Thursday, April 24, 2014

Faces of Civil War Medicine

     Though my job does focus on caring for and displaying artifacts, not all of the displays at my museum contain artifacts.  One of the newer displays at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is a video display titled, “Faces of Civil War Medicine.”  It features images and descriptions of people who have an association with Civil War medicine.  Of course this includes the surgeons and assistant surgeons, but it also covers nurses, hospital stewards, ambulance drivers, wounded soldiers, and even some civilians.  As the title of the display implies, it allows our visitors to see some of the actual faces of the people involved in the story of Civil War medicine.  It’s much more compelling to be able to see the human side of any story.

The Faces of Civil War Medicine is one of the first displays visitors see at the museum!
     Here are just a few of the faces in our display:

Henry Alanson Barnum - Union Colonel
Born:  September 24, 1833, in Jamesville, New York
Served:  Captain and Major of the 12th New York Infantry April 1861; Colonel of the 149th New York Infantry September 1862 to January 1866
Died:  January 29, 1892 in New York City
Photo courtesy of the Otis Historical Archives

     Colonel Barnum was wounded in July 1862.  The wound through his side had passed through his hip bone and was considered fatal.  He was left in a field hospital where he was taken prisoner, then exchanged within a month.  Barnum led his unit at Gettysburg while still recovering, and later received two more wounds.  The first wound never fully healed, although he was in comparatively good health.  He died of pneumonia.

Edson D. Bemis - Union Private
Born:  April 16, 1841 in Chester, Massachusetts
Served:  Private 15th Massachusetts Infantry, December 1861; re-enlisted February 1864, 20th Massachusetts Infantry to July 1865
Died:  November 9, 1900 in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. 
Photo courtesy of the Otis Historical Archives
     Private Bemis was wounded three times during the war; his left arm was fractured by a musket ball in 1862; he received a severe abdominal wound in 1864; and his skull was fractured in 1865.  Part of the temporal bone lodged in his brain and was removed, but the wound healed and his mental facilities were not impaired.  His death at age 59 was "cerebral degeneration as a result of gunshot wounds during the Civil War."

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson - Confederate General
Born:  January 21, 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia
Served:  General, April 1861 - May 1863
Died:  May 10, 1863 in Fairfield, Virginia
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
     After military service in the Mexican War, Jackson became an instructor at the Virginia Military Academy.  He joined the Confederate Army in April 1861.  He was seriously wounded at Chancellorsville in May 1863 when accidentally shot by Confederate troops, and his left arm was amputated near the shoulder.  He was recovering from the amputation when he developed pneumonia and died on May 10.

John Lynch - Union Sergeant
Born:  May 14, 1843 in Westford, Vermont
Served:  Private, Corporal, Sergeant, 11th CT Infantry 1861 to 1865
Died:  April 14, 1906 in Pepperell, Massachusetts
Photo courtesy of Jon Regan
     John Lynch apparently claimed to be 19 years old when he enlisted at the age of 16.  Though he was hospitalized for a hernia at one point, unlike many of the other young soldiers Lynch did not suffer debilitating health issues which would have limited his usefulness as a soldier. Rather, he served throughout the war, enlisting twice, and being promoted to sergeant - also twice, since he had been reduced in rank for disobeying orders in 1864.  He is also my favorite face in the display since he is my great-great-great-grandfather!

Albert Sidney Johnston - Confederate General
Born:  February 2, 1803 in Washington, Kentucky
Served:  General 1861 – 1862 
Died:  April 6, 1862 at Shiloh, Tennessee
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

     Albert Johnston graduated from West Point in 1826 and served in the U.S. Army before joining the Confederate Army at the start of the war.  At the battle of Shiloh he was hit in the knee by a rifle bullet.  The wound bled profusely, and while non-medical people attended to him, he bled to death.  Tragically, Johnston had a tourniquet in his pocket which could have saved his life had it been used.

     These are just a few of the faces and their stories in our display.  If you get the chance, come visit the museum to see the rest of them!


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pull Up a Chair!

     If you’ve ever been camping, you know that it’s helpful to bring along a camp chair.  Surgeons in the Civil War discovered the same thing!

In this Library of Congress photo taken in 1863, and titled, “Bealeton, Va. Noncommissioned officers' mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry”  you can see that the men are seated on folding camp chairs.

This Civil War folding camp chair belonged to Assistant Surgeon Sheffield Greene of the 15th New York Cavalry.  It is a small chair, standing just over 31” high when unfolded.  It folds flat when not in use, and the back wood support behind the seat also functions as a carrying handle. 

     Let’s find out a little more about the owner of this chair.  Sheffield Wells Greene was born in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, in 1814.  He attended Geneva Medical College in 1845 which made him a bit older than most medical students.  He began practicing medicine after his graduation in 1846.  On December 26, 1863, he enlisted with Company D, 15th New York Cavalry Regiment.  I was not able to find an image of him, but the vital statistics on his enlistment papers list him as being a 44 year old physician, 5’ 10” tall, with gray eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion.  There is a discrepancy here regarding his age, as according to the birth date listed in his family records he would have actually been 49 years old when he enlisted.  It’s possible he was afraid of being rejected and so lied about his age.  It’s also possible the age listed on his enlistment papers is a clerical error.  In either case, it is interesting to note that he was older than the average Civil War recruit.   

     Though there is no record of Assistant Surgeon Greene being wounded in battle, he was sent to the Geisboro hospital in Washington D.C. in April 1864.  A month later he returned to camp, but it was recorded that he was still unable to perform his regular duties.  There is one notation in the Company Muster Roll which indicates he was “Absent on detached service” and assigned as a nurse at the Camp Stoneman Hospital starting in July 1864.  It was a common practice at the time to assign some of the nearly-recovered patients to nursing duties.  
     An excerpt from a later letter to the Pension Office uncovers the reason for his hospitalization:  “…during the forepart of the months of April 1864 while on return march from Burlington Gap, West Virginia [we] dismounted.  And in consequence of exposure at Springfield, West Virginia, and being under orders to continue the march of the mountains on the way to Pleasant Valley state of Maryland was turned over by Order for Rupture to the camp Hospital at that place and remained there about one week, and from there to Washington D.C.   My comrade Rev. David Rittenhouse who had entire charge of me and had the said order of the evidence of this disability that the Diarrhea followed in train, from which I never recovered, and that I was treated for Rupture in the Hospital by the proper treatment of Suspencery Bandages and for the Diarrhea secundum artem and that I was in the fourth ward Hospital at Camp Stoneman D.C. and also at Judiciary Square Hospital D.C. December 1864 and remained there until in January 1865 and that said Rupture was brought upon me as alleged in my original applications by carrying heavy Cavalry Baggage on the return march from West Virginia.”

     In other words, he developed a hernia, and chronic diarrhea  - a prevalent complaint for Civil War soldiers!  A hospital record from his stay at Judiciary Square General Hospital in December 1864 lists his age as 50 (which supports his enlistment age of 49).  He was diagnosed there with hydrocele and was granted a furlough on December 16, 1864.  After reporting back for duty in January 1865, he was commissioned into Field & Staff New York 147th Infantry.  Despite his medical issues, it appears that he continued to serve for as long as he was able.  He was mustered out on June 7, 1865, and he returned home to New York to practice medicine.  

There are no manufacturer’s marks on the chair, but it does have the initials ‘S.W.G’ stenciled in black paint onto the back of the chair.  Perhaps they were put there by the doctor himself? 

     In 1882, Dr. Greene applied for a pension, but a series of letters between him and the pension office indicate that there was some question as to whether his disability was sustained during his service or was a preexisting condition.  Ultimately it was argued that his recruitment papers stated he had been examined by a physician and found to be in good health when he enlisted.  It took four years, but his request was finally approved.  He died in 1899 at the age of 85, and is buried in the Richburg Cemetery in Wirt, NY.

     A bit more about Dr. Greene is found in the book, Allegany County and Its People: a centennial memorial history of Allegany County, New York, by John Stearns Minard and Georgia Drew Merrill.  The conclusion of the summary of his life tells more about his character, “The doctor for 40 years has given arduous and unspared labors for the relief of human suffering, and can look back along an honest and diligent life with a consciousness of doing well all duties falling to his lot.”

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Taking Care of Artifacts at Home

     Artifacts aren't just found in museums.  Most people have family treasures they want to protect and preserve.  I sometimes get inquiries about how to best care for and store old papers, photographs, or other items of historical or sentimental significance.  So, today I thought I’d share a few very basic guidelines for artifact care.

     I’ll start with the disclaimer that the specific storage conditions depend on the materials which make up each artifact.  The optimal storage conditions are not identical for every artifact, and having items made of more than one material complicates matters even more.  These are general guidelines!  If you have a particular artifact which is of great value to you, I’d strongly suggest researching more specific guidelines for the material of which it’s composed, and consulting a conservator.

     Guideline #1 – Document it!  Take a photo or photos of your items, and date the photos.  This is helpful when having your items insured, or for proving that you owned them if they are stolen.  It also serves as a reference point.  You may not notice gradual fading or damage, but a photograph can help to alert you to the fact that something has changed.

With this photo, you would easily be able to see if any of these surgical needles were missing later, or if the cloth started to fade or become discolored.

If you have an item like this field medical case which is already damaged, a photo serves to document the damage.  It can also still be used to check this case later to ensure that the damaged areas are not deteriorating further. 

     Another part of documenting your artifact includes keeping a file which details its story.  You can’t always rely on your memory of the item’s history, and future generations certainly won’t know its history if you don’t document it!  

     Guideline #2 – Location matters!  People tend to store their old mementos in the attic or the basement of their homes.  Those are the two worst storage spots for artifacts!  It’s best to keep artifacts in an environment with a relatively stable temperature and relative humidity.  The temperature and relative humidity in the basement and attic tend to fluctuate much more than in the living areas of a house.  Find a closet or cabinet in the main section of your home to store your artifacts.  This will keep them out of the more extreme conditions in the attic or basement, and also will help to limit their exposure to light and dust.  

     Guideline #3 – Use the right storage materials.  It doesn’t do much good to store your family’s treasures in the right area if you pack them in materials which will damage them.  Old cardboard boxes and newspapers seem to be commonly used for storing and packing items, but both are acidic and can damage artifacts.  Instead, purchase acid-free boxes and tissue paper for artifact storage.  Mylar sleeves or acid-free folders are good for storing photos and papers.  Photo albums can also be used for photos, as long as they are labeled for archival use.  Unbleached muslin fabric is another option for use with artifacts, especially as a dust cover for textiles and furniture.  Take the time to learn about what materials make up your storage items, and get used to looking for the term “acid-free!”

Archival cardboard boxes come in many shapes and sizes to fit a wide variety of artifacts.  If you need to go with something cheaper, plastic storage boxes work as well and have the advantage of offering more protection against moisture.
     Guideline #4 – Don’t try to fix it! – Probably the most important message I’d like to share here is to not attempt to do any repairs yourself, even if they seem like minor repairs.  Seriously, I considered titling this section “Don’t Use Scotch Tape!” because that is the source of many of the repair attempts I see.  Not that I have anything against cellophane tape for household uses, but I do cringe when I find that it has been used on an artifact.  I know that people mean well.  They want to repair that ripped book page, or to make sure that card with the artifact’s history is securely attached to it.  But have you ever seen an old newspaper, book, or photo which was repaired with tape years ago?  

You can see the damage caused to this Confederate note by the cellophane tape.  Over time the tape starts to decompose and become yellow, and the acid adhesive on the tape damages the paper.  Even if the tape is removed, there will be some acidic residue left on the paper.  And, just so I’m not accused of picking on Scotch tape, remember that acetate tape (“Magic tape”), masking tape, packaging tape, and even Post It notes also have adhesive which can damage artifacts.

     Aim to simply stabilize any damage, not to repair it.  Be sure that anything you do to your artifact is reversible.  For instance, the bill pictured above could have been put inside a Mylar sleeve to prevent it from ripping further.  The sleeve would have supported the paper, without doing further damage to it.  For books with loose or ripped pages, consider storing the book in a box, or tying the book shut with cloth tape.  

     I don’t have the space here to cover all the possibilities, but I hope I’ve given you a good starting point at least.  Take good care of those artifacts so that future generations can enjoy them, and don’t be afraid to call on a professional for advice!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.