Prescription potions

Civil War doctors used an arsenal of medical weapons to battle illness and injury among the troops. Wielding a pharmacopoeia of odd-sounding remedies – such as iodide of potassium, acetate of potash, Fowler’s solution, wine of colchicum and syrup of sarsaparilla – they treated the chronic rheumatism that afflicted my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull.

A collection of Civil War era medicines. Photo by Raymond Bryson

Opiates were given for pain. Morphia was administered at bedtime to aid sleep. Irritant lotions, warming plasters and carded cotton wrapped in oiled silk – even arnica, which is still used today – were applied externally to affected joints.

For my great, great grandfather’s irritable heart, doctors brandished other medicines – digitalis, aconite, veratrum viride and belladonna – to lower and steady the pulse, reduce the force of the heart, calm cardiac irritability, reduce pain and restore regular heartbeat.

These were the days before modern medicine. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion sums it up:

“Rest constituted the essential of treatment; tonics and diet the adjuvants.”

Hence Arthur’s two-month stay at De Camp General Hospital in July and August 1864 – where his prescription potions were compounded onsite and his diet followed the recommendations of The Hospital Steward’s Manual (1863). 

My dad, who was all about the food on our genealogy road trips, would totally identify with our ancestor’s full diet. It reads like the basic meat, fish, potatoes and vegetables, with coffee or tea, that Dad consumed all his life — with fruit or jams donated by local communities rounding out the hospital fare.

And the thoughtful writer of the Steward’s Manual deserves accolades for including this balm for Arthur and the other patients:

“It is believed by the author of this work that a pint of some mild malt liquor might advantageously, and without too great expense, be added to the dinner of a general hospital in most localities.”

Now that Arthur is resting and recuperating until his September 1864 return to the Civil War battlefields, I have time to answer the questions many of you have asked: How did I find my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull in the first place? And what did it take to unearth his Civil War history?

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

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Irritable heart

Besides chronic rheumatism, my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull may have suffered from irritable heart — a combat-related debility that emerged during the the U.S. Civil War.

Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa studied what was then seen as a cardiovascular disease among Union soldiers at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia. It became known as Soldier’s Heart and, later, Da Costa Syndrome.

Da Costa probed the war-related origins of irritable heart and found that, in some cases, it could transition into organic heart disease  — discoveries that would become important to my great, great grandfather in his later years.

Union Reenactors Gear
Union Army reenactors load heavy knapsacks, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., 4 May 2014. Overexertion before and during the stress of battle under burden of packs, gear and arms contributed to irritable heart. Photo by Molly Charboneau

What the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion says about irritable heart  jibes closely with Arthur’s description of his llness:

“Among the affections of the heart a functional disturbance known by the name of irritable heart or cardiac muscular exhaustion was the most notable product of the war.”

“Irritable heart appears to have been a result of active field service” including “drills and double-quick movements of camp, effected under the full burden of arms and accouterments” as well as “some over-action of the heart during a particular battle or campaign.”

“The affected soldier was subject to fits of fluttering cardiac action, accompanied by pain in the praecordia, shortness of breath and perhaps haemoptysis, dizziness and dimness of vision; sometimes these were so severe as to occasion insensibility.”

With advances in medicine and diagnostic testing, the irritable heart of the Civil War era is now regarded as a stress-related neurological/anxiety syndrome — the first identification of a post traumatic stress disorder among U.S. combat troops.

After Arthur “gave out” he was sent to De Camp General Hospital for two months of treatment — consisting of rest, a therapeutic diet and an intriguing regimen of pain relievers and unusual-sounding tonics that predated modern medicine.

What were these analgesics and potions? Are any still used today? What was the diet like? The detective work continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

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Killer knapsack

Just as field commanders logged each Civil War battle, the U. S. medical corps submitted reports to the Surgeon General on war-related injuries, illnesses, diseases and patient care.

Their chronicles — published as The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion (1861-65) — contain valuable clues about causes and treatment of my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s heart and lung complaints and chronic rheumatism.

BookReaderImagessoldiers2
Recommended placement of knapsacks, gear and weapons by Union soldiers to avoid injury and illness. Source: MSHWR

In an 1889 declaration in his pension file, my great, great grandfather said his rheumatic illness  — particularly pain in his right shoulder and arm — was caused by “exposure and hard marching, having to carry his knapsack and other accouterments, bearing more especially from straps placed on right shoulder.”

Turns out this may have contributed to Arthur’s heart and lung problems, too.

In a section on “Morbid Conditions Attributed to the Weight of the Accoutrements,” the MSHWR  discusses “haemoptysis” (spitting up blood) “after a paroxysm of accelerated cardiac action and oppressed breathing” — which sounds very much like Arthur’s illness.

The passage continues: “In many cases, the soldier, and frequently the medical officer, attributed the haemoptysis to exercise under the weight of knapsack and pressure of the belts.”

Veteran Union soldiers on the march had learned to jettison their 40-50 pounds of pack and gear — traveling light with just a rifle and ammo, weighing about 10 pounds, and some undergarments rolled into a blanket slung over their shoulder.

Arthur was an inexperienced recruit unaccustomed to doing this. So he may have succumbed from the exertion of soldiering on with his heavy, killer knapsack — an occurrence common enough to be noted in Civil War medical literature.

And he might also have been among the large number of Union soldiers who were affected by a newly diagnosed, war-related syndrome. More on this as Arthur’s saga continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

 

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Patient life at De Camp

When my ill ancestor Arthur Bull debarked at Davids Island, he temporarily traded his Union Army regiment for a 20-patient ward commanded by the Stewards, Wardmasters and Nurses at De Camp General Hospital.

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Hospital wards and mess buildings at De Camp General Hospital in 1864. Source: Westchester County Archives

He took up residence with fellow convalescents in one of De Camp’s long, four-ward patient pavilions on 18 June 1864. There he recuperated for the rest of the summer.

A shorter building between the pavilions housed attendants’ quarters, a dining room and a kitchen. No-nonsense female agents from the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission regularly inspected to assure that soldiers received quality care.

Ambulatory patients were allowed to walk around the 80-acre island, which had a spring-fed pond and a number of shade trees, some forming a grove at one end. In 1864 various orders — including regulations for De Camp patients — were compiled into a book governing daily life there.

I like to think my great, great grandfather, a family man, would have readily followed the rules he could physically handle — such as rising at reveille, washing face and hands, dressing, reporting to his bed for examination when “sick call” was sounded, and going to sleep after “taps.”

But I have to wonder about his ward-mates when I read rules like No. 114: “No one will be allowed to spit on the floors or walls of the hospital…” Or No. 115, “No patient or attendant will be allowed to lie in bed with his clothes on, or sit or lounge upon the beds…”

How was Arthur’s illness treated? Did he have visitors?  And something my dad would want to know: What was on the menu at De Camp? New questions. More research. Stay tuned.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Summer of recovery

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.

De Camp General Hospital, where Arthur Bull was admitted on 18 June 1864 and convalesced during July and August. Source: Westchester County Archives
De Camp General Hospital, where Arthur Bull was admitted on 18 June 1864 and convalesced during July and August. Source: Westchester County Archives

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.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Growing family trees one leaf (and road trip) at a time