Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Hospital Ship Artifact

     The USS Red Rover was a side-wheel steamer originally used as a barracks ship by the Confederates.  She was captured by Union forces in 1862 and refitted, becoming the U.S. Navy’s first hospital ship. 

A photograph of the Red Rover from Naval History & Heritage at

     As a hospital ship, the Red Rover was equipped with an operating room, a separate galley for the patients, a steam boiler for the laundry, an elevator, and several bathrooms.  It even had window blinds to keep out the smoke and cinders.  The nurses on the Red Rover were from the Catholic order Sisters of the Holy Cross.  They were the first female nurses to serve on board a Navy ship.  
Illustrations of the Red Rover’s interior from “Harper's Weekly”, May 9, 1863.
     The Red Rover was used to care for and transport sick and wounded men, and to transport medical supplies for the remainder of the war.  She was decommissioned on November 17, 1865.  Over 2,400 patients had been admitted to this hospital ship.

     One artifact which was recovered from the Red Rover is a large mortar and pestle.  This would have been used to grind various substances used to make medicines for the patients on board.  The mortar is made of cast iron, and is quite heavy!  The pestle is made of brass and has decorative etchings along its length.

A mortar & pestle used on the hospital ship USS Red Rover.


     Until recently, this mortar & pestle were on display here at the NMCWM in our Naval Surgeons display.  Now they are being sent out on loan to the Kenosha Civil War Museum in Wisconsin.  If you are up that way, you should stop by and see them in person!
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted. 




  1. Can you tell me if doctors performed surgery while the ships were underway, or only when in harbor?

  2. The majority of the operations were done at the field hospitals, before the soldiers were transferred to the hospital ships. However, the ships were equipped with operating rooms, and the surgeons would have performed operations when necessary. I imagine that would have included some times when the ships were underway.

  3. Are you able to tell me where I can get detailed blue prints of the USS Red Rover?


  4. Your best bet would probably be the Library of Congress, or the Naval Historical Center.