Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A History of Hospital Ships (Excerpt)

By Milt Riske reprinted from March 1973 issue of Sea Classics

Almost as long as there have been wars fought on or near waters there have been vessels assigned to care for and move casualties.

Ancient history tells how the Romans in their exploits used special boats to remove the sick and wounded. The United States, as did other countries with navies, also found a use for such ships.

During the piracy problems with Tripoli in 1803 and 1804, Commodore Preble designated the captured ketch Intrepid as a ship with hospital duties. The Intrepid is better known, however as the ship that sneaked under the eyes of the enemy and blew up the Philadelphia held captive by the Tripolitans.

The threat of yellow fever in 1859, an epidemic brought on by seamen returning from foreign ports, instigated the first floating hospital in America. The infected sailors were turned away by the marine hospital and it was necessary to find a place to treat them. A New York physician, Dr. William Adison, recently returned from England where he had studied in the floating hospital ship Caledonian, suggested a similar vessel.

When his idea was accepted the port authorities voted funds to purchase the steamer Falcon. The engines were removed, the deck housed over, other necessary facilities installed and various changes made. Fittingly enough the name was changed to the Florence Nightingale, and a number of patients were cared for aboard her.

During the Civil War a captured sidewheel steamer named the Red Rover by its Confederate owner proved to be the U.S. Navy's first hospital ship. This was used originally as living quarters for the men manning the Confederate States' Floating Battery New Orleans. The Red Rover caught a piece of shell when the New Orleans was bombarded by the Western Gunboat Flotilla. The shell pierced her top and slanted through all her decks to the bottom. Although she leaked considerably, the ship was in no danger of sinking. She was captured by the Union gunboat Mound City and almost immediately prepared as a floating hospital for the casualties of the North.

Not long after her capture, the Red Rover became a haven for many injured men and officers of the apprehending gunboat.

In the summer of 1862 the ship was renovated by the Army Quartermaster Corps to include laundries, bathroom facilities, elevators to upper decks, operating rooms, nine waterclosets, separate kitchens for crew and patients, and gauze blinds to keep out smoke and cinders from the convalescents' berth deck.

Enough stores were taken aboard for a crew and 200 patients for three months. This included 300 tons of ice. Commander Captain Alexander M. Pennock reported to his Flag officer, "The boat is supplied with everything necessary for the restoration of health for the disabled seamen."

On June 11, 1862, she received her first patient, a seaman from the gunboat Benton, a victim of cholera.

At this time the Red Rover was really "half Army and half Navy," and it was only after the Illinois Prize Board sold her to the Navy that she could be called a Navy hospital ship. The reorganization and transfer of the Western Flotilla to the Navy helped to solidify this fact. She was commissioned in the Navy the day after Christmas, 1862.

The first vessel designated as a Naval hospital ship had a crew of twelve officers and thirty-five men, exclusive of the thirty surgeons and nurses aboard.

Not all of the nurses aboard were male. Four sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross came aboard that Christmas eve and were joined later by several other sisters and some black female nurses. Unknowingly this small group proved to be the pioneers of a Navy Nurse Corps which would be organized some fifty years later.

Not only was this fledgling hospital ship kept busy with her patients, but she was also pressed into service as a store ship carrying medical supplies, ice and provisions to the ships of the river fleet.

With the establishment of a naval hospital at Memphis, the Red Rover was relieved of some of her duties. As the war between the states drew to a close, so did the need for the Red Rover and she was removed from the service November 17, 1865. Later, stripped of her only gun and iron plate, she was sold at public auction.

From: history.navy.mil


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