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Dr. Henry Palmer ran York’s U.S. Army Hospital during the Civil War

Dr. Henry Palmer played a prominent role in events in York, Pennsylvania, during the Gettysburg Campaign. He helped organize his patients into a fighting force that drilled each day on the hospital grounds. When the Confederates approached York, he hastened the removal of most of the non-ambulatory patients to Columbia under the supervision of his assistant surgeon. However, Dr. Palmer stayed behind in the hospital with a handful of men too badly wounded to be safely moved. He was captured by Jubal Early’s Rebels on Sunday, June 28 when they occupied the hospital. Palmer later managed to escape during the Battle of Gettysburg and return to York.

After the Confederates left town, he began the process of sanitizing the hospital (it was filled with lice) and made it presentable by the time that trainloads of wounded men began arriving a week later from the Battle of Gettysburg. He stubbornly refused to treat any Rebels, however, and they were instead taken to the nearby Odd Fellows Hall.

During the war, Palmer’s 5-year-old daughter, Kittie, died after a lingering illness of three weeks. She was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Palmer and his wife Edna intended to exhume the body and take her home to Janesville, Wisconsin, after the war. According to Jim McClure’s East of Gettysburg, the child’s current gravesite is unknown.

Layout of the army hospital on Penn Commons (Scott Mingus photo).

This plaque on the north side of Penn Common depicts the Civil War-era U.S. Army Hospital that once was on the premises of what is now the park. The hospital was a sprawling complex that treated more than 14,000 patients during the war. The buildings were dismantled following the conflict and the cessation of military medical services in York.

“Dr. Henry PALMER.
For many years one of the most prominent physicians and surgeons of Wisconsin was Dr. Henry PALMER, of Janesville.
Dr. PALMER was born in New York state in 1827, graduated from Albany Medical College in 1854 and came to Janesville in 1856. At the beginning of the Civil War Dr. PALMER entered the volunteer service as surgeon of the Seventh Wisconsin infantry. In 1862 he was made surgeon of the celebrated “Iron Brigade,” and later was placed in charge of the largest military hospital in the United States, at York, Pa. In 1864 he was appointed medical inspector of the Eighth army corps; in 1865 was detailed to close up the affairs of the hospital at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill.., and was mustered out with the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel.

Dr. PALMER, after his return to civil life, became prominent as a surgeon. He was professor of clinical surgery in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, of Chicago (now the Medical Department of the University of Illinois), from its organization until his death, which occurred January 15, 1895.

Dr. PALMER was mayor of Janesville in 1866 and 1867, was vice president of the American Medical Association and was surgeon general of Wisconsin for ten years.
The PALMER Memorial Hospital, Janesville, perpetuates his name. His son, Dr. William H. PALMER, is in practice in Janesville.”
Taken from “Rock County, Wisconsin, Vol. I” by William Fiske Brown, (c)1908, p. 469; lithograph p. 302.

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Henry Palmer, M. D., Surgeon General of Wisconsin, has been a resident of Janesville, since 1856, and is one of the most eminent and successful physicians and surgeons in the State. He was born at New Hartford, Oneida County, N. Y., on the 30th day of July, 1827, is a son of Ephraim and Abigail (Brown) Palmer,, and is descended from English Puritan and Scotish ancestors. On his father’s side is a lineal descendant from Walter Palmer,, who emigrated to this country from London, England, settling at Charlestown, Mass., in 1629. The line of descent of the Palmer family, to which the Doctor belongs, is as follows: From Walter, the founder of the family in America, through Gresham, George, the Rev. Christopher, who settled in Madison County, N. Y., in 1780, Christopher Jr., and Ephraim, the father of our subject. Dr. Palmer,’s mother was born at Brookfield, Madison County, N. Y., and was descended from an old New England family. Ephraim PALMER was a farmer by occupation, and in 1857 removed from New York to Edgerton, Wis., where he resided until 1884, when he became a resident of Janesville and made that city his home until his death, which occurred in 1886, at the advanced age eighty-nine years. He was a man of superior intelligence and occupied many important positions of honor and trust both in New York and Wisconsin. In political sentiment, he was a Republican, and also an influential member of the Baptist Church. Mrs. Palmer, an estimable Christian lady and a member of the same church, died at Edgerton in 1863.

The subject of this sketch spent his early life upon his father’s farm and received his primary education at the district school. When nineteen years of age, he became a student at the Whitestown and Cazenovia Seminaries and subsequently entered upon a course of teaching by which occupation he earned money to defray the expenses of his early medical studies. On attaining his majority, he found his health seriously impaired, and with the hope of recovery, took passage on a vessel which accompanied the Grinnell Arctic expedition of 1849, spending six months in a cruise in the Arctic regions, touching at various points in Greenland and on Hudson Bay. In 1851, having recovered his health, he engaged in the study of medicine under the preceptorship of Drs. MARSH & ARMSBY, at Albany, N. Y., who at that time were eminent physicians of that city and were professors at Albany Medical College. In 1854, our subject graduated from that institution, and with such high standing that he was at once appointed resident surgeon of the Marshall Infirmary at Troy, N. Y., which position he filled with ability and fidelity for a period of two years.

At Oriskany Falls, N. Y., Dr. Palmer, was united in marriage with Miss Edna A. HOYT, a daughter of Noah and Almira HOYT, their union being celebrated in the month of November 1851. To them have been born six children, one son and five daughters— Clara, the eldest, died in December, 1883; Kittie died at the age of five years; William H. who graduated from the chicago Medical College in the class of 1882, is now practicing his profession at Janesville. The younger members are Estella E., Eloise and Elizabeth Gertrude.

In 1856 Dr. PALMER came to Wisconsin and settled at Janesville, which has since been his home and the scene of his long years of successful practice. His zeal, his energy and superior ability, both as a physician and surgeon, soon placed him in the foremost rank in his profession and gave him a wide reputation, to which subsequent years have but added new luster. Shortly after the breaking out of the late war, in 1861, he was commissioned surgeon of the 7th regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers, which was assigned to the Army of the Potomac, and in this new field his superior skill and untiring energy soon won him distinction. Without seeking preferment, on the 4th day of April, 1862, he was appointed by President Lincoln to the position of brigade surgeon and assigned to the famous “Iron Brigade.”

Subsequently, he was stationed at York, Pa., where the construction and superintendency of the largest hospital in the United States was placed in his hands. Mrs. Dorothy L. Dix, a distinguished hospital nurse, who was appointed superintendent of hospital nurses by a special act of Congress in 1861, pronounced the York hospital, as conducted by Dr. Palmer, the best in the United States. When the Confederate Gen. Early made his bold raid into Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1863, with a force of several thousand men, he made an attack upon York with the expectation of capturing the government stores and taking the convalescents prisoners. Dr. Palmer, who was in command of the post, quickly armed his convalescent patients, several hundred in number, and offered such a gallant resistance that the government stores were safely removed before the Confederates gained possession. It was at this time that the Doctor was taken prisoner, but during the battle of Gettysburg, which occurred a few days later, he succeeded in making his escape and at once resumed command of York post and the charge of the hospital, where he was soon busily employed caring for the wounded from the Gettysburg battlefield.

In 1864 the rebel Gen. GILMORE made a devastating raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania, threatening to inflict considerable damage in and about York. Appreciating the necessity of prompt action and the importance of protecting the railways, Dr. Palmer, armed his convalescents, organized a force of several hundred citizens, with which, together with the few regular troops, he proceeded into Maryland to protect the roads and hold the rebels in check. This movement proved eminently successful, for by the wisdom and promptness of his judgement, and by his energy and courage he saved a large amount of property from being destroyed, besides securing to the government other important military advantages. The valuable services rendered by the Doctor in this instance were the subject of a well deserved and congratulatory letter from Major General D. N. Couch, then in command of the department of the Susquehana, to Surgeon General Barnes of the United States Army.

In August, 1864, his health having become impaired by overwork, he tendered his resignation, but received instead of its acceptance only a leave of absence. The general in command, in forwarding the resignation to the war department, endorsed it with the request that a leave of absence of sufficient length of time to recruit his health be granted, as the interests of the service demanded that officers of his ability and disposition should be retained. In the fall of 1864 the Doctor was appointed Medical Inspector of the 8th Army Corps, with headquarters at Baltimore, which position he held until June, 1865, when he was ordered to take charge of Camp Douglas at Chicago, Ill., and close up the affairs of that hospital. Having performed that duty he was mustered out on the 7th day of October, 1865, and for faithful and meritorious services, which were frequently brought to the notice of the war department, he was appointed lieutenant colonel by brevet, by President Johnson, on the 13th of March, 1866, the rank to date from March 13, 1865.

On his return from the army Dr. Palmer, resumed the practice of his profession at Janesville, which he pursued without interruption until 1877, when he gratified a long cherished desire and visited Europe. The war between the Russian and Turkish powers, which was in progress at that time, afforded him a favorable opportunity of inspecting the system of Russian hospitals. He left Janesville in May and returned the latter part of the following August, having visited Paris, Liverpool, London, Berlin, Vienna, Leipsic, Dresden, Antwerp, Brussels, Munich, and many other places of beauty and historic interests. He was with the Russian army at Bucharest, through Roumania and when it crossed the Danube, and also witnessed the engagement at Nicopolis and the ever memorable battle that resulted in the downfall of Prevna. He also visited the chief art galleries of Europe, and on his return brought with him one of the finest art collections to be found in southern Wisconsin. While in the old countries he wrote several very interesting and graphic letters, descriptive of what he saw abroad, which were published in the Janesville Gazette and which were received with interest and pleasure by the public.

Notwithstanding the arduous duties of his profession Dr. Palmer, found time to prepare a lecture describing his journeyings in the old world, together with the peculiar sights which he witnessed, and especially noted the habits and customs of the people of Roumania, Turkey and that portion of Europe. The lecture was intensely interesting and as a literary production commanded the admiration of all the intelligent hearers. It was first delivered at Janesville in August, 1877, to an audience of over a thousand people. The interest in the lecture became wide-spread, and calls for its delivery in the principal towns of southern Wisconsin became numerous and urgent. In compliance with the popular demand he delivered it several times, always to crowded houses, never charging for his time and trouble.

The Doctor and his wife, together with their children, are members of the Baptist Church of Janesville. He is a Republican in politics and has served two terms as mayor of the city, but is not an active partisan, his professional and other duties occupying his full time. In addition to the arduous labors of an extensive practice he has found time to interest himself in various local enterprises of importance and has exhibited much public spiritin the encouragement of all efforts to develop the natural resources of the city and county. He was one of the organizers of the cotton manufacturing industries of Janesville and has served as president of the present Cotton Mills Company since its organization. Since 1882, he has held the position of president of the Merchants’ and Mechanics Savings Bank, which has grown to be one of the most important financial institutions of Rock County.
He is interested in the Janesville Pickling and Vinegar Company, in the Wisconsin Shoe Company, and was one of the organizers and founders of the Oakwood Retreat Association of Geneva, Wisconsin, a private hospital for the insane, and has served two years as president of the Association. The Oakwood Retreat has grown to be an important institution and reflects credit upon its founders and managers. Dr. Palmer, has been a member of the Wisconsin State Medical Association since its reorganization, a member of the American Medical Association and of the National Medical Association. He is professor of operative surgery, clinical surgery and surgical pathology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago, Ill., and has been since its organization.

Socially, he is a member of the Loyal Legion of W. H. Sargent Post, No. 20, G. A. R. of the department of Wisconsin, and is the Past Department Surgeon and the present Post Surgeon. In recognition of his faithful services during the late war, and his high standing in the profession, Dr.Palmer, was appointed Surgeon General of Wisconsin, by Gov. Smith, in January, 1880, which position he has had the honor of filling continuously since, being re-appointed by Gov. Rusk in 1882, and by Gov. Hoard in 1889. As a surgeon, he is the acknowledged leader of the profession in the State. Possessing cool nerve, a quick eye, and dexterity of hand, supported by a strong will and great powers of endurance, he has the reputation of having performed some of the most difficult and dangerous surgical operations known to the profession.  As a physician he is equally distinguished and has a large and lucrative practice, which in its extent would tax the energies of a man of ordinary capacity beyond endurance. Studious by habit, he is a ripe scholar; a gentleman by instinct and culture, and enjoys as he deserves the unqualified respect and esteem of his fellow citizens.

Source: The Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock County, Wis. (c)1889, pp. 364-366.