Official Records of the Rebellion

Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports

The Document

[191] On the 3d my successor, Dr. Letterman, having reported, I turned over the department to him. The reports of killed and wounded in this series of conflicts, I presume, were made to Dr. Letterman. I left the army before there was time to prepare them.

During this campaign the army was favored with excellent health. No epidemic disease appeared. Those scourges of modern armies—dysentery, typhus, cholera—were almost unknown. We had some typhoid fever and more malarial fever, but even these never prevailed to such [192] an extent as to create any alarm. The sick reports were sometimes larger than we cared to have them, but the great majority of the cases reported were such as did not threaten life or permanent disability. I regret I have not before me the retained copies of the monthly reports, so that I might give accurate statistics. I have endeavored to recover them, but have been unsuccessful. My recollection is that the whole sick report never exceeded 8 per cent, of the force, and this included all sorts of cases, the trivial as well as the severe. The Army of the Potomac must be conceded to have been the most healthy army in the service of the United States.

In reflecting upon the history of the medical administration of the Army of the Potomac many defects are perceived. Some of them may be remedied in future; others, I fear, cannot. For the first time the United States has assembled very large armies. Our staff system has been severely tried. I am not called upon nor am I prepared to say whether the other departments have proved successes or failures. My own department was neither a complete success nor a very decided failure. The most serious impediment in the way of its success was undoubtedly the want of military habits and training in the medical officers. The general impression among the people seems to be that a good citizen physician is fully competent to discharge the duties of a regimental surgeon, and I have no idea that anything I can say will be effective in disabusing the public mind of a notion that I know to be as mischievous as it is erroneous. In my opinion it is impossible to improvise an efficient medical staff. No nation in the world except our own has ever attempted it. So little was known among us about a medical department for an army when the present rebellion grew serious, that in the first project for a grand army one assistant surgeon only was provided for a regiment of 1,200 men, and of so little consequence was the character of even that one considered to be, all sorts of doctors— steam, eclectic, and even advertising quacks—were sometimes commissioned as medical officers; men innocent of any such vulgar acquirements as orthography; men who had never even seen, much less performed, a surgical operation. The great majority of the medical officers were certainly highly respectable members of the profession, but still there were enough of the ignorant and illiterate to prove what I have said, that, so far as the public notion of what was required for a medical officer was concerned, any one called “Doctor” was competent to perform the duties of a military surgeon. I see no remedy for this unless a large standing army is hereafter kept up.

In so vast an establishment as the Army of the Potomac without a rigid adherence to system nothing could have been accomplished. It would have been impossible to supply it; to know whether it was supplied or not; to reduce its supplies to a minimum bulk, so that they could be transported; so to limit the extent of the trains as that the supply wagons should be accessible. Now this system was intelligently termed “red tape, and medical men fresh from civil life, who ought to have been learners, were encouraged by outside philanthropists to disregard a restraint they found irksome, and to assert a practical independence of it as a mark of a “strong mind.” By firmness and the aid of the more intelligent brigade surgeons a fair progress was made in controlling and correcting this evil, but there were some who were incorrigible.

Transportation for medical supplies was provided, but, as we have seen, they were in many instances left behind, because there was no [193] transportation; the colonels had taken the “doctor’s” wagon to carry other baggage—at least that was the excuse offered.

Want of discipline was seriously felt in the difficulty of getting reports from the medical officers. It was inconvenient to make them; inconvenient to send them in; the necessity for them was not apparent. The habit of obedience to orders, whether the reason for them is comprehended or not, is one of slow growth, and particularly among medical men brought up in civil life. I never could get complete reports even while we were in Washington. After we took the field that difficulty was much increased. Still, for the successful administration of the department, these reports were absolutely necessary.

The number of medical officers was too limited. One surgeon and one assistant were allowed to a regiment. No provision was made for a staff from which details to supply hospitals could be made, or all officer detached to supply a vacancy from illness, death, or resignation. This was a great oversight. The medical director could not remedy it.

There was unquestionably a deficiency of hospital tents upon the Peninsula, but if all that were issued to the regiments at Washington had been carefully transported by them they would have had enough. They, too, were left behind in many instances, both on the Potomac and at Yorktown. Want of transportation was again the excuse.

Some one will ask, ‘Why did you not arrest, try, and dismiss the medical officers who were derelict? How much better off should we have been in that resort? Who were to take their places? When would they reach us? Would the new swarm have been any better than the old, appointed under the same auspices, drawn from time same sources, and with no experience at all?

The fault was not with them; it was the fault of the system. Original vice cannot be atoned for nor its consequences averted by repetition. “The evils which flow from injudicious counsels can seldom be removed by the application of partial severities.”

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How to cite this article

Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.191-193

web page Rickard, J (25 October 2006),

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