previous next


The medical service of the Confederacy

Deering J. Roberts, M. D., Surgeon, Confederate States Army

Destruction in Richmond. Why the author of the following chapter must rely on memory and private sources. —destruction in Richmond, April, 1865 reaching almost to the Capitol itself (in the rear of the picture), and consuming medical and other official records.


in the conflagration in the city of Richmond, Virginia, on the night of April 2, 1865, on its occupation by the Federal army, two houses with their contents were completely destroyed; one occupied by Surgeon-General Samuel P. Moore as his office, and the one adjoining, in which were stored many papers, reports, and records pertaining to his office, and which had accumulated during the preceding four years.

While much has been placed on the printed page during the past forty years, including the numerous octavo volumes under the title of ‘The War of the Rebellion,’ and the larger but less numerous ones entitled ‘The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion,’ in which other lines and departments of the Confederate States army, including their organization, acts and deeds, rank and file, field and staff, have place, giving records, reports, and facts, information relating to the Confederate Medical Department is scant and meager indeed. However, during the past few years, through the organization of the Association of Medical Officers of the Army and Navy of the Confederacy, a few material facts have been made accessible to the future historian, from which, with my own personal observations, limited though they were, was obtained the subject matter contained in the following pages.1

As the war dragged along, there was a greater want of medical, surgical, and hospital supplies among the citizens of the Confederate States in the territory not occupied by the [239]

Samuel Preston Moore surgeon-general of the Confederacy Dr. Samuel Preston Moore served as surgeon in the old army for many years. At the outbreak of hostilities he determined to follow his native State of South Carolina, where he had been born in 1812, and resigned from the army. He was almost immediately appointed surgeon-general of the Confederacy by President Davis, and served in that capacity until the end of the war. Dr. Moore did much with the scanty means to establish the Confederate medical service on a sure foundation. Though occasionally stern toward an offender, his words of encouragement were never lacking. Dr. Moore was a man of commanding presence. During the years after the war he became a noted and much beloved figure in the streets of Richmond, where he died in 1889.

[240] Federal lines than there was in the field and hospital service. The wholesale and retail dealers in drugs and medicines throughout the South usually kept large stocks on hand. The more prudent and far-seeing added to their usual stock in many of the larger cities and towns as the war-cloud darkened. These stocks were largely drawn upon by the medical purveyors, State and Confederate, and were supplemented by supplies from across the Atlantic, notwithstanding the rigid blockade of all Southern ports.

In connection with the ordnance bureau, an agency was established in London, with instructions to purchase and forward much-needed supplies for both Ordnance and Medical departments by every blockade runner, the vessels on their return trips carrying cotton to defray the expense. A separate agency for the Medical Department was established at Nassau. The cotton for the use of the Medical Department was purchased by special agents of the department, who were very active in the discharge of their duties, and supplies were shipped with commendable regularity.

From the time of the occupation of New Orleans by the Federals until the closing of the Mississippi River by the surrender of Vicksburg, considerable amounts of quinine and morphia were brought out of the Crescent City, at night, by fishermen in their small canoes or dugouts. The following incident is quoted from Dr. C. J. Edwards, of Abbeville, Louisiana:

Many and daring were the attempts of the distressed Confederates to obtain medicines during the war. In 1863, when Grant was besieging Vicksburg and his gunboats patrolling the Mississippi had cut the Confederacy in twain, my father was detailed from Wright's Arkansas cavalry, an independent command, to procure some quinine, calomel, and opium. He crossed the Mississippi River at Greenville, Mississippi, and proceeded with a buggy and horse to Canton, where he obtained the supplies. He made the return trip safely to the Mississippi River, only to find a gunboat in close proximity and no means of traversing the mighty stream, then bank-full. After considerable search he found an


Thomas H. Williams, medical director of the first Confederate army in Virginia Dr. Williams was one of the regular army surgeons whose convictions led him to join the Southern cause. As medical director of the army in Utah under General Albert Sydney Johnston in 1859, he made an enviable record. In April, 1861, he resigned from the United States army, and on June 21st proceeded to Richmond. The following day he offered his services to President Davis, and was appointed surgeon in the Confederate States army. June 24th he was ordered to report to General Beauregard as medical director of the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac. He continued to hold this same position after General Joseph E. Johnston took command of the army. When General Johnston was wounded at the battle of Seven Pines, General Lee succeeded to the command. His medical director ranked Dr. Williams in the old army and therefore relieved him. Dr. Williams was afterward appointed medical director and inspector of hospitals in Virginia, and made his headquarters in Danville. He established nearly all the large hospitals in Virginia except at Richmond and Petersburg, and after a few months he was transferred to Richmond and put in charge of the ‘Medical Purveyors' Department,’ in which position he remained active till the end of the war.

old disused pirogue, or dugout, with the front end partly knocked out. It was almost useless, but by loading only in the rear end he found the front would ride high enough to clear the water. He accordingly waited until night, when, under the convenient cover of darkness, he carefully loaded his frail craft with the precious burden, and stripping off, he swam the river in safety to the opposite side, pushing the dugout in front, keeping it properly trimmed.2

Supplies were brought into the Trans-Mississippi Department across the Rio Grande, from Mexico, close up to the time of General Richard Taylor's surrender to General Canby. Many petticoats were quilted in the shadow of the dome of the Capitol at Washington and in other Northern cities, worn through the lines by Southern ladies, and relieved of their valuable padding of quinine and morphia in Richmond. While ‘love laughs at locksmiths,’ love of country, inspiring brave hearts and stimulated by dire want, greatly aided in such important work.

In addition, on more than one occasion, valuable and greatly needed medical and surgical supplies were captured from the more bountifully supplied Northerners. Dr. J. B. Cowan, medical director of Forrest's cavalry, stated to the writer, that on one of Forrest's raids into western Tennessee, they captured and brought out a large wagon train, in which were three four-mule army wagons loaded with medical supplies, the remainder of which, after supplying his command very bountifully, were forwarded to Atlanta, Georgia. The value of that was estimated by Dr. George S. Blackie, medical purveyor there, to be fully equivalent to what would have cost the department at least one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gold.

Finally, these means and measures were supplemented by a careful economy, and a resort to indigenous resources to be found in our hills and dales, fields and forests, mountains and [243]

Richmond City hospitals.

Richmond, like Washington and Alexandria, became a collection of hospitals during the war. The accommodations of the City Hospital were soon exceeded, and the Chimborazo Hospital was one of those constructed to receive the overflow. The buildings composing it were beautifully located on a commanding eminence in the lower part of the city. The Confederate records of admissions to hospitals were destroyed in the burning of Richmond. Much of the nursing was done in private houses, and many of the soldiers wounded in the field were taken into adjoining houses, where they were concealed and guarded from capture. The total will never be known of the cases cared for by the women of the Confederacy, who fought for their side in combatting disease. When they were not nursing, their needles were busy in the cause. A soldier taken into a private house often went forth after his convalescence wearing a beautifully patched uniform and underwear made from the linen of the women, who sacrificed their own clothes and comfort for the benefit of the men at the front. Fighting on his own ground was a stimulus to defend the devoted and self-sacrificing women of the South.

The Richmond city hospital

The Chimborazo hospital, Richmond, Virginia

[244] valleys. There were probably at least three laboratories for the preparation of indigenous drugs established: one in Lincolnton, North Carolina; one at Macon, Georgia, and one west of the Mississippi, in which tinctures and extracts were manufactured to some extent.

One tincture in particular, well remembered and popularly known in field and hospital service as ‘old indig.,’ was used as a substitute for quinine in malarial fevers, a compound tincture of willow, dogwood, and yellow-poplar barks. Efforts were made to cultivate the poppy (Papaver somniferum) in Florida and North Carolina, and the unripe seed-capsules, when incised, yielded or exuded a dark gum, not unlike Turkish opium in its effects. Decoctions and tinctures of Jamestown or common jimson-weed, leaves and seeds (Stramonium), and may pop root (Passiflora incarnata) were employed for the relief of pain, both internally and as a local application. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and yellow jasmin (Gelsemium sempervirens), the former used as an antipyretic and the latter to control nervous symptoms in fever; queen's-root (Stillingia), in all conditions of depraved blood; the inner bark and pith of the common alder for making salve for ulcers and chronic suppurating wounds; and fresh slippery-elm bark, the root and leaves of the mauva plant, and the leaves of the prickly pear, or cactus, when shorn of its spines, well pounded and macerated, as an emollient poultice, were among the most prominent of the indigenous remedies.

Many Confederate surgeons reported that at no time did they fail in having an ample supply of three most important drugs, quinine, morphia, and chloroform. Furthermore, in all the writer's service there was not a death from chloroform in field or hospital. Dr. Chaille reported one case, immediately following an amputation just above the knee.

Other surgeons reported good success or ‘luck,’ among whom could be recalled Dr. J. B. Cowan, medical director, Forrest's cavalry; Dr. J. M. Keller, medical director, Trans- [245]

Confederate field-hospital at Cedar Mountain, August, 1862 The Confederate loss at Cedar Mountain, known to the Confederacy as the battle of Cedar Run, was about thirteen hundred men. General Banks, who had the temerity to attack General Jackson with less than half that redoubtable Confederate general's force, suffered a loss of twenty-four hundred men. The medical corps of the Confederate army had not yet run short of medicines, books, surgical instruments, and supplies as it did later in the war. As the fighting dragged on, there was a greater want of medical, surgical, and hospital supplies among the citizens of the Confederate States in the territory not occupied by the Federal lines than there was in their field and hospital service. The Union had not yet developed an efficient cavalry corps, and among the supply wagons that fell prey to the swift-moving Confederate cavalry were some laden with medical supplies. The stocks accumulated by the wholesale and retail dealers in drugs and medicines throughout the South were largely supplemented from time to time by supplies from across the Atlantic.

[246] Mississippi Department; Dr. J. R. Buist, of Nashville; Dr. William Brickell, of New Orleans; Dr. G. B. Thornton, medical director of Stewart's corps, and others. Dr. Hunter McGuire, medical director of General T. J. Jackson's corps, collected fifteen thousand cases of chloroform anesthesia without a single death.

As for dressings, there were a few cotton manufactories in the South that made a fairly good quality of osnaburg from which bandages were made, in some instances rolled by the hands of fair women, or the medical officers and hospital attendants. Many households furnished old sheets and other worn cotton and linen garments, lint being made from the latter by scraping with a knife in some Southern woman's hands. Raw cotton, however, carded by hand, and in some instances separated from its seeds by the fingers of women and children, baked in an oven, in fact almost charred, was often substituted for lint, being rendered aseptic by this means, although we knew little of asepsis and antisepsis in that part of the ‘Sixties.’ When sponges became scarce, old but clean linen or cotton rags were used and then thrown away or burned, another aseptic procedure, although at the time that special designation had not been given it. Occasionally, silk for ligatures and sutures was limited, but it was as easily transmitted by blockade or the ‘underground’ as were quinine and morphia; yet a few times I was forced to use cotton or flax thread of domestic make, and horse hair, boiled, to make it more pliant and soft—again accidental asepsis.

Water dressing for large wounds, amputations, resections, and extensive lacerations, was largely resorted to, by means of wet cloths applied from time to time, the nurse pouring small quantities on, or the automatic siphoning by means of a strip of cotton or linen, one end of which was immersed in a vessel of water suspended over the wound, the other hanging down a little lower than the bottom of the water. In that case a piece of oilcloth or part of an old piano cover was placed beneath the [247]

Mrs. Felicia Grundy Porter president of the women's relief society of the Confederate states In the shadow of the Confederate Monument in the Mount Olivet Cemetery at Nashville, Tennessee, lie the remains of Mrs. Felicia Grundy Porter, who gave her time, devotion, and heart both during and after the war to the physical relief of the boys in gray. She was escorted to her last resting-place by Confederate soldiers riding on each side of the hearse, with many more following in its train. Mrs. Porter was born in Nashville, June 26, 1820. When the war broke out she set about establishing hospitals in Nashville for the wounded Confederate soldiers. She labored without stint as president of the Women's Relief Society, first of Tennessee, and then of the entire Confederate States. She collected a vast fund for this humanitarian purpose. As president of the Benevolent Society of Tennessee, she arranged for a series of concerts and tableaux in its towns and cities, the receipts from which were expended in buying artificial limbs for the disabled Confederate soldiers.

[248] wound, so arranged as to drain the excess of water into another vessel on the floor at the bunk side. In some cases minor amputations, gunshot and incised wounds limited in degree of severity were hermetically sealed by adhesive plaster, or the starch bandage, securing ‘union by first intention.’ But suppuration was largely the rule, and in extensive wounds ‘laudable pus’ was regarded as essential.

Instruments were procured by the medical bureau in the earlier part of the war from stock in the hands of dealers in the larger cities, later by blockade-runners, and by the handiwork of a few skilled workers in metals in the Southern States. Some were somewhat crude and clumsy, and lacked the beautiful polish and finish given by the experienced and well-equipped instrument maker. Occasionally a fortunate surgeon would acquire a good case of instruments by capture; but quite a number of our surgeons brought from their homes both amputating-and pocket-cases, their private property purchased before the coming on of hostilities.

Books were far more scarce than instruments. However, those who so desired could at times provide themselves in a meager way. Some surgeons made a point of calling on village and country practitioners in the vicinity of the army, and on more than one occasion, during such peregrinations, managed to make a purchase of medical works. The author has now in his library a copy of ‘Erichsen's Surgery,’ purchased from a Doctor Johnson in the vicinity of Clinton, Louisiana, just after the battle of Baton Rouge, August, 1862. The price paid was one ounce of ‘P. & W.’ sulphate of quinine, of which I had at the time an ample supply. I have also a copy of Wilson's ‘Dissector,’ 1857 edition, which I had carried with me from home, and managed to bring back with me, it being less cumbersome than the text-book of anatomy by the same author. Other books which I managed to secure from time to time by ‘barter and exchange,’ but was forced to abandon because of their size and weight, were [249]

Four distinguished Confederate physicians

The Confederate medical service had to contend with lack of medicines, supplies, and ambulances, but the resourcefulness, energy, and tact of its members rose superior to all obstacles. Dr. Tebault served as a field surgeon with the 21st Louisiana and 10th South Carolina regiments, and afterwards as a hospital surgeon. Dr. Foard was medical director of the Army of Tennessee. Dr. Graham was surgeon of the Sixty-seventh North Carolina Infantry. Dr. Kellar was medical director of the Trans-Mississippi Department.

Christopher Hamilton Tebault, M. D.

Medical director A. J. Foard

Surgeon Joseph Graham

Medical director J. M. Kellar

[250] Druitt's ‘Surgery,’ Bartlett ‘On Fevers,’ Wood's ‘Practice,’ Watson's ‘Practice,’ Tanner's ‘Practice,’ and a copy of the ‘United States Dispensatory,’ by Wood & Bache.

Occasional copies of The Confederate States medical and surgical Journal, reached field and hospital surgeons. It was published in Richmond by Ayres & Wade, with the approval and under the supervision of the Surgeon-General, monthly from January, 1864, until February, 1865. A complete file from which much important historical data can possibly be obtained, is now in the Library of the Surgeon-General's office at Washington. The first number reported a regular meeting of the ‘Association of Army and Navy Surgeons,’ organized in Richmond, August, 1863, with Samuel P. Moore, the Confederate Surgeon-General, as president.

Dr. J. J. Chisolm, who entered the army as a surgeon from Charleston, South Carolina, wrote an excellent little ‘Manual of Military Surgery’ of about four or five hundred 12mo pages; and another manual, about the same size, was prepared by surgeons detailed for that purpose by Surgeon-General Moore, and published in Richmond, in 1862 or 1863. These were supplied to many field and hospital surgeons by the Government.

Another work published at Richmond in order that the medical officers, as well as the public, might be supplied with information, which at that time was greatly needed, was prepared by direction of Surgeon-General Moore, by Francis Peyre Porcher, M. D., formerly surgeon in charge of the city hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, and professor of materia medica and therapeutics in the medical college of that city, and was entitled ‘Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural, being also a Medical Botany of the Southern States, with Practical Information of the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs.’ A large number of copies was printed, and the book supplied to the medical officers and all others who made application.

1 See also Appendix D for information about the Organization and Personnel of the Confederate Medical Corps.

2 Southern practitioner, vol. 30, page 535.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: