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!

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