previous next

Appendix C: Union surgeons-general and their work

Major E. L. Munson, M. D., U. S.A.
On the death of Surgeon-General Lawson, of the United States regular army, which occurred shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, Surgeon Clement A. Finley was, on May 1, 1861, appointed his successor. He was then the senior medical officer on the army list and sixty-four years of age, having had forty-three years of service in the Medical Department in all parts of the country and in various Indian wars. He was chief surgeon under General Scott in the Black Hawk War of 1832, receiving the official thanks of that officer for his efficiency; during the Mexican War he was at one time medical director of General Taylor's forces, and later was medical director of the army occupying Vera Cruz.

Surgeon-General Finley assumed the direction of affairs of his department at a most trying time. Congress had permitted no preparations for war to be made; supplies were neither on hand nor could they be obtained at short notice, and the number of trained medical officers was not sufficient to leaven promptly the mass of surgeons fresh from civil life, whose zeal, patriotism, and professional ability could not compensate for the profound ignorance of everything military which they necessarily entertained at the outset. In fact, conditions existed almost identical with those which again prevailed nearly four decades later at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Surgeon-General Finley did much to mold his excellent raw material into an administrative machine, but it took time to coordinate the resources now lavished without stint upon the Medical Department.

Politicians affected to be astounded that a thoroughly effective sanitary service could not be created out of raw material overnight. There was much suffering of the sick and wounded in the first part of the war for which the Medical Department was by no means wholly responsible, but political opponents of the administration endeavored to arouse feeling against its policy by working on the feelings of the mothers, wives, and sweethearts of the soldiers at the front. This had its effect on the War Department, culminating in abrupt rupture of the relations between the dogmatic Secretary of War Stanton and Surgeon-General Finley, and the sending of the latter away from Washington in the spring of 1862, without duty, to await retirement from the service.

After the relief from duty of Surgeon-General Finley, Surgeon Robert C. Wood served for several months as acting surgeon-general. It was evident that a man was needed as surgeon-general who should have large requirements and a broad mind—matured by years and experience, yet young enough to endure the labors, fatigues, trials, and disappointments that would confront the head of the Medical Department.

At this juncture, the Sanitary Commission, organized by civilians for the assistance of the army medical service, took a hand in affairs and, after careful consideration, recommended First Lieutenant William A. Hammond, who was appointed. Although low in rank, Doctor Hammond was far from being without military experience, having then had twelve years service, of which eleven were under a previous commission as an assistant surgeon, which position he had resigned in 1860 to take a professorship in the University of Maryland, his native State. At the time of his appointment as surgeon-general he was approaching the age of thirty-five years, and had achieved a most enviable professional and scientific reputation in this country and abroad, especially in relation to physiology and physiological chemistry.

With the onset of the war, Doctor Hammond decided to reenter the army, though he would receive no credit for his previous eleven years of service. He was charged with the organization of the great general hospitals at Hagerstown, Frederick, and Baltimore, after which he was made medical inspector of camps and hospitals. So efficiently did he perform these tasks that a concerted movement was successfully started outside the army to make him General Finley's successor.

Of all the great medical figures of the Civil War, that of Hammond stands out in most heroic size. Of his work, no better picture can be given than in the glowing words of Stille, in his ‘History of the United States Sanitary Commission’:

A new and vastly enlarged supply table, or [348] list of articles which the Government would undertake to provide for the inmates of the hospitals, was also issued by orders of the surgeon-general, embracing many things essential to their comfort, for the supply of which the hospital fund had been hitherto the only and most precarious source. Hospital clothing was also furnished to the patients under the new regime. As a means of securing the most competent men for the medical service of the army, he recognized the board of examination, and insisted upon a higher standard of attainment on the part of the candidate. He established also a new and complete system of hospital reports, which was designed to embody not merely a formal and barren statement of the number of patients in the hospitals and of those who were discharged or died, but also such facts concerning their condition as would constitute valuable material for a medical and surgical history of the war. . . . He instituted at Washington an army medical museum, in which was collected and arranged a vast number of specimens from the different hospitals, illustrating the nature of the particular diseases to which soldiers are liable, and the character of the wounds which are inflicted by the new missiles of war. . . .

But the great central want of the system, which, if left unsupplied, all the other improvements suggested by the surgeon-general would have proved of little value, was the want of proper hospital buildings. Fortunately for the completion of the circle of his plans, the necessary cooperation of those officers of the Government outside of the Medical Department who were charged with the erection of hospitals, was at last obtained, and a large number were constructed on a vast scale in different parts of the country according to the pavilion system.

General Hammond was embarrassed by the fact that shortly after his appointment he, like his predecessor, incurred the displeasure of the Secretary of War. This culminated in the fall of 1863 in his removal from duty, after being found technically guilty of certain charges by a court martial. This led to dismissal from the service. In 1878, he had his case reopened and the evidence reexamined, and on this basis Congress reversed his sentence and placed him on the retired list of the army with the grade from which he had unjustly been deposed.

On the removal from office of Surgeon-General Hammond, on September 3, 1863, Colonel Joseph K. Barnes, medical inspector-general, was appointed acting surgeon-general, and this appointment was made permanent by his being commissioned surgeon-general on August 22, 1864. He was born in Philadelphia, in 1817, was educated at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, and at the time of his provisional selection had completed twenty-three years of service in the Medical Department of the army. He had served in various Indian wars, and actively participated in nearly all of the great battles in the War with Mexico. His experience stood him in good stead, and during the remainder of the Civil War the affairs of the surgeon-general's office were conducted with the highest efficiency, and the transition from war to peace was accomplished without a jar.

It is only fair to General Barnes' predecessors to say that they turned over to him a medical administrative machine which was working smoothly in all its parts, however loudly it had creaked under the stress of its emergency creation and development in the earlier years of the struggle. His efforts were greatly aided by the fact that he succeeded in retaining the friendship of Secretary Stanton, who thereafter omitted nothing that could conduce to the extension of the facilities and efficiency of the Medical Department. Surgeon-General Barnes continued in office for nineteen years, carrying out not only the well-devised plans of his predecessors, but others of his own conception. To him was due much of the development of the medical work of the army, the vesting of the control of general hospitals and hospital camps in the Medical Department, the inclusion of medical officers in the brevet commissions given at the end of the war, the development of the great Army Medical Museum and the superb library of the surgeon-general's office, the compilation of the medical and surgical records of the Civil War, and many other movements which redounded to the welfare of the sick, the efficiency of the troops, and the advantage of American military medicine. It fell to his lot to share in the care of two murdered Presidents, he being the first surgeon called to the bedside of Abraham Lincoln and, sixteen years later, summoned to assist in the treatment of James A. Garfield.

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 People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1878 AD (1)
August 22nd, 1864 AD (1)
September 3rd, 1863 AD (1)
1863 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
May 1st, 1861 AD (1)
1860 AD (1)
1832 AD (1)
1817 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: