Thursday, December 20, 2012

Portrait of a Civil War Surgeon

     Part of my job here at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine involves helping to tell the stories of the men and women who were involved with medical care in the Civil War.  Sometimes that is accomplished using their personal belongings or their medical instruments and supplies.  These things can certainly give insight into aspects of their lives or the medical techniques and technology of the time, but it’s not quite the same as being able to see the face associated with the objects.  I think it is far more compelling to be able to show that these were real people in the stories that we tell.  So, today I thought I would share the story and the image of one Civil War Surgeon. 
Here is a carte de visite, or CDV, of Surgeon Orange B. Ormsby in uniform, which was probably taken in 1863 or 1864. A CDV is a type of small photograph, usually an albumen print mounted onto a thicker paper, which was patented by French photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854. They were inexpensive and easy to mass produce, so they were quite popular during the Civil War. Soldiers had them made to send home to their families or sweethearts, and those back on the home front had them made to send to the soldiers.  

     At the start of the Civil War, Orange B. Ormsby was a young physician in Greenville, Illinois.  On June 25, 1861, at the age of 25, he enlisted as a Private in the 22nd IL Infantry, Company E.  His enlistment papers describe him as being 5’ 10” tall, with blue eyes, light hair, and a fair complexion.  In August of that same year he transferred to the 18th IL Infantry, Company S and was commissioned as an Assistant Surgeon.  His claim to fame was that during the Siege of Corinth, he was working behind Confederate lines and assisted in saving the life of General Richard Oglesby, who was wounded in the chest and back.  After the war General Oglesby went on to serve three terms as the Governor of Illinois, and also served as a U.S. Senator.  The town of Oglesby, IL, is named for him. 
An image of General Richard Oglesby from the National Archives and Records Administration.
     By 1863, Orange B. Ormsby had enlisted as a Surgeon in the 45th IL Infantry, Company S, also known as the “Washburn Lead Mine Regiment.”  The 45th IL was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee, and during his time with them Ormsby would have been in battles in Mississippi, including the Vicksburg Campaign.  In fact, there are monuments to the 45th IL Infantry in Vicksburg. 

     On October 29, 1864, Ormsby was discharged for disability (lumbago and rheumatism) and went home to his wife and family in Illinois.  He received an Army pension starting when he was age 55 and died on June 13, 1899 at the age of 63.  Another interesting note is that his youngest son, Oscar Burton Ormsby, followed in his father’s footsteps by attending medical school and serving in the medical corps in World War I.
Here you can see the back of the CDV. It is marked on the back “Surgeon, O.B. Ormsby 45th ILL” in pencil. In the middle of the back is printed “A. Braisted, Photographer, Freeport, IL.” It is signed in ink at the bottom “Yours Truly, O.B. Ormsby, Surg. 45thIll. Infy.”

     Surgeon Ormsby’s CDV was donated to the NMCWM by one of his descendants.  He shared the story with me of searching for Ormsby’s grave:  I visited Murphysboro, Illinois in 2004 and found his grave.  An invisible string led me to it as I had no prior indication where it was but was led (by accident?) directly to it.  I went to the cemetery which was quite large and stopped at a random site, got out of the car to survey the area and found I was inadvertently located next to his plot.  The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention!  Perhaps Orange’s spirit was helping me.  I don’t know but it makes a good story. 

     Though the CDV image is somewhat faded, we still wanted to display it.  In this case, the best option was to digitize it.  The digitized image and a brief biography of Orange B. Ormsby are currently a part of the NMCWM’s video display, “Faces of Civil War Medicine.”  This way Surgeon Ormsby’s image and his story can be shared with the public, while the original CDV image can be better preserved for the future.  I hope Orange’s story can be preserved this way as well! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.
*Note – I will be taking a short break for the Christmas holiday, but I look forward to sharing more blog posts with you in 2013.  Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Changes at the Pry House

     This is normally the time of year when I would be arranging to bring the artifacts back from the Pry House Field Hospital Museum for the winter.  However, this year it was decided to keep the Pry House open during the winter, at least on weekends.  Other than ensuring that the heat is not turned down as it usually is when the facility is closed, no changes need to be made for the artifacts or exhibits.  Some of the displays have been changed though, and this week I took a few additional artifacts out for a new exhibit.

     Since this is the first winter the Pry House will be open, we chose an exhibit on Winter Quarters.  There was not as much active fighting during the winter months of the Civil War, and long-term camps called winter quarters were set up for the soldiers, with heated huts or tents.

Library of Congress photo of Federal soldiers in winter quarters at City Point, Virginia.  


The Winter Quarters exhibit shows some of the items which would have been important to the soldiers during the cold months.  On display are blankets, pipes, tobacco, matches, various games, and a photo of a surgeon in full cold weather uniform.

     Cold was not the only enemy during winter, the boredom of camp life had to be combated as well.  Soldiers played all sorts of games, or competed in various contests.  And, just as children (and some adults) do today, they had snowball fights when there was snow!  Private John Casler of the 33rd Virginia Infantry wrote of his experiences in the book, Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, and described one snowball fight, "Officers would be captured and pulled off their horses and washed in the snow, but all took it in good part.  After the fight was over we went out with a flag of truce and exchanged prisoners….. It was probably the greatest snowball battle ever fought, and showed that “men are but children of larger growth.”” 

For a longer account of this battle click here.
Allen C. Redwood's illustration of a snowball fight from Casler's book.

A handmade wooden checker/chess board is on display, along with some gutta percha chess pieces. 

If game pieces were not available, the soldiers would improvise.  This is a lead bullet which has been carved into a chess bishop.
This was also originally a bullet, and could have been used as a checker player or a poker chip.

     The winter exhibit is not the only change though.  Tom and Kyle have also been busy decorating the Pry House for Christmas. 
The Operating Theater, which depicted a surgeon treating the wounded General Hooker, is looking less gruesome and more festive now! 

The mannequins which were in the Operating Theater were moved to the Richardson Room. They are now being used to depict a doctor caring for General Richardson.

     If you get the chance, come out and see the decorations and new displays.  If you can visit on Dec. 15th, you might even get the opportunity to see a Civil War Santa Claus! 


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln

     On Monday, the staff of the NMCWM was fortunate to be allowed the afternoon off to view the movie Lincoln.  It was a field trip of sorts! 
Here is the staff in front of the theater. A big thank you goes out to George, Tom, and Katie for staying behind to keep the museum open while the rest of us saw the movie!

     I’d heard a lot of good reviews about the movie, so I was eager to finally see it.  Though I thought there were a couple of instances that showed a definite Hollywood interpretation, I did enjoy it overall.  There were even some short scenes that touched on Civil War medicine, which justified our trip!  I think my biggest disappointment was the fact that the severed leg of General Sickles in its display case was shown briefly in one scene, but was not identified.  What a great opportunity they missed in not mentioning that story!

     Since there is so much interest in Abraham Lincoln at the moment, I thought I’d share a few of the Lincoln artifacts in the museum’s collection that are not currently on display.

Here is a Certificate of Commission for Dr. Elias J. Marsh, which bears the signature of President Abraham Lincoln, and is dated August 10, 1861.


     A letter in our collection that was written by Civil War nurse, Clarissa Jones, on April 15th, 1865 about Lincoln’s assassination reads:  “I am unfit to write or even think.  I am utterly prostrated in mind by the awful news of last evening—I am just starting out to try to get a paper to send to you with this, fearing I may not succeed I will mention the terrible calamity of which the paper gives a better def.

     The Pres. was last night shot while in the Theatre and died this A.M. at 7.  Sec. Seward was stabbed while in bed, and his son mortally stabbed by the same man—he has since died—reports to the effect that Grant also was assassinated….but it has not been confirmed—“  It shows the shock and grief many people felt at the news of his assassination, as well as some of the rumors which circulated.
One of our more interesting Lincoln items is a replica of a plaster life mask made by Leonard Volk in 1860.

     A life mask is made by applying plaster to a person’s face and letting it dry.  Petroleum jelly or oil is put on the subject’s face first, but there can still be some hair pulled out when the mask is removed.  Mr. Lincoln is said to have commented that the process of removing the hardened plaster cast from his face was, “anything but agreeable!”  He was reportedly pleased with the final product though.  He had another life mask done about five years later, and it is interesting to compare the two masks.  The presidency and the war appear to have aged him much more than five years.  You can see a short video about the two life masks here. 
Here is a cast of Lincoln’s hand which was done at the same time. The object he is clutching is a broom handle, and the hand next to the cast gives some perspective for the size of his hands!

     Though these casts are interesting to study, I think I’d prefer to simply have a picture taken!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.