Civil War Hospitals
Civil War Hospital Chaplains
Compiled & edited by Chaplain Daryl Densford
During the Civil War, “for every hospital bed occupied by a soldier wounded in battle, there were at least seven others filled by those with diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, malaria, and dysentery. Such a high incidence of disease early in the war caught the Army Medical Department unprepared. For that reason, most Civil War hospitals were initially overcrowded and understaffed. Since no chaplaincy service was available in military hospitals, local ministers and church members ministered to the wounded.” (Mayniak, 183-184)
“The Union Army operated 16 medical departments, the top two by bed capacity being Washington City (D.C.) and Pennsylvania. Philadelphia alone had more than 14,000 beds. Its two largest general hospitals, Satterlee and Mower had 4,000 and 3,000 beds, respectively. The largest hospital, however, was Chimborazo, operated by the Confederates in Richmond, with 7,000 beds.” (Dorwart)
“In spring 1862, a number of Washington clergymen petitioned President Lincoln to appoint military chaplains to the city’s hospitals that were overflowing with wounded and sick soldiers. Accordingly President Lincoln asked Congress to approve the appointment of US Hospital Chaplains, a request Congress honored on 20 May 1862. Further Congressional legislation followed on 17 July specifying a hospital chaplain’s pay at twelve hundred dollars a year with an additional three hundred dollars allowed for quarters.
“From 1862 to the end of 1864, President Lincoln appointed many chaplains personally to US Army hospitals. Eventually more than two hundred Union chaplains served in hospital ministries. These did not include the regimental chaplains who were assigned temporary hospital duty while on campaign.
“Hospital chaplains made regular reports to the chief surgeon each week or month as required. Many of their reports reveal innovative ministries to entertain and educate their patients as well as to offer pastoral support. Some, like Chaplain Amos Billingsley of the 101st Pennsylvania Infantry, saw an opportunity for preaching evangelistic sermons to encourage soldiers to repent and receive God’s grace quickly lest their wounds prove fatal.
“Several of the stories from the hospital chaplains are pitiful because young soldiers regularly pled with their doctors to let them go home one last time. Unfortunately their pleas often came too late.” (Mayniak, 183-184)
“Once established, the hospital chaplaincies were very attractive. The applications from civilian clergymen and chaplains already in service far exceeded the available positions. In awarding commissions, chaplains with regiments received preference, and throughout the war most of the posts were occupied by experienced chaplains who had transferred. Very few civilian clergymen received direct commissions. Over 500 different clergymen served as hospital ministers, but no more than 175 were in service at a given time; the peak was reached near the end of the war, when there were 173 on duty. The ideal goal of a military minister at each hospital was never reached; when Grant accepted Lee’s surrender, 20 of the 192 general hospitals were without a resident chaplain. Hospital chaplains, all Protestant except for 13 priests and 2 rabbis, led a somewhat charmed life; only a few were injured, and no hospital chaplain was wounded or taken prisoner…” (Norton, 116)
“Important Union hospital centers in Virginia included Fort Monroe, Hampton and Portsmouth in the Hampton Roads area, and Alexandria.” (Wheat)
“The Union Army occupied Alexandria from the first days of the civil War to the last. They used the town as a base for supplies, troop transfer, and other logistics, as well as to protect Washington, DC. Alexandria also became an important center for care of the wounded and sick. By the end of the war, more than 30 military hospitals were located in Alexandria, with 6,500 beds.
“Churches, homes, the city’s largest hotel, and other buildings were taken over as medical facilities. A Quaker Meetinghouse, a girls’ seminary, a home belonging to the family of Robert E. Lee – all accommodated wounded and diseased patients. Elsewhere, hospital complexes extending over city blocks were built based on plans drawn up by the Quartermaster-General in Washington. Their main features were long, ventilated barracks (usually made of wood) in which patients could be divided into wards.
“Surgeons, nurses, orderlies, cooks, and ambulance drivers also came to Alexandria to tend to the patients. Relief workers, volunteers, and worried family members flocked to the hospitals as well.
“Little evidence remains of these hospitals. The purpose-built hospitals were dismantled, and many of the confiscated buildings were torn down or substantially changed. We know where most of the hospitals were located, based on the maps drawn up by the Quartermaster Corps and newspapers and other contemporary accounts.
“The first general hospital organized under the Surgeon General opened in July 1861, in the Old Hallowell School. It soon became clear that many more facilities were needed in Alexandria, Washington, and Georgetown. The quartermaster in charge for a good part of the war, Capt. J.G.C. Lee, recalled in 1901 “By rail at first, and afterward by steam boat, they [the wounded] poured in. The first telegram received by me from the commanding general read, ‘Send to the front three carloads of ice. Prepare to care for ten thousand wounded.’”
“In September 1862, the hospital system was organized by Division. (The Army of the Potomac, which fought mostly on the East Coast, was organized into three divisions.) Each division had a primary general hospital, with other nearby buildings as its branches. Officially, the branches were considered wards and were numbered off of their main hospital, but had names in popular usage. In addition to the Division hospitals, some specialized hospitals added an unknown, but relatively small number of beds to the total the city could accommodate.” (City of Alexandria, “Union Hospitals in Alexandria: A Short History”)
There were at least 28 hospitals during the Civil War in what is now “Old Town” Alexandria. The chaplains who are known to have served as hospital chaplains in Alexandria or Virginia are listed below. Note that some Regimental Chaplains were given the additional duty of hospital coverage who may not appear on this list. When known, the chaplains’ years of birth & death and denomination are listed. Locations are listed as specific as known so if “Virginia” is as specific as listed, that chaplain may have been assigned to a hospital in Alexandria or another Union hospital located in Virginia.
Drumm, Thomas, Regularly visited 2 hospitals in Alexandria, (Armstrong, 50)
Ely, Isaac Mills (1819-1880), Congregational, Hospital: Alexandria, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Lanahan, John, Hospital: Virginia, (Brinsfield, Roster)
McMurdy, Robert, Post: Alexandria, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Olmstead, Lemuel Gregory (1808-1880), Presbyterian, Hospital: Alexandria, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Palen, Vincent (-1884), Baptist, Hospital: Virginia, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Raymond, Charles Atwater, Hospital: Virginia, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Shelton, Orville Clarkson, Methodist, Hospital: Virginia, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Thomas, C. B., Washington Street Hospital, Alexandria, (Armstrong, 63)
(Thomas, Chauncey Boardman (1834-1881), Congregational), (Brinsfield, Roster)
Woods, John Washington ( -1864), Hospital: Virginia, (Brinsfield, Roster)
Armstrong, Warren B., “For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War.” Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Brinsfield, John W., et al, “Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains.” Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.
City of Alexandria Virginia, “Union Hospitals in Alexandria: A Short History.” https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/civilwar/default.aspx?id=82974 (accessed Aug 8, 2018).
Dorwart, Dr. Bonnie Brice, “Civil War Hospitals.” http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/civil-war-hospitals.html (accessed Aug 8, 2018).
Norton, Herman A., “Struggling for Recognition: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1791-1865.” Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977
Maryniak, Benedict R. & John Wesley Brinsfield, Jr., “The Spirit Divided, Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains, The Union.” Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007.
Wheat, T. A., “Medicine in Virginia during the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Medicine_in_Virginia_During_the_Civil_War#start_entry (accessed Aug 8, 2018).