A Letter from Columbian College Hospital, Washington D.C., 1861

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts

Columbian College building in the background had 844 beds, the tents in the foreground
are part of the much larger Carver General Hospital
It seems incredible just how unprepared the army's medical services were for the task they faced starting in April 1861. The unnecessary additional suffering this brought to thousands of patients, while the army brought in (or fought off) improved ways of doing thing is shocking. This letter contains a few examples of one woman's frustration with the system.
Wednesday Aug. 8 [1861]
Columbian College Hospital. Washington.
Dearies All​
It was delightful to receive letters from home, though I am so constantly busy that I scarce find time to say so. Every thing here is at 6s & 7s, as might be expected among the militia; though I am surprised to find it in what belongs to the regular army; orders are made, unmade, remade & countermanded; convalescents are set to work after recovering from one disease, & over-worked till fever ensues; or they are appointed for night watchers, when they have not strength to keep awake, & very sick patients are suffering for the drink the watchers should give. The contractor sends his beef or eggs, or sends them not; & there is sometimes hunger, & sometimes waste.​
Pres. Abe has been expected for some days, & not a spoon, or phial, or anything that belongeth with a sick room must be visible, lest he should perceive it, or lest the head surgeon should see it in this his daily rounds, which are at irregular times. Four young physicians practise on the 4 stories, & live in the house; one of them does not extinguish his gentlemanly manners in his military cap.​
Such quantities of medicine as I pour down their throats, Heaven forgive me for inflicting upon their poor stomachs; blessed be currant jelly & those who have sent it so liberally. Here is a lumberer from Maine, never knew what sickness was, till the mumps seized him after enlisting, & now has not had a well day since; so long for the pine woods & the sparkling streams & the fresh breeze of his home. Here is Jesse Egleston , whom they call my baby; a long, lank, honest, modest boy, of 18, from Geneva, who wept because he feared that the socks his mother knit for him had been lost; who is as patient as a woman, & looked so happy today when I touched his dry lips with the first peach we have seen; he was at the moment dreaming he was in his father's great peach orchard; strong men become babyish, youths without hope; cripples from rheumatism who never knew pain of body before; knapsacks lost with money, or all their clothes; homesick- oh! how homesick they are, & how ignorantly careless of their health their commanders have been!​
One boy convalescing saw his Reg't, from the windows, marching away; he had no discharge from the physician; he was not in the house; if here, might give him one, might not; "what shall I do, I must go home away with them?" "You may be shot for it." "I would rather be shot than stay here another hour." "Then run as fast as your legs can carry you"; & away he went double quick, though drooping & listless the day before.​
The defeat has not discouraged them; but the hunger & sickness. There is but one voice about the famished condition of very many of the Regts. Glad Isabella has bright letters from Greely; that regt.* will know how to take better care of themselves than these boys who rushed from their homes as to an immediate victory, & have been the victims of dishonest contractors & ignorant officers. It is hot here, very hot for some hours of the day, & often oppressive at night; my chamber is airy & I am far more comfortable than I expected.​
I cannot get over the surprise of being ordered about by these doctors as they order the privates; they recognize nothing of the peculiarity of the position; we have not been put under arrest yet, nor deprived of our rations, but scolded plentifully for not always obeying exactly minute contradictory orders. The army is an awful school in some respects, & few men have the self-control to use power well. We are surrounded by encampments; hear the sentinel calls, & the sounds of military music & drill. The night before they march home, they make bonfires, & sing, & enjoy themselves generally; the effect of the light among these many trees is very beautiful.​
Sunday. Let me finish with a pencil -- I have just got over that extreme soreness of the feet, which, I believe, has bothered all the nurses, except the real old stagers, whose muscles never surrender. Rec'd yesterday Tuesday's Advertiser with, I thought, Margarett's writing on it. The only word yet from you, dearie; I fear you are ill; though Harriot H. said not.​
Letters to me need not be directed to Miss Dix, only expressed bundles.​
To Brookline, pinckneys, Plymouth love all round. The work is immensely hard, but I get used to it. If we could do it as citizens, instead of soldiers, it would be easy --​
Good bye, dearies, yr​
H [Hannah Stevenson]​

Born on 16 July 1807, Boston abolitionist Hannah Stevenson was fifty-three years old when she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the war. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to do so, and would serve in multiple Union hospitals between 1861 and 1863. Hannah already had a lifetime of service experiences behind her. She had worked for thirty years at the Home for Destitute Children and had established a school with her sister Margaret in the years before she joined the war effort.
It was she who provided Louisa May Alcott her letter of recommendation when the author came to volunteer as a nurse. The two women corresponded for many years.

* [The 2nd Mass. Volunteer Infantry; (Greely’s regiment)]

Source: Massachusetts Historical Society Online
see also: https://www2.gwu.edu/~magazine/archive/2006_spring/docs/feature_civilwar.html

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
It was terribly inadequate, like it was surprising to find wounded an inevitable result of shooting at each other. Nothing to do with surgeons and medical staff who were there, they were just wildly overwhelmed. Then there was piddling around over whether or not female nurses would be permitted instead of using ambulatory wounded, poor guys. It was a big mess, relieved hugely by Dix's persistence and civilian organizations like the Sanitary Commission, Christian Commission and around a gazillion groups from churches and communities. I'm not sure the armies were ever prepared, or rather the government funded enough preparations despite the shambles after the last battle. Medical Corps were terribly overwhelmed albiet sure gave it a shot.

" Our Army Nurses "

And " Women's Work in the Civil War "

Both give incredibly good views from the hospitals, field hospitals and transport units. You see where nurses were asked to write of their experiences- some just couldn't revisit what they saw and said so.

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!