Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Medical Abuses in the Donelson Army – The Truth about the Neglect of the Sick and Wounded

{Special Correspondence of the Cincinnati Gazette}

SAVANNAH, Tenn., March, 31.

There has been some public complaint of the medical management in this District, and subsequent Congressional inquiry, finally abandoned “for want of facts.”

Let me furnish a few facts. I propose to state nothing except what I am prepared to prove, by abundant testimony, before any committee of investigation, Congressional or otherwise.

Surgeon H. C. Hewitt, of New York city, (a person who has at some time, I believe, had some sort of connection with the regular army,) has been, by virtue of the date of his commission, the Medical Director of Gen. Grant’s army, at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and up to this point, in the Southern campaign. To the miserable incompetency and inefficiency of this man are traceable nearly all the abuses and neglects in the medical departments here that have been such fruitful sources of just complaint.

Take this as Surgeon Hewitt’s opening performance. It occurred at Paducah, before the advance up the Cumberland.

A private of the Ninth Illinois, who had been shot through the shoulder on one of the reconnoitering expeditions from Paducah, was bro’t into the hospital, four days after the wound had been received. Examination showed that the ball had passed through the pectoral muscle, shattered the bone, and injured the main artery of the arm. The parts were very much swollen and inflamed. Dr. Hewitt began by passing his fingers, unoiled, entirely through the wound thus causing the most exquisite pain, and almost throwing the unfortunate soldier into spasms. Subsequently the artery commenced bleeding very copiously. Dr. Hewitt undertook to tie it up, and instead of the artery, succeeded in tying up the nerve. Fifteen minutes afterward the soldier was dead. The doctor then got drunk, went reeling through the streets of Paducah in a state of beastly intoxication,, finally fell into a mud-hole in the main thoroughfare of the city, lost his spectacles, covered himself with filth, and wound up by being placed under arrest by Gen. Smith.

At Fort Henry, His courtesy to the captured rebel surgeons was in such marked contrast with his rudeness to those of our own army, as to provoke some comment. Offended at this, he denounced everybody that objected to his course as a d----d mobbite and no gentleman, and declared with emphasis – directing his remarks to Division Surgeon Fry, brother of the gallant Col. Fry of Kentucky, who distinguished himself in Zollicoffer’s defeat at Cliff Creek – that “if any man there dared doubt the honor and chivalry of Tilghman and his companions, he would challenge him to fight a duel.” Altercation followed, which ended in his calling Dr. Fry a liar, and in Dr. Fry’s promptly knocking him down.

No official notice was taken of the affair, except that Dr. Hewitt, without giving Dr. Fry any notice, selected a military commission, composed of one Missouri and two Illinois Colonels, to investigate it. He had the witnesses summoned himself, and of course made the best showing he could. The Missouri member of this self-selected jury of his at once gave verdict that the Medical Director should be stripped and required to endure thirty blows from Dr. Fry’s cane! The others agreed that Dr. Fry had only erred in waiting too long before resenting the insults but finally decided that Dr. Hewitt should present a written apology to Dr. Fry for insulting him and [that then] Dr. Fry should hive him a written apology for [striking] a superior officer. Dr. Fry refused to do anything of the kind, and there the matter rested.

I may as well add the fact – of little importance in itself, but showing the nature of the man – that some weeks afterward the Medical Director of our “grand army” was again knocked down, this time by a Second Lieutenant, for claiming some forage that he had no manner of claim to, and trying to interfere with the rightful owner in taking it away. As before, nothing further was heard of it.

At Fort Donelson, the Medical Director ordered surgeons to accompany their regiments into the midst of the battle, and yet forbade them to perform any operations on the field. Some surgeons having violated his orders, and by timely operations saved the lives of wounded soldiers, he rebuked them bitterly for their disobedience, telling them it was [their] duty to send back their wounded to him. What [other object] he had in breaking the custom by sending [his] surgeons into the fight, is not apparent.

Out of the numerous just causes for complaint, after the battle, one or two may be selected.

The day of the surrender, when his service were more urgently needed than at any other time, he again got drunk – so drunk as to be unable to walk without staggering, much less to perform surgical operations. He was seen in this condition by hundreds of soldiers and officers, including at least one Major General.

A large number of the wounded, together with many who had become sick from the effects of the terrible exposure and the excitement, where put aboard the steamer, Thomas E. Tutt. This steamer the Medical Director sent down to Mound City, without a Surgeon or assistant on board, and with the sick and wounded absolutely dependent on the charity of accidental passengers for nursing and medical attendance.

Much needless suffering grew out of the Medical Director’s unwillingness to give any information to Brigade and Regimental Surgeons, inquiring after their wounded and seeking to wait upon them. On this point I happen to give this extract from the report of one of the three Division Surgeons.

“The Surgeons of this Division generally complain of discourteous treatment on the part of Medical Director H. C. Hewitt, when manifesting an earnest solicitude for the wounded, and making inquiries as to the time and manner of their removal, and their ultimate destination, the Surgeons were rudely and offensively repulsed, without the desired information. They also complain that in the exercise of arbitrary power, they were deprived of the privilege of attending their own men, or dressing their wounds, when taken to the boats. The report of such conduct is to me a matter of deep regret, and against it I beg leave to protest.”

A subsequent portion of the same report expresses the fear that the mortality would be greatly and needlessly increased, (we all know how sadly the fear became a reality,) by sending of, on crowded steamboats, patients on whom amputations or other severe operations had been performed, where the hurry of moving, the displacement of dressings, and the pain of the incessant jarring, must add fearfully to their dangerous condition. There were plenty of good houses that might have been taken for hospitals for these men; there was abundance of surgical and, volunteer as well as from the officers; nurses could have been detailed to any extent required; there was no danger from the enemy; and in short, there was no excuse for the virtual murder of these wounded heroes, save the Medical Director so commanded.

There were other glaring cases, in which Surgeons who had little or no sickness in their regiments, asked permission to wait on their own wounded, so long as they were kept at Donelson, and were surlily [sic] refused and ordered back to their regiments; but enough has been given to illustrate the character of the medical management after our great victory.

After the present expedition up the Tennessee had begun, there was a great deal of sickness among the men, caused by their privations, lack of air, exercise, opportunities for bathing, cooking and the like on board the transports. The arrangements for some of the sick were miserable. Appeals to the Medical Director, and descriptions of the suffering of their sick by the surgeons elicited only the response, which I give word for word as he repeated the expression to different parties: “What of it? What’s the use of complaining? What did soldiers enlist for but to sicken and die and be killed?” And that as an answer to just complaints of neglect to our sick soldiers, from the Medical Director of one of the largest armies we have in the field!

At this time, when the sickness incident to a change of climate is at its hight [sic], there are divisions in our army almost absolutely destitute of the commonest medicines for the prevailing diseases. The depots at the headquarters of the Department in St. Louis are doubtless crowded with ample medical stores, but of what avail are they to the poor fellows dying her on the banks of the Tennessee? It is the duty of the Medical Director to have the proper supplies issued – Take this chance conversation I chanced to hear between a regimental surgeon and his surgeon of Division as an illustration of how the Medical Director performs his work.

“Pneumonia is very prevalent in our regiment. I want some medicines for it.”

“We have none. The medical director pays no attention to my requisitions.”

“Can’t you give me some syrup of squills?”

“I have none. Sent in requisitions for it long ago, but they are unnoticed.”

“Let me have some ipecac.”

“I have none.”

“Some opium or some of the fluid extracts.”

“I have none.”

“Diarrheas and dysenteries are very common. Can you let me have some morphia, or tannin, or kino?”

“Of one I have a very little, of the rest none at all.”

“Can you give me some quinine for our intermittents?”

“I have none.”

“Some Stimulants?”

“I had none, till to-day I succeeded in getting a barrel of common whiskey from a commissary.”

I do not mean to say that there was not the profusest abundance of all these things somewhere – perhaps in purveyor’s boats not three miles off – but I do say, that after repeated requisitions on the medical director, he left one entire division, as indicated above, destitute of the commonest remedies for the three commonest diseases of the camps.

As illustration of the way the Medical Director has been discharging other portions of his duty, take the following: A “sick leave” was granted to Assistant Surgeon Crane, of the Second Illinois Cavalry, and forwarded to the Medical Director through the proper channels, for approval. He indorsed it, “From the within it would appear that Dr. Crane is too ill to perform his duties. Service in the field now requires vigor, and I therefore recommend Dr. Crane to resign.”

Another sick-leave was granted to Surgeon Austin of the 23rd Indiana, drawn up in precisely the same terms, giving precisely the same reasons for granting the leave, and forwarded to the same Medical Director. He promptly approved it. And more: After remaining at home some time Dr. Austin returned and tendered his resignation, assigning as a reason, that his diseases would permanently disable him from discharging the duties of a Surgeon in the army. The Medical Director, after having recommended the Surgeon to resign because he asked for a short leave, prevailed upon the other, who had returned from a sick-leave convinced that he ought to resign, not to carry out his determination, promising him that he should be relieved from field service and given some easy place at a post hospital. The promise was fulfilled, and Dr. Austin is at Paducah, while his regiment is here without either surgeon or assistant.

The secret of the different action in the two cases is supposed to be that one doctor is a favorite with the Medical Director, and the other is not; but it remains to be decided how far such extraordinary conduct is in accordance with official oaths, common honor, or plain duty to the army.

I might fill columns with such details, might tell of brutality to parents looking for wounded sons, and and [sic] insult to surgeons who earnestly wanted to do their duty, but surely I have given enough.

Only let me add this Medical Director has on three or four occasions, each time in the presence of numerous witnesses, expressed this sentiment in almost precisely these words: “The Union is gone. It can never be reconstructed, and I don’t want it to be. I think and hope that our difficulties will crystallize into a strong military despotism, instead of our present form of government, and I hope to be fortunate enough to be one of the crystals.”

There are pictures, studiously drawn in neutral tints, which are all the more effective from their very lack of coloring. I have sought to make this simple recital such a picture. It were easy to make the facts above presented, and weave them into the bitterest of invectives against an incompetent, inefficient and unfaithful officer in the most responsible of positions. I have not thought it necessary. The facts are ample of themselves. Only let those who have control in these matters remember that we are here, if not the largest, certainly the second in size of all our national armies, with the enemy’s best General and his most formidable force hardly two day’s march from us; and that at the head of the surgical department for this army, so soon expecting to be engaged in the decisive contest of the war, we have an officer notorious for stupid blunders, cold-blooded neglect of the wounded, expressed disloyalty, and drunkenness when most needed on the field.

I have only to add, that for every statement made above I have chapter and verse, date and place, and names of witnesses.


– Published in the Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, April 12, 1862, p. 1

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