Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Man Who Stopped the Civil War

     Last week I installed a new exhibit out at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, which deals with Civil War Surgeon Elias Joseph Marsh. 
An image of Surgeon Marsh in his uniform, taken about 1865.  This photo is marked on the back, "Sarony & Co., New York."
     Dr. Marsh was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1835.  His father, who was also named Elias Marsh and who was also a physician, died when Elias was just 13 years old.  Elias Marsh followed his father into medicine, and graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1858.  He then moved to St. Louis, Missouri to set up his own medical practice. 

     At the start of the Civil War, Dr. Marsh immediately offered his services to the Union.  He was first appointed as a "surgeon's mate" in the Third New Jersey Volunteers.  A few months later he was appointed as an Assistant Surgeon in a Cavalry unit.  He participated in the Peninsula Campaign, and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill in 1862.  His status as a physician allowed for him to be exchanged fairly quickly though.  Afterwards, he served as the director of Armory Square Hospital in Washington DC.  By the end of the war, he was on General Philip Sheridan's staff.  During the war, Dr. Marsh earned the reputation as a fearless and courageous soldier.  Nothing could induce him to slight a duty he considered his, and he was never happier than when he was trying to alleviate the suffering of others.
The Marsh exhibit includes information about Surgeon Marsh, and several artifacts which belonged to him.

This display case contains his carte-de-visite, rank insignia, and a medal which was presented to him by the Veteran’s Society after the war.  It also contains a copy of his Certificate of Commission, dated August 10, 1861, which is signed by President Abraham Lincoln.  There is too much light in the room to display the original document.  The original may soon be on display in the main museum though.

Surgeon Marsh’s rank insignia – small oak leaves embroidered in metallic thread on dark blue wool patches.  In November 1864, the United States War Department allowed any officer who desired a more discreet appearance in the field to “dispense with shoulder straps” and wear the mark of their rank directly on their uniform.  Most likely Surgeon Marsh wore these as a result of this edict.

This much larger and fancier gold dress epaulet also belonged to Dr. Marsh, but it would have been part of his dress uniform.  The embroidered “MS” stands for Medical Service.  The back is covered in red velvet and is marked, “Schuyler, Hartley& Graham, Military Goods, New York.”

Also on display is a pocket surgical kit which belonged to Dr. Marsh.  This kit was manufactured by F.G. Otto & Sons of New York.  You can see that it is quite worn!  Normally I try to display these kits open so that the instruments are visible, but this case is too fragile for that.

Instead, I put the instruments out on display separately.  This folding scalpel actually has two blades, though only one is visible in this view.  The handle is made of tortoiseshell, and the small buttons on the handle are used to lock the blades into place.   

     Surgeon Marsh is sometimes referred to as "The Man Who Stopped the Civil War."  It seems a strange designation for a surgeon, but it was a case of being in the right place at the right time!  While Generals Grant and Lee considered the terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House, parts of the Federal and Confederate armies were still firing at each other.  General Grant turned to Assistant-Adjutant-General Thomas Weir, and asked him to see that the firing was stopped.  However, General Weir knew his horse was worn out and not fit for the task.  He asked Dr. Marsh to transmit the orders to the regimental commanders.  So, the cease-fire orders he conveyed brought an end to the shooting.
There were visitors waiting at the door while the exhibit was being installed.  This was the scene just moments after I left the room!

     It’s good to see Dr. Marsh’s service being appreciated!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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