Armory Square Hospital could not spare Anna Lowell, even in her grief, and she could not attend her brother’s funeral in Cambridge with the rest of her family. Charles' death was announced in the October 29, 1864 issue of the Armory Square Hospital Gazette (Anna is not mentioned). I re-checked the date the album was presented to Anna Lowell, November 24, 1864, and it all clicked. The album—and the photograph of Custer, in particular—all at once took on a new light for me. I no longer view the album as a random gift; rather, I see it as a moving tribute and a kind gesture made in light of the personal loss borne by Lowell as she stayed in the overwhelmed Armory Square Hospital wards, with the rest of her family mourning in Cambridge.

Following the war, Lowell married a prominent D.C. physician, Henry E. Woodbury, but the marriage quickly soured. Dedicating herself to charity work, she founded in 1879 the first mission school of cooking, which included among its students African Americans—a fact that piqued my interest in Lowell. She later published a cooking manual that would be used in D.C. public schools. Lowell's obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times extol both her work as a nurse during the war and the school she worked tirelessly to maintain and develop.

I didn't need to venture out and walk very far, after all, to get a deep sense of Anna Lowell's story. That's the beauty of historical artifacts and the many powerful stories they can tell us when we let them to speak for themselves.

Dever Powell is Rare Book and Early Manuscript Librarian at the National Library of Medicine.

Image: Presentation page of Anna Lowell Photographic Album, 1864. Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

Learn more about Civil War hospitals and nurses at

The Diary of a Civil War Nurse: Hospital Routine and Turmoil


On most days Amanda Akin’s routine began at 6 a.m. with the sounding of reveille and ended at 9 p.m. when the night watch took over. Official duties included administering medicines and distributing the special diets prescribed for injured and ill soldiers. After dinner at noon, the nurses usually had several hours off to rest or go for walks. Much of their remaining time was filled with nonmedical tasks, writing letters for the men and attending to the many hospital visitors. Evenings were spent entertaining the patients, usually by singing and playing music.

Hospitals received an influx of patients following major battles, putting greater demands on all staff and confronting nurses with the severe wounds caused in conflict. On June 14, 1863, Akin wrote several entries in a letter to her sister, as soldiers from the fighting at Chancellorsville, Virginia, poured into Armory Square Hospital.

“It seemed to me this evening, as I sat at my table adding to the list of medicines—writing down name, regiment, list of clothing, etc., of the new arrivals, calmly looking at the poor maimed sufferers carried by, some without limbs, on a ‘stretcher’—that I had forgotten how to feel, … it seemed as if I were entirely separated from the world I had left behind.”

“Oh dear me, the cry is ‘Still they come’ and we are overflowing; they come now without order, and are received with but little ceremony.”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

Tokens of Remembrance
After a little over a year of service, Amanda Akin returned to her home in Quaker Hill. Before departing she purchased a cartes-de-visite photo album similar to the one shown here. These albums were intended for display within the home, and for sharing among friends and family.

Collecting carte-de-visite photographs (small studio portraits) became very popular in the 1860s. The relatively new medium of photography proved especially meaningful to people separated from their loved ones by the war. While at the hospital, Akin exchanged cartes-de-visite with coworkers as well as with those under her care. The images served as a remembrance of the many people who briefly shared in the community of the hospital during the years of conflict.

“July 20, 1864. The day has at last arrived to bid adieu to my ward and its absorbing duties, now realizing, reluctantly, how my life has been rounded within it….” 
—Amanda Akin

During the Civil War, hospitals sometimes published their own in-house newspapers, similar to the Armory Square Hospital Gazette. The Gazette was printed by two patients and edited by Mrs. Henrietta C. Ingersoll, a former nurse at the hospital.

The “soldier paper” consisted of contributions from staff and patients, as well as communications from distant friends. Amanda Akin submitted several pieces, including accounts of religious services and concerts, a verse on spring, and death notices for some of the patients patients under her care.

The Gazette was read in-house, also available by subscription, and sent to other publishers in exchange for their papers. During the war, newspapers of all kinds provided a way to keep up with the latest developments in the conflict and with news from home.

“The hospital is an episode in a soldiers life—sometimes a painful termination of it, which has many an event worthy of a chronicle. Such we propose this paper to be.”
—first issue of Armory Square Hospital Gazette, January 6, 1864

Image: Decorated Hospital Ward
Nurses worked to make their wards more cheerful and to provide special entertainments. At Armory Square, Akin noted: “Ward F was decorated with flags, evergreens, and hanging baskets of flowers” for the hospital’s first anniversary, similar to the ward shown here.

Portrait of a Nurse: A Wartime Role for Women


The large and prosperous Akin family had lived in the Quaker Hill community north of New York City for generations. The eighth of Judge Albro Akin’s ten children, Amanda was thirty-five when she left to join the Union cause in April 1863. She returned home after serving at Armory Square Hospital, and few details of the rest of her life are known.

Akin married Dr. Charles W. Stearns in 1879, was widowed in 1887, and apparently had no children. In 1909, at age eighty-one, she published an account of her nursing experience, The Lady Nurse of Ward E, under her married name of Amanda Akin Stearns. She died in February 1911 and is buried with her husband in Pawling, New York.

“My Dear Sisters: You are no doubt anxiously looking for a ‘sign of life’ from me, but I can tell you initiation into hospital life of such a novice is not lightly to be spoken of, and until my ideas ceased floundering and I could recognize my old self again, I could not trust myself with a pen”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

With no specialized medical training or preparation, Amanda Akin arrived at Armory Square Hospital on an April evening in 1863 to begin work. Nursing was not yet established as a profession, and most men and women who took on these roles were expected to learn as they went about their daily activities.

Female nurses were newcomers to military hospitals. Convalescent soldiers continued to fill most of the nursing positions, especially in field hospitals and in camp, where conditions were considered unsuitable for women. At Armory Square Hospital the female nurses shared their duties with male “attendants.”

During the war, the title of “nurse” was often reserved for white middle- and upper-class women. However, along with these “lady nurses,” as they were known, others from diverse backgrounds working as matrons, cooks, laundresses, or without title performed many of the same tasks.

“We pass up and down among these rough men without fear of the slightest word of disrespect. They feel their dependence upon us for comfort and entertainment, and the difference in the wards where there is no ‘lady’ shows how much can be done for them.”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

Image: Amanda Akin, April 1863
This photograph was taken at the time Akin set off to Washington, D.C., to become a nurse. She included it in her published book.

The Lady Nurse of Ward E


“I meekly followed [the nurse] through the long ward, unable to return the gaze of the occupants of the twenty-six beds, … and with a sinking heart watched her raise the head of a poor fellow in the last stages of typhoid, to give him a soothing draught. Could I ever do that? For once my courage failed.” 
     —Amanda Akin, describing her first evening in Armory Square Hospital, 1863

In April 1863, two years after the outbreak of the Civil War, Amanda Akin (1827– 1911) journeyed from her home in Quaker Hill, New York, to serve as a nurse at Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. She was one of several million men and women who left their families and communities behind to contribute to the war effort. Many departed to fight, while others took on civilian assignments to support the military campaigns.

During her fifteen months at the hospital, Akin wrote long letters to her sisters and recorded her daily experience in diaries. Years later, she drew on this correspondence and her journals to publish an account of her wartime role.

Like Akin, other hospital workers were often eager to share their experiences with distant friends and family, and to preserve memories of the people and events that defined their new situations. Letters, diaries, and published accounts helped fill this need. Today, these documents provide a glimpse into the lives of those who served and a touching record of the challenges of hospital life.

“I write anywheres, in ward or room, for the moment, with mind on many other things.” 
—Amanda Akin, 1863

Image 1: Amanda Akin’s Diary
This volume of Akin’s diary covers the period from May 6, 1864, when she returned to Washington, D.C., after a brief visit home, until the end of her nursing service in July 1864. Her entries are overwritten with edits for her published account. Akin’s letters and other journal volumes, if they survived, have not yet been found.

Image 2: The Lady Nurse of Ward E
In 1909, not long before her death, Akin published this description of her nursing experience; it includes material from her letters and journals. When writing for others, she expressed more of the emotional toll of the work than she noted in her private journals.

John Mosby's Crutches


Physical Description: Hand-carved wood.

Specific History
These crutches were used by John Mosby during the Civil War. Mosby stated, “These crutches were made for me during the war by a slave named Isaac who belonged to my father. They were first used in August 1863 when I went home wounded. My mother kept them for me and I again used them in September 1864 & December 1864.” General Robert E. Lee once said to Mosby, after seeing him on crutches at his headquarters, “The only fault I have to find with your conduct, Colonel Mosby, is that you are always getting wounded.”

General History
John Mosby was wounded on August 24, 1863. He was shot through the side and thigh as he attacked the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, which had halted to water the horses at Billy Gooding's Tavern on the Little River Turnpike in Virginia. He was carried into the woods and was attended by Doctor W. L. Dunn. Due to the painful nature of his wounds, Mosby was slow to travel so he was carried into the pines and concealed as the pursuing federal troops passed through searching for him. Once clear of the danger, Mosby returned to the South to recuperate.

A Place of Refuge and Medical Care: Thomasville, North Carolina


John W. Thomas, who represented the Thomasville area in the State Legislature in the mid-1800s, laid out the town of Thomasville in 1852 on the proposed route of the North Carolina Railroad. Three years later, this line was completed to the new town, and the first train passed through on January 20, 1856. By 1860 Thomasville was thriving with 308 residents, a female seminary and a shoe factory. During the war, two companies, including the renowned “ Thomasville Rifles”(Co. B, 14th NC Infantry), served in Confederate General Robert E. Lees’ Army of Northern Virginia.

In 1864, Gen. James Longstreet’s corps passed through Thomasville on the railroad in route from Georgia to rejoin Lee’s army in Virginia. Many of the soldiers who boarded trains (200 feet from the current Depot) later fell in the Seven Days’ Battles, at Sharpsburg (Antietam), Gettysburg, and in the wilderness. Thomasville grew during the Civil War at first because of the importance of its shoe factories (local factories produced shoes for the Confederate cause) and later because of the hospitals. The Union occupation of North Carolina’s coastal region in 1862 caused the 1st influx of civilian refugees and wounded soldiers. A smallpox hospital was located in Thomasville prior to the war; local churches were turned into makeshift hospitals during the war; and convalescent facilities for soldiers arose during and after the war.

A Place of Refuge and Medical Care: Thomasville provided a refuge for wounded and ill soldiers and civilians fleeing from war-torn eastern North Carolina. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson established hospitals in a tobacco warehouse and in the local Baptist and Methodist churches in March 1865, as his army of Tennessee retreated north. Confederate Surgeon Simon Baruch led the medical efforts. Local citizens ripped out church pews, gathered pine straw for makeshift beds, gathered food, drink and generally assisted in the care of wounded soldiers, both Northern and Southern.

Thomasville City Cemetery
One of a Kind While hospitals were established in a tobacco warehouse and in the local Baptist and Methodist churches in March 1865, all able bodied men, women and children in town ripped out church pews, gathered pine straw for makeshift beds, gathered food, drink and generally assisted in the care of wounded soldiers, both Northern and Southern. Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the hospitals were interred in Thomasville’s City Cemetery side by side. This is the only such grave site in the world. Three rows of 12 headstones have the names of the soldiers on them with the dates of 1861-1865 with the exception of the markers for unknown soldiers. The 36 soldiers are accounted for as such: Confederate soldiers- 28; Union soldiers- 4; and unknown soldiers- 4.

The City of Thomasville was founded in 1852 as a stop along the fledgling North Carolina railroad, and by 1855 burials were made in this cemetery. The City provided hundreds of soldiers to the Confederacy, and grew during the Civil War in part due to its important industries and later because of the location here of hospitals and convalescent facilities for soldiers. The Union invasion of North Carolina’s coastal region in 1862 caused the first influx of civilian refuges and wounded soldiers.

In March of 1865, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnson established hospitals in a tobacco warehouse and in Thomasville’s Baptist and Methodist churches as his army of Tennessee retreated north. Local citizens ripped out church pews, gathered pine straw for makeshift beds, gathered food, drink and generally assisted in the care of wounded soldiers, both Northern and Southern. (A CWT sign on Main St. where the churches were located, recounts this story.)

Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the hospitals were interred in Thomasville’s City Cemetery side by side. This is the only such grave site in the United States. Three rows of 12 headstones have the names of the soldiers on them with the exception of the markers for four unknown soldiers. (A CWT sign identifies the area within City Cemetery.)

History Of The Wheelchair


The first known image of a wheelchair was carved into a stone in the 6th century.
King Philip II, who was the King of Spain during the 16th century, used a very elaborate wheelchair that had both armrests and leg rests.

In the 18th century the first wheelchair similar in design to those available today was developed. It had large front wheels and a single wheel in back. By the 19th and 20th century wheelchairs were constructed of wood and wicker design. A US patent was issued for this design in 1894 and they were used by veterans of the Civil War and the First World War.

The Bath Wheelchair
In 1783, John Dawson of Bath, England, invented a wheelchair named after the town of Bath. Dawson designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one. The Bath wheelchair outsold all other wheelchairs throughout the early part of the 19th century.

Late 1800s
However, the Bath wheelchair was not that comfortable and during the last half of the 19th century many improvements were made to wheelchairs. An 1869 patent for a wheelchair showed the first model with rear push wheels and small front casters. Between, 1867 to 1875, inventors added new hollow rubber wheels similar to those used on bicycles on metal rims. In 1881, the pushrims for added self-propulsion were invented.

Image: Bath wheelchair

The Civil War's Black Soldiers: Medical Care

Civil War Series

No doubt, the costliest aspect of discrimination in the Union army was its medical care. Throughout the Civil War medical care was for the most part dreadful, but for black soldiers it was especially horrible and at times reprehensible. Men in the USCT served a disproportionate amount of duty in the most unhealthy environments, suffered from a shortage of qualified physicians and staff, endured the abuse of racist surgeons, and lost countless lives to separate and woefully unequal hospital facilities. All this resulted in a mortality rate from illness of two and one-half times per one thousand men greater than for white soldiers.

Illnesses took a much heavier proportionate toll on the USCT than they did on white volunteer units. Like most new white enlistees, many of the black troops had no previous exposure to the diseases that roared through military camps. Compounding that misery, authorities assigned black commands to the most unhealthy locations, mainly to perform occupation duties, because they assumed they were immune to all tropical diseases. As weeks and months passed in garrison, camp sanitary problems invariably magnified, and the ensuing illnesses inflicted fearful losses among black men in Union blue.

According to official medical records, the surgeons and assistant surgeons in the USCT cared for over 600,000 illnesses and 10,000 wounds among enlisted men. This figure not only understated the number of cases significantly, it excluded health issues among officers of black units from the count.

Serious personnel shortages in the medical area enhanced the burden. Since many white doctors refused to serve in a black regiment and there were so few qualified black physicians, regiments usually functioned with just one or two surgeons, even though the War Department authorized three. Trained nurses and hospital stewards could have eased the workload and maintained proper sanitation in regimental hospitals, but they, too, were in short supply. Volunteer physicians and nurses, who improved the lot for sick and wounded white troops so regularly, seldom offered their services to black regiments. Under these circumstances, it was not unusual for a solitary surgeon to care for an entire regiment, and on a few occasions a soldier had to treat other soldiers because there was no one else to do it.

Despite the small number of health workers, black soldiers almost always received their best care on the regimental level. There were, of course, tremendous demands on the physicians and limited facilities, but the physicians who received commissions in the USCT were for the most part competent. With the entire unit stationed nearby, soldiers had direct channels for their complaints, and regimental commanders could oversee the hospital organization and rectify problems as they developed.

Because of the limited staff on the regimental level, when soldiers became very ill or suffered serious wounds or injuries, medical officers were supposed to send the patients to more advanced facilities, usually division, post, or general hospitals. The problem was that most black commands performed occupation duties and seldom constituted even brigades until late in the war, so that there were few division hospitals for them. Usually the institutions for severe cases were post or general hospitals, which were outside the direct chain of command for the USCT and regularly had separate and grossly unequal facilities for blacks and whites. Physicians who worked at these hospitals were not part of the USCT, demonstrated little concern for the plight of black soldiers, and their neglect caused unnecessary pain, suffering, and even death for their black patients. Time after time, post or general hospitals for black troops were understaffed and extremely unsanitary, and mortality rates were dramatically higher than in adjacent or near by facilities for whites.

As a result of such woeful and discriminatory medical care, nine times as many black troops died of disease as on the battlefield. Over 29,000 lost their lives from illness, with pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria taking the heaviest tolls on the black ranks. Within specific commands, the number of deaths was sometimes staggering. A black heavy artillery regiment lost over eight hundred men to illness, and one infantry regiment, in service less than one year, suffered 524 deaths, 50 percent of its strength.

Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery

By Steven Mintz, Columbia University

Until recently, the subject of childhood under slavery was almost entirely unstudied. This was true despite the fact that childhood is central to an understanding of slavery. In classical antiquity, abandoned children were a major source of slaves. Although most sub-Saharan Africans forced into slavery were in their teens and 20s, a substantial and growing proportion were children. In the American South in the decades before the Civil War, half of all slaves were under the age of 16.

A focus on children not only underscores slavery's oppressions, it also reveals the ways that enslaved children and their parents dealt with slavery's hardships and horrors. It demonstrates that even children were active agents who were able to carve out a space where they could find a degree of autonomy.

The study of slave children has brought many important facts to light. Infant and child mortality rates were twice as high among slave children as among southern white children. A major contributor to the high infant and child death rate was chronic undernourishment. Slaveowners showed surprisingly little concern for slave mothers' health or diet during pregnancy, providing pregnant women with no extra rations and employing them in intensive field work even in the last week before they gave birth. Not surprisingly, slave mothers suffered high rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and deaths shortly after birth. Half of all slave infants weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth, or what we would today consider to be severely underweight.

Growth rates among slave children were extremely slow. Most infants were weaned early, within three or four months of birth, and then fed gruel or porridge made of cornmeal. Around the age of three, they began to eat vegetables soups, potatoes, molasses, grits, hominy, and cornbread. This diet lacked protein, thiamine, niacin, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D, and as a result, slave children often suffered from night blindness, abdominal swellings, swollen muscles, bowed legs, skin lesions, and convulsions. These apparently stemmed from beriberi, pellagra, tetany, rickets, and kwashiorkor, diseases that are caused by protein and nutritional deficiencies.

Deprived of an adequate diet, slave children were very small by modern standards. Their average height at age three was shorter than 99 percent of 20th-century American three year olds. At age 17, slave men were shorter than 96 percent of present day 17-year-old men and slave women were shorter than 80 percent of contemporary women.

About half of all U.S. slave children grew up apart from their father, either because he lived on another plantation, had been sold away, or was white. On large plantations, infants and very young children were supervised and cared for by adults other than their parents. Children as young as two or three might work at domestic chores, including childcare or collecting trash and kindling, toting water, scaring away birds, weeding, or plucking grubs off of plants. Generally, in the U.S. South, children entered field work between the ages of eight and 12.

Slave children received harsh punishments, not dissimilar from those meted out to adults. They might be whipped or even required to swallow worms they failed to pick off of cotton or tobacco plants. During adolescence, a majority of slave youth were sold or hired away.

The study of childhood under slavery has given rise to a series of controversies. One is the extent to which slave children succeeded in "stealing" a childhood. Despite slavery's hardships and brutalities, many slave children were able to experience something that we would consider a childhood. Children played with home-made toys, including improvised marbles and hobby horses. Even where education was forbidden or strongly discouraged, a surprising proportion—perhaps between five and ten percent—learned how to read and write. Through their activities, games, religion, and relations with kin and other members of the slave community, children were able to make life bearable.

Like children of the Holocaust, they played games that helped them cope with slavery's oppressions, including mock auctions or games that included whipping. Their songs, too, helped them deal with slavery's horrors. One song included the following lyrics that addressed the subject of family separation directly: "Mammy, is Ole' Massa gwin'er sell us tomorrow? / Yes, my chile. / Whar he gwin'er sell us? / Way down South in Georgia."

Another area of controversy involves the extent to which slave parents were able to shield their children from slavery's brutalities. We have discovered that there was a "tug-of-war" between slave children's parents and plantation masters and mistresses, who were eager to make slave children, especially young children, feel loyalty, and even gratitude, to their owners. To win over children's affection, owners sometime gave them gifts and favors. At times, owners asked children to report rules violations within the slave quarters.

Slave parents, in turn, sought to instill in their children a sense of loyalty to the slave community as a whole. They taught children to refer to other girls and boys as sister and brother, and to unrelated adults as aunt or uncle. Through folk tales, such as the famous "Br'er Rabbit" stories, parents taught their children how to outwit more powerful adversaries.

Less studied questions are how the lives of slave children differed in urban and rural areas or on larger and smaller plantations, and how childhood experience differed at various points in time.

Why I Taught the Source
In reconstructing children's experience under slavery, historians tap a wide range of sources. These include the published testimony of fugitive or emancipated slaves, contemporary letters, journals, plantation records, and oral histories, such as those collected by the U.S. Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recently, scholars have supplemented traditional sources with unconventional forms of evidence, including photographs, slave songs, and artifacts, such as toys.

Published narratives by fugitive or former slaves provide especially useful insights into the world history of slave children. Especially notable are those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who were enslaved in the U.S. during the early 19th century and whose writings underscore important aspects about childhood under slavery: (1) the extent of interracial interaction, including interracial play, on plantations in the U.S. South; (2) the moment when the full reality of life-long bondage dawned on slave children and the moment when they learned that adults in their lives, including parents, could not protect them from punishment; and (3) the harsh reality of sexual abuse faced by slave girls in their teenage years.

Especially useful in helping to place slavery in a world history perspective is one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, originally published in 1772. A former slave who purchased his freedom from a Quaker merchant in 1766, he traveled across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on British merchant ships, served in the British navy, and became a leading figure in the 18th-century British antislavery movement. His autobiography, which went through nine editions between 1789 and 1797 and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian, awakened thousands of readers to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.

His narrative challenges the view that Africa at the time of the slave trade was a benighted or backward region. His region, "a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka," was "uncommonly rich," and his fellow countrymen were "almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets." He offers a graphic account of his kidnapping into slavery at the age of 11, and describes being held captive along the West African coast for seven months before was subsequently sold to British slavers, who shipped him to Barbados and then took him to Virginia.

His narrative also offers a harrowing account of the shock and isolation he felt during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. His description of the inhuman conditions aboard the slave ship has a power that has not been matched. "The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died," he wrote. "The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate," he wrote, "added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. . . . The wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable. . . . The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

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