In June 1864, my ancestor Union Army Pvt. Arthur Bull was admitted to hospital in Washington, D.C. then transported north — through New York City to New Rochelle, N.Y., and finally by boat to De Camp General Hospital on Davids Island just offshore.
There on 18 June 1864 Arthur joined a new army of more than 2,100 ill and injured soldiers at what was then the U.S. Army’s largest general hospital — surely a welcome respite after the rigors of the battlefields.
Founded as a Union hospital, De Camp’s population rose and fell with the tides of the Civil War — with more than 2,500 Confederate prisoners temporarily treated there after the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg before being moved elsewhere.
Looking northeast from my home in Queens Co., N.Y., I am amazed that the sky I see is the sky Arthur saw during his summer of recovery — Davids Island is that close, about 20 miles away. I wondered: Would it be possible to go there? The answer: Alas, no.
De Camp’s pavilions and tents, echoing with the hustle bustle of treating wartime casualties, along with the steamships plying the waters back and forth to transport patients — those tangibles are all gone, cleared for development. But their traces live on in records, lithographs and histories of families like mine that were touched by them.
What was daily life at De Camp General Hospital like for Arthur 150 years ago? We will find out together as I research anew over the summer.
A “Casualty Sheet of Wounded” was filled out for my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull when he applied for his Civil War pension in 1885. It’s a small document, just one page front and back, that I had somehow missed in the bulging folder where I keep copies of his military and pension records.
Wondering where and for how long Arthur was in hospital, I finally sat down to take a good look and was surprised to read that he was “transferred to New York June 16th 1864” and “Arrived June 18, at De Camp Hospl.”
New York? I assumed injured Union soldiers were treated near the front. Now here was Arthur being transferred back to his home state from the Virginia battlefields.
I looked up De Camp General Hospital to see exactly where it was located and found descriptions and old lithographs of the facility as it once stood on Davids Island in Long Island Sound near New Rochelle, N.Y.
But wait, there’s more.
The casualty sheet named the Hospital Register of the New England Soldiers’ Relief Association as the source of information about Arthur’s transfer. I looked them up online. Founded in 1862 with offices on lower Broadway, the group’s mission was “to aid and care for all sick and wounded soldiers passing through the city of New York, on their way to or from the war.”
My ancestor passed through New York City? Where I live today? And the group’s headquarters was in lower Manhattan right near my job?
Wow, this casualty sheet was some document! What would I discover next about Arthur’s wartime years?
Bullets, bayonets and cannon shells weren’t the only things that felled combatants during the U.S. Civil War. Illness also laid thousands of soldiers low — including my great, great grandfather Union Army Pvt. Arthur Bull who “gave out” on the march to Cold Harbor, Va. in the spring of 1864.
Over the course of the war, his 6th NY Heavy Artillery unit lost 278 enlisted men due to disease or other causes — more than double the 130 enlisted men from his unit who were killed in action (62) or died from their wounds (68).
Arthur suffered from disease of the heart and lungs and chronic rheumatism, according to his pension and military medical records, and was transported away from the Virginia battlefields to Washington, D.C.
So it was not an injury in some heroic firefight that took my ancestor out of action. But I am still proud of Arthur for soldiering on with his last ounce of strength in a Union military offensive that helped turn the tide against slavery.
After being admitted to hospital, my ancestor began a wartime journey of a different sort – one that came as a surprise to me when I uncovered the details that had been carefully tucked away in his Civil War file 150 years ago.
My ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s unit — the 6th NY Heavy Artillery — was attached to the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps from May to July 1864.
Leaving the bloody fields of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Union forces trekked through difficult Virginia terrain in relentless pursuit of the Confederate Army — engaging in skirmishes and battles all along the way at Harris Farm, North Anna, Totopotomoy and Cold Harbor.
The march to Cold Harbor was one of the worst — kicking up ankle-deep dust that choked off the air, darkened the sun and coated bone-tired Union troops from head to toe in a ghostly residue as they trudged past the decaying carcasses of dead cavalry horses.
Sometime during those grueling days in May, the fighting, the marching and the exhaustion took their toll. My great, great grandfather — along with a large number of his comrades — collapsed on the march to Cold Harbor.
Arthur says he “gave out” and was “attacked with pain & difficulty of breathing in left side in cardiac region,” according to doctors’ notes in his pension file — sick enough to be “sent to hospital” by his regiment, joining the steady flow of ill and wounded Union soldiers evacuated from the Overland Campaign battlefields.
I feel grateful that by 1864 an ambulance corps, field hospitals and general hospitals were set up to rescue and treat wartime casualties. Their presence and the timing of his illness — coming as it did before the deadly confrontation at Cold Harbor — may very well have saved my ancestor’s life.
But, as I would later discover, Arthur’s wartime illness continued to affect his health through the remainder of the Civil War and long after.