Sunday, September 12, 2010

Medical View Of The Condition Of The Iowa Troops At St. Louis

(By D. L. McGugin, M. D., Surgeon and Medical Inspector, Benton Barracks.)

( Concluded. )

The mumps came among the men to assert their right to inflict pain and suffering and as if to cap the climax of eruptive diseases, there have been a number of cases of small pox and varioloid. From this last the regiments from Iowa have escaped thus far, and as they have all been vaccinated it is hoped they are fully protected.

It is a subject of wonder to me that so many aft attained to their majority without having contracted the measles. It is curious to observe that an equal proportion of each regiment have taken the disease, which leads me to the conclusion that vital statistics would show a certain per cent, greater than is supposed, who have never suffered from the disease, in every community.

In my desire to afford all the satisfaction in my power, I have been compelled to resort to some medical terms, the better to convey the information so much desired on the part of the people of the State. Almost every intelligent individual is, or ought to be informed in some degree of the anatomy and physiology of the lungs and of respiration and therefore will pardon me if I may not have expressed myself as plainly as I could have done. In looking over what I have written I do not see that I could have resorted to simpler terms that would have been as expressive on the conditions, with all the particular circumstances.

Such then were the chief agents in the production of so much disease and death among the soldiers, and which has startled and surprised the friends, relatives and neighbors of those who have enlisted and are now in the service. If you will but obtain a record of the sick and then compare the mortality, the latter will not appear so startling after all. For instance, in the 3d Michigan there are in quarters in one day reported to me 265 sick and in Hospital 50, and that regiment has averaged 250 in all during the past month. I have not at hand the statistics, but when they come to be examined it will be found that the result will not prove so startling after all.

And yet it is sad to witness even the amount we have had and I am free to believe that it could not be averted. The regimental hospitals, some of which are in private dwellings which were the property, in some instances, of rebel sympathizers and aiders and abettors of treason, were not calculated for hospitals, although large and fine residences. They could not be regulated very well, and it was very difficult to get the nurses to understand their duty and to perform it even when they knew it. Men nurses are not as neat nor as thoughtful as the females, either in keeping the apartments or apparel clean, or in preparing food properly for the patients. And yet, after much care and instruction they are now in such a condition as to call forth the highest encomiums from the President of the Sanitary Commission of St. Louis as regards their condition.

I have enumerated some of the diseases which in their several forms have seized upon the soldiers and have carried many of them to their silent tombs. I have seen a number stricken down with disease and die, who had fought bravely upon the battle field and escaped the balls and shot of the enemy. I witnessed a touching spectacle in which the hospital of the 7th Iowa Infantry, (Col. Lauman’s,) which had covered itself all over with the glory in the bloody struggle of Belmont. Two brave young men had languished for some weeks with pneumonia, and upon my daily visits I was particularly interested in them. They appeared to be about twenty years of age, but their countenances, although changed by disease, still wore an expression of intelligence and refinement. One day I left them without hope of recovery for them, although Surgeon Witter had exerted every effort in their behalf. Their youthful vigor had made a strong stand against disease, but they were drawn down lower and lower, until finally the great conqueror Death triumphed. Upon my visit next morning I found they had both died within an hour of each other, and their comrades were performing the sad duty of preparing them for their place in the silent sand. There they lay; their lungs had ceased to breath – the heart to propel the vital current, and all was still and death quiet and stony stillness marked their finely moulded forms: for despite their lingering illness, they still preserved more or less of the fineness of outline and symmetry of proportion which characterizes the form of youth in healthful vigor. I thought, as I looked with admiration upon their lifeless forms, what retribution was in reservation for those who had caused the necessity for such multiplied and great sacrifices. Poor fellows; I thought, too, of their mothers, sisters and friends; what great sacrifices they had made for their country, in giving these youths that our country and its institutions may be restored and perpetuated.

“They now sleep their last sleep – they have fought their last battle. No sound can awake them to glory again.”

From the spirit of the synopsis of the lecture of the reverend Gentleman, I was led to the inference that he thought a reformation was needed among the officers in the matter of caring for the men. In this I may be in error; but, if not, I deem it my duty to say that our officers displayed a most commendable interest in the well being of the men, from the lowest to the highest in command. But it was impossible for them to avoid the silent and intangible agents, which have been so potent and active in predisposing and exciting disease. – My opportunities for observation are equal to those of any other in the cantonment; and I cannot now see when I look back how these silent agencies for mischief could have been thwarted, unless the commanders of regiments had disobeyed orders, and taken their men upon some knoll, and there pitched their tents, and thus to suffer a violation of general orders making them liable to be put under arrest and tried by a court martial. Those that were sent from these barracks to the field, and the parts of regiments that had leave to erect their tents and take their quarters in them, have comparatively escaped disease, proving clearly and conclusively the correctness of my opinion, some time since embodied in a report to headquarters. Men in time of war must obey their superior officers. The Colonel has his power; the Brigadier General controls and commands him; the Major General holds the reins upon him again; while he again is subject to supreme command. It is a little despotism from beginning to end, and it is necessary that it should be so, otherwise all would be commanders and all would be leaders.

Another fact must be observed and considered, and that is, that this government has done more in the same space of time to raise, equip, and supply an army of its immense size than any nation has ever done; and that, too, under the most embarrassing circumstances. The magnitude of this work would not allow it to provide such comforts and accommodations as the majority of the men who compose it find at home. I am proud to know that the government has been able to accomplish so much, and carry out so grand a scheme. Where its management had to be entrusted to men inexperienced in military matters and the wants of the soldiers, it could not be very reasonably expected that every part would be perfect, or that every defect would be foreseen by those who are wanting in experience, for by this we learn facts which cannot be gained by any other means.

I therefore think it unfair for those who have little to do in the labor, toil, and responsibilities of so great an undertaking, to find fault when they themselves do not suffer any of the discomforts, and speak disparagingly of the conduct of others, when they know so little of the circumstances by which they are surrounded and the difficulties which they encounter. Persons enjoying the comforts of a happy home, with every blessing around them, a blazing cheerful fire in the winter’s cold to defend against the howling blasts which are provoked into “angry soughs” because they are not permitted to enter in; who sleep upon soft beds or couches of ease; who have every delicacy, and enjoy the liberty of going and coming at all hours without interruption, whose actions are free and untrammeled; who are enjoying the security purchased and preserved by the sacrifices of those in the service of their country; it is quite an easy matter for these to find fault, exaggerate, and misrepresent. – Look at the soldier! He is out early in the morning whether it rains or shines, whether it is calm or stormy, whether it is wet or dry, he must be abroad, and whatever betide he must endure it. He tramps, tramps, tramps, whether the mud be knee deep, whether it be frozen and therefore rough – whether it be a glare of sleet or ice, he must endure it until the hour comes when he is allowed to prepare his dinner, without the show of silver plate, china, fine steel knives and three pronged silver forks with napkins and their rings to boot. Tin cups and tin plates, pot-metal knives and forks, accompanied with iron spoons are refinements in the army. The sound of the bugle or the roll of the drum calls them out again, and it is drill again. The night may be passed on guard, and no matter how pitiless the storm, they must endure it, because the sleepless guardians of the night. At nine the “taps” put out the few lights, and they retire to sleep upon their hard bunks, or if in tents, upon the ground, to rise again at dawn of day to partake of their crude food, and then to drill or parade again. And yet these men complain less than those at home, and find less fault, because they know more about everything and readily understand the whole ponderous machinery.

Some of the papers in our state have belched forth invectives against the officers connected with the regiments, and in a particular manner the medical officers. I do not deny that there as some medical men in the service who dishonor it and their profession. The reason is, that they are very often selected by men who are not always competent to judge of medical acquirements. But in the main, the medical men in this cantonment will compare favorably with those in any department of the service; and most certainly they have been attentive faithful and laborious in their application to duty. I have had opportunities afforded me with their efforts, their constancy and fidelity to the trusts imposed upon them. The people should know that the surgeon of a regiment, if he [does] his duty faithfully and well, has the heaviest responsibility imposed upon him of all the officers in the army. The commander may lead his men into battle and win a victory, and have his name inscribed high in the lists of fame, yet not a word is said of the surgeon who has dressed the wounds and saved the flickering spark of life as it was fast oozing out of some torn artery or large vein. These mangled limbs, these mutilated forms have purchased the victory and paid the highest price ever paid for the fame and renown of their leader; and yet he who saves to life, the world, and their families, these precious materials, although maimed and deformed, rests from his labors and his name is not even mentioned. – “The Surgeons were busy with the wounded” is the alpha and omega of all that is said of them. They are a class of men desirable only from necessity. Officers high in command, will here their suggestions and adopt what their own limited conception of the sanitary laws may appear to them as necessary. And yet the secular world are too prone to reflect upon those who, on the one hand has to contend against a secret, and intangible enemy, who only shows that he is abroad by the number of victims shown by the way, and on the other, their hands are tied while making the attempt.

To defend the commanding officers and surgeons, and to show what causes existed for so much sickness and mortality, that the people may know and understand; have been the motives which have dictated this communication, which I regret is quite too long. I have been sure that the people did not comprehend the reason because they had been taught to know that these barracks have cost such large sums of money, and per consequence the comforts were in proportion. This should have and might have been, and yet not one officer in all these barracks had a finger in their construction.

I trust your lecturer has recounted these facts, and if he have not, because it was not in the immediate sphere of his duties, you will please give this to the people through your columns, and you will satisfy those who may confide in the views and the conclusions, and oblige.

Yours very respectfully,


– Published in The Davenport Daily Gazette, Davenport, Iowa, Friday Morning, February 14, 1862, p. 2

NOTE: This is the second of a two part article. For its first part, please click HERE.

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