Excerpt from “The Wound-Dresser” by Walt Whitman
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
Nowadays, it is the Saturday farmers’ market draws crowds to verdant Clark Park, the heart of West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood. Yet only a few short steps from the stands displaying pink heirloom tomatoes and canned Amish chowchow is a large chunk of rock pulled from the Gettysburg battlefield.
It is the only reminder of what stood here a century-and-a-half ago: America’s largest Civil War military hospital. During the worst years of fighting, over 5,000 wounded soliders lived here, many suffering from debilitating, horrendous injuries.
According to the late historian Shelby Foote, the reason for the high casualties during the Civil War was that the cutting-edge weapons of industrial warfare were far ahead of the generals’ Napoleonic tactics. Massed infantry charges met with very accurate, withering fire from the newfangled rifled musket and heavy artillery. When using a rifled musket when paired with the conical Minie ball, a soldier could kill an enemy at half-a-mile. After a major battle, the statistics printed in Northern and Southern newspapers were so vast as to be almost minded numbing. At the 1862 Battle of Antietam, for example, an estimated 87,000 Union soldiers under the leadership of Philadelphia-born General George B. McClellan faced off against 37,000 Confederates under the command of General Robert E. Lee. September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in American military history: 3,600 men killed, 17,000 wounded, and 1,800 captured or missing on the banks of a creek in rural Maryland.
The Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 10 months after Antietam, ended with a decisive Union victory, but there were over 50,000 casualties on both sides over three hot July days. At the same time, General U.S. Grant captured the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, opening up the Mississippi River to Union naval traffic and cutting the Confederacy in two. Yet many Northerners did not herald General U.S. Grant as a hero. First Lady Mary Lincoln derided him as “Butcher Grant.” In response, President Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Where did these thousands of “wounded” men go? Some recovered from relatively minor injuries, and then donned their uniforms again to fight another day. But then there were the amputees, whose shattered legs and arms were sawn off in makeshift battlefield hospitals. In the days before sterilization, Army surgeons would reuse the same blood-soaked saws again and again. For the poor patient, the only anesthesia was a slug of whiskey. Infection ran rampant. And then there were men whose faces had been gruesomely disfigured. They were missing eyes, ears, even parts of their jaws. Many of them ended up addicted to the opium-based drugs that doctors freely distributed to them to alleviate their intense physical and psychological pain.
Philadelphia in the mid-19th century was arguably the preeminent American medical city. The University of Pennsylvania, still located at 8th and Chestnut, was more famous for its medical school and teaching hospital than its undergraduate programs. Due to its relatively close proximity to the killing fields of Virginia, not to mention its large and well-trained medical community, Philadelphia was a logical place for a new hospital for convalescing veterans. In 1862, Surgeon-General William Alexander Hammond appointed Philadelphia physician Isaac Israel Hayes to construct a new Army hospital on 15 acres in then-rural West Philadelphia. The setting was woodsy and pastoral, and Washington’s Army brass hoped that the clean country air of the Philadelphia suburbs would not only hasten the soldiers’ recovery, but also uplift their spirits.
Hayes was a natural choice. Not only was he an esteemed physician, but a brilliant planner. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1853, the young Quaker signed on as ship’s surgeon in one of many expeditions in search of lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, and on a later Arctic expedition allegedly became the first European to tread the shores of Ellesmere Island. The logistics of planning a 4,500-bed hospital from scratch, and in a hurry, dwarfed even those of planning a multi-year Arctic expedition, but Hayes was not deterred. He put pen to paper and laid out a temporary city of canvas tents and wood structures on the site. It was later calculated that that at its peak, Satterlee consumed 800,000 pounds of bread, 16,000 pounds of butter and 334,000 quarts of milk per year, all of which had to be brought in by horse-and-wagon on muddy, rutted Baltimore Pike.
For Hayes, who had just returned from the Arctic, being thrown into the bloody cauldron of the Civil War was a rude awakening, as he had been away from America for so much of his adult life. His years of sailing through fields of icebergs in search of Franklin and the Northwest Passage were as if “set down in a dream.”
To augment the ranks of professional physicians, Hayes partnered with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, who would live in an adjacent convent. Twenty or so nuns would change the bed sheets, empty the chamber pots, dress festering wounds, and most importantly, offer emotional solace to those lonely men in agony, far from home and loved ones. According to biographer Douglas W. Wamsley, Dr. Hayes instructed the medical staff to do whatever it took to avoid amputations, thus keeping the soldiers’ bodies whole. Given the lack of sterilization, this policy might have actually prevented deaths from infection.
Walt Whitman’s poem: “The Wound-Dresser.” Whitman served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.
Faith Charlton, “1832 Cholera Outbreak in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut,” PAHRC, Sisters of Charity, http://www.pahrc.net/tag/sisters-of-charity/, accessed November 1, 2016.
Albin J. Kowalewski, “The Civil War’s Rip Van Winkle,” The New York Times, April 29, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/albin-j-kowalewski/, accessed November 1, 2012.
“U.S. Grant (transcript),” The American Experience, WGBH, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/transcript/grant-transcript/?flavour=mobile, accessed November 1, 2016.
“The Civil War’s Satterlee Hospital,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 25, 2013. http://www.philly.com/philly/video/inquirer/20130625_NDN_INQUIRER_Civil_War_s_Satterlee_Hospital.html, accessed November 1, 2016.
“U.S. Grant,” The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/ulyssessgrant, accessed November 1, 2016.