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New York soldier described York’s Civil War hospital

Penn Common 001From the summer of 1862 until the end of the Civil War, the Union army maintained a military hospital on Penn Common just south of what was then downtown York, Pa. Peaking at more than 2,000 patients at its fullest, the hospital staff over the course of the war treated more than 14,000 different men. Many had suffered battle wounds; others were ill or injured. A bronze plaque along the northern edge of the park (along W. College Avenue) shows the general layout of the war-time hospital buildings. Shortly after the conflict ended and the last patients left for more permanent hospitals elsewhere, the government dismantled all of the structures and sold the wood to private buyers.

Hundreds of letters survive in private and public collections from patients in the York U.S. Army Hospital. Some are poignant or melancholy in their tone; others are routine discussions with information that might be of interest to loved ones back home.

Private James Mills Smith of Company G of the 149th New York Infantry was a patient in the 4th Ward in the summer of 1863. He had been wounded in the battle of Gettysburg while serving in Brig. Gen. George Greene’s hard pressed Twelfth Corps brigade on Culp’s Hill on July 3, 1863. On July 25, he sent a wonderful description of the layout of the York hospital and how it was organized to his widower father back home in Skaneateles, NY.

Here are some highlights from that letter, courtesy of the New York State Education Department.

York USAHThis interesting diorama from the modern York Hospital shows a few of the hospital buildings and auxiliary tents of the old Civil War facility on Penn Common (now Penn Park, opposite William Penn Senior High School). Scott Mingus photo.

Smith was treated at a temporary field hospital in Gettysburg until July 20, when he boarded an eastbound train for Hanover Junction. There, he was taken on a Northern Central train to York, arriving at night. After being assigned to a  bed in the 4th Ward, he purchased writing material a few days later and then penned a note on the 25th to his father. He had been quite stiff and sore, but now “I am feeling well, & I believe doing well.”

Smith letter

He described the military hospital and surrounding town to his father E. Reuel Smith, Sr., a wealthy businessman in New York City who owned a gentleman farm and summer residence in Skaneateles:

“Our hospital is simple, a piece of ground in the form of a square containing perhaps 20 acres & bounded on  two sides by a double row of one story buildings & on the other 2 by a high & close board fence; & was originally designed & used for a camp ground & barracks for soldiers & consequently in accommodations & comfort is I suppose far inferior to most or all regular General Hospitals.

“The rooms are low and ill ventilated, there is not a tree or bush in the ground, & the number of seats outside the building is very small. When I first arrived here we had about 1150 patients & now we must have many more & consequently on many accounts we fare worse than we would with fewer patients, previous to the battle of Gettysburgh that number was 160. Fortunately for wounded men we have had cool cloudy weather most of the time since the battle. These is a Post Office & small soldiers library on the ground. In about the centre of our enclosure there is an open shed under which they have lately conveyed a few benches, & religious meetings are held there in the evenings & on Sundays.

“York contains about 8000 inhabitants & seems to have a fine agricultural country around it. Our hospital buildings are divided into wards & the wards into rooms: our room contains 40 patients, none them very badly wounded & most of them doing well; we have 3 nurses to take care of us & the room, & the Dr. comes around occasionally. Every man who is considered well enough can obtain a pass to go (out) into town once in 3 days, between the hours of 1 & 5 P.M.

“In other Hospitals I am told furloughs can be easily obtained & passes more easily frequented & for a longer time that here. Here they say it is useless to ask for a furlough, but I did not design to ask for one but would have much preferred to have gone to some Hospital in Philadelphia or New York.

“It is now nearly 5 months since I recd. any pay & being in Hospital will have to wait an indefinite period longer. I spent my last money today for writing materials.”

Smith went on to to ask his father to send a porte monnaie (change purse) with two or three dollars in it. After giving his father instructions as to how to address future letters in his new location, he signed off “your affectionate son, Jas. Mills Smith”

Penn Common 022

Four days later Private Smith penned another letter, this time to his brother Edmond Reuel Smith, Jr. After discussing some personal business, he remarked, “When I was wounded & assisted from the field on the 3d in a fainting condition I lost my knapsack &c including your letters.” He went on to mention friends who had been wounded in the battle. Company G of the 149th NY had taken 35 men into the fight on Culp’s Hill; “2 were killed & 3 wounded.” One of the latter, Lieutenant Willis S. Barnum, had accidentally shot himself in the foot while on picket duty. In the fighting, regimental commander Colonel Henry A. Barnum had to leave the lines because of fatigue, turning over command to Lt. Colonel Charles B. Randall. He in turn went down with a bullet in his chest. The regiment’s major had been wounded at Chancellorsville, so only Barnum was left of the field officers, upon his return to health.

Smith was pleased when a fellow patient approached him at the dining table in the hospital and introduced himself as a son of Constable Tharp of Skaneateles. A member of the 122nd New York, young Tharp was missing the top of his thumb from a bullet wound.

Smith repeated some of the same descriptions of the hospital, adding it was “badly ventilated & hot in warm weather.”  He again gave thanks for the recent cool, cloudy weather, but commented that “this must have been bad for the harvesting of hay & grain.”

James Mills Smith survived the war, went home, raised his family, and established his own successful mercantile store with his only sibling Edmond.

Years later, his obituary appeared in the January 11, 1902, issue of the New York Times.

Retired Merchant Dies Suddenly

James Mills Smith of 415 West One Hundred and Seventeenth Street was attacked by heart disease yesterday afternoon at 5:15 o’clock, at the corner of Exchange Place and William Street, and expired a few minutes later in a drug store in the Lord’s Court Building. Mr. Smith was a retired merchant. Several years ago he was in business with his brother Edmond. He is survived by a widow, two sons, and three daughters.