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.

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.

5971 hospital pavilions
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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The casualty sheet

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.

Arthur Bull's Casualty Sheet of Wounded, completed 23 May 1885 when he applied for his Civil War pension. Scan by Molly Charboneau
Cover of Arthur Bull’s “Casualty Sheet of Wounded,” completed 23 May 1885 when he applied for his Civil War pension. Photo by Molly Charboneau

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?

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.



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To general hospital

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).

Mt. Pleaseat Hospital in Wasington, D.C. circa 1864. Source: Library of Congress
Lithograph of Mt. Pleasant Hospitals in Washington, D.C. circa 1862 by Charles Magnus, where Arthur Bull was admitted on 4 June 1864. Source: Library of Congress

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.

There he was admitted on 4 June 1864 to Mt. Pleasant General Hospital – one of several facilities newly-created by the U.S. Sanitary Commission to tend to the huge influx of war-related Union casualties.

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.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.



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