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York U.S. Army Hospital among the country’s most efficient during Civil War

Background posts:
Dr Henry Palmer ran York’s U.S. Army Hospital
Gettysburg wounded soldiers entrain for York Hospital 

During the last three years of the American Civil War, the U.S. Army Hospital in York, Pennsylvania, treated more than 14,000 patients, ranking it among the largest such facilities erected during the war. It had the enviable record under superintendent and chief surgeon Dr. Henry Palmer of having relatively very few fatalities. A stickler for orderliness and cleanliness, Palmer and Dr. A. G. Blair not only ran an extraordinarily sanitary hospital, they were by all accounts also very good surgeons and doctors.

Here are just a few accounts of patients known to have been cared for at the York facility.

Among the nearly 1,000 wounded men transferred from Gettysburg to York were several men from the famous Iron Brigade of the West, the command in which Dr. Palmer served prior to his assignment to the new hospital in York. Because I did my senior thesis in Civil War history back at Miami of Ohio on the Iron Brigade, that brigade remains a particular favorite of mine.

Here are some excerpts from Dr. Palmer’s notes on a handful of these patients from his home state of Wisconsin. These are taken from The Medical & Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, a post-war book published by the Army Medical Department. Some of these descriptions are rather graphic, but they serve to illustrate the often hideous and debilitating nature of Civil War wounds. The relatively low velocity of the .57 and .58 caliber Minie balls and their soft lead content caused tremendous internal trauma when they struck a person, and frequently the wounds would eventually shorten the life span of the victim. Dr. Palmer and Dr. Blair did the very best they could to prolong and extend the lives of their patients, and they had more success than most surgeons, as the death rate at York was among the lowest in the Army.

Private Chester C. Thomas, Co. A, 2nd Wisconsin, a native of Pennsylvania, was a 23-year-old soldier serving in the Iron Brigade. He was wounded in the fighting west of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. After being treated at a temporary hospital, he boarded a train on July 17 and arrived at York’s depot, from where he was transported to the military hospital on Penn Common. Dr. Palmer’s notes on his new patient reveal, “Minie Ball entered the back at the point of the right shoulder blade, passed across, and was extracted three inches below the left shoulder blade, deeply situated. Patient complains of numbness and loss of power of the legs. There is no displacement or tenderness of the spinal column. Col-water dressings: orifice of entrance filled with granulations, (small round outgrowths, made up of small blood vessels & connective tissue, on the healing surface of the wound) that of exit discharging some pus.” Private Thomas’s military service was finished. He was discharged from the hospital late in 1863 and sent home with partial paralysis of his legs. He received an honorable discharge from the Army on January 6, 1864, and granted a pension.

Corporal Luke English, Co. E., 2nd Wisconsin, aged 21 years, was wounded at Gettysburg by “a conoidal musket ball, which entered at a point between the left trochanter major (the left side protuberance that occurs below the neck of the femur bone) and the tuberosity of the ischium, (the bone forming the lower part of each side of the hip) emerging near the anus, penetrating the right thigh and fractured its trochanters, and lodged. He was admitted the next day into the Seminary Hospital at Gettysburg. Search for the missile was unsuccessful. Two fragments of bone were extracted. Cold-water dressings were applied. On July 17th he was transferred by railroad to York Hospital. Early in August the average discharge of pus was about four ounces. The wound of the entrance was nearly closed. On November 4th he could walk a little, the wound, however, discharged considerably. Corporal English was discharged from the service of the United States on June 23, 1864.”

Private L.M. Baker, Co. B, 2d Wisconsin, aged 29 years, was wounded at Gettysburg, June 1, 1863, and admitted to the field hospital of the 1st division, First Corps. Surgeon G.M. Ramsey, 95th New York, recorded: “Gunshot fracture of right thigh. July 6th, resection.” On September 5th, the patient was transferred to Camp Letterman, and subsequently to the General Hospital at York. A photograph, represented in the annexed cut (Fig. 170), was received from Surgeon H. Palmer, U.S.V., with the following description of the case: “A conical leaded ball entered the anterior aspect of the right thigh six inches below the middle of Poupart’s ligament, thence passing backward and slightly upward , making its exit at the posterior aspect , and inch above the point of entrance, fracturing the femur. Two hours after the reception of the injury he was taken to a field hospital, and, he states, on the 3d of July he was placed under the influence of chloroform and fragments of hone to the extent of two inches of shaft were removed by cutting down upon them at the seat of the fracture. Water dressings were used for the first two weeks, when Smith’s anterior splint was applied-the limb suppurating profusely, and the man’s vital power being a good deal depressed. There was a constant tendency to sloughing in the posterior wound, rendering the frequent application of caustic necessary. The splint was removed on the 15th of November, partial bony union having taken place, suppuration still continuing and spiculae of bone being discharged from time to time; patient, who was upon tonics and nutritious diet gradually improving. On the 13th of January the posterior wound assumed a sloughing condition, which spread with rapidity, and was attended with considerable constitutional disturbance. It was checked by the free use of bromine, the patient being at the same time upon iron and quinia. Since that time the patient has continued slowly but steadily to improve. April 14th, the wounds have closed; the man is in excellent health and able to walk about on crutches, amount of shortening being two and half inches. On June 30, 1864, he was discharged from service, although still using crutches, able to bear considerable weight upon the injured limb.” Examiner C. D. Cameron, of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, reported, December 23, 1865: “Shot wound of right thigh, shattering the bone. Some four inches of the femur were removed. Limb much crooked and greatly atrophied; is five inches shorter than the other. Wound of right thigh, shattering the bone. Some four inches of the femur were removed. Limb much crooked and greatly atrophied; is five inches shorter than the other. Wound not yet healed.” Examiner W.D. Flinn, of Redwood Falls Minnesota, September 26, 1873, certified to “resection of about three inches of bone,” and stated “the wound has been open and running during the last two and a half years.” The pensioner was paid June 4, 1879.”

For more on the 2nd Wisconsin in the Civil War, please click here.