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Former stewards recall U.S. Army Hospital at York PA

Scott Mingus photo of a diorama of the York U.S. Army General Hospital
Scott Mingus photo of a diorama of the York U.S. Army General Hospital

In the late spring/early summer of 1862, the U.S Army established a sprawling General Hospital on Penn Common (now Penn Park) on the south side of York, Pennsylvania. On breezy high ground and only a few blocks from the railroad station, it was well situated. Peaking at 2,000 beds by the end of the war, it was the closest army facility to the Mason-Dixon Line in the region. It also boasted one of the lowest mortality rates of any army hospital in the entire country, with fewer than 200 of its 14,250 patients to die over the course of the Civil War. After the war, the land reverted to its previous use as a common area and the army buildings were removed.

Today, an impressive monument in the middle of the park remembers York County’s Civil War soldiers and sailors, and a wayside marker and a small bronze tablet recall the days when this was the site of the bustling U.S. Army General Hospital.

On December 3, 1903, the York Daily printed highlights from a conversation with two former stewards from the defunct hospital. One of them, Albert O. Cheney, was a resident of Orange, New Jersey, before the Civil War. The 19-year-old New Hampshire native had traveled to Trenton to join the army, but ended up across the river in New York, where he enrolled in the 5th New York. Cheney wrote a series of letters to his sister Mary throughout the war. By the time he met with the reporter in York, he planned to organize his war correspondence into something more formal. His memory was still sharp, and the reporter jotted down his notes.

Here is the resulting article:

Penn Park, the site of the U. S. Army General Hospital,during the Civil War.
Penn Park, the site of the U. S. Army General Hospital, during the Civil War.

York Hospital Scenes During the Civil War

“Albert O. Cheney, accompanied by Wm. F. Eichar, called upon us yesterday. Both were stewards of York Hospital during the Civil War. Mr. Cheney enlisted in a New York regiment and was brought to the hospital an invalided soldier. He was in charge of the sick and wounded who were taken to Columbia upon the rebel invasion in June, 1863. While here, he wrote a score of letters to his home descriptive of hospital scenes, and local events. He will embody these reminiscences in a series of articles, which, upon their completion, will be published in the Daily.

“Early in 1861 Mr. Cheney enlisted in the Fifth New York infantry, and soon after was transferred to the regular army as a hospital steward. In September, 1862, he was sent by the government to York as the general steward for the new United States hospital established here, about three months before, on the public common, now Penn Park. From that time until September, 1864, Captain Cheney was steward of the hospital, during which time about 12,000 sick and wounded soldiers were treated. The United States hospital at York was, however, continued until June, 1865, and the entire number of soldiers treated here was 14,250.

“About two weeks before Lee’s army entered Pennsylvania, in 1863, Surgeon [Henry] Palmer, in charge of the hospital, quietly notified Steward Cheney one day that they would have to make arrangements to remove the hospital across the Susquehanna river. There were then about 500 sick and wounded soldiers here, many of whom were ranked as convalescents. The contemplated removal of the hospital was kept a secret from the soldiers and the citizens of York for several days in order to avoid confusion. Meanwhile 400 of the convalescents were formed into four different companies for exercise and military drill. These companies were placed in command of John M. Johnsten, I. A. Coombs, Geo. W. Martin, and a fourth soldier whose name cannot be recalled. Captain Cheney then formed them into a battalion and drilled them on the public commons and often marched them through York.

“When General Gordon’s brigade of Early’s division was approaching York on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863, this battalion was out in charge of John M. Johnsten. At 8 o’clock in the morning, two hours before General Gordon’s arrival, they were marched to Wrightsville. Captain Cheney could not command the battalion onĀ  this march. It was required to remove the remaining 100 soldiers in the hospital to Columbia a few days before the arrival of Early’s troops at York.

“‘But immediately after the battle of Gettysburg,’ said Captain Cheney, ‘2,000 wounded soldiers were brought to the York hospital from that battlefield. Many of them remained here for several months.’

“In September, 1864, Steward Cheney was commissioned first lieutenant in the 126th [Co. D, 127th] regiment, United States colored troops, and was afterwards under command of General [E. O. O.] Ord at Richmond, Va., just before the close of the war.” He was promoted to captain before mustering out.

Unfortunately, apparently Albert Cheney did not compile his wartime letters into a series of articles for the York Daily, as the December 3, 1903, issue is the only time his name appears in the newspaper. Some of his letters to his sister Mary L. French are in the collection of the New Jersey Historical Society, but the several of the “score” of letters the reporter mentions are missing. Albert Orion Cheney of Poughkeepsie, NY, is listed by the U.S. Patent Office in 1880 as the inventor or Patent US233202 for a novel butter trier. He was at the time a grocer, living with his wife and three children; they would have three more kids. He died on March 9, 1911, and is buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.

Perhaps someday the rest of Cheney’s letters, or perhaps his compilation and/or memoirs, might surface to shed more light on his years in York as the chief steward of the U.S. Army General Hospital.