Official Records of the Rebellion

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

The Document

The failure of the medical department of the Army of the Potomac to meet a just public expectation (if it did so fail, which I dispute) was due to a deficiency in the number of officers, to the denial to them of a proper official position, they being considered only as “doctors,” to be called upon to prescribe for a man reporting sick, but not authorized to meddle in any way with the police customs of the camp, or to insist on any measures for the preservation of the health of the men, to their not being permitted to control their own transportation when furnished to them, and to the incompetency of a portion of the officers themselves.

The duties of the medical department are administrative and professional. The same officer should not be charged with both; one alone is sufficient to employ the powers of the ablest mind. The administrative duties require experience—a military and professional training— to be acquired only by time and opportunity. We have committed the fault in this war of imposing administrative duties upon officers with neither experience in them nor talent for them. We have charged individuals with the most important of these duties who have never seen a single campaign, have never heard a hostile shot, have never seen a regiment collected together in the field. It is possible it may be judicious to do so, but experience and observation have up to this time taught a different lesson. This war may show that Rehoboam was right after all in dismissing the old counselors because they were [194] old and taking counsel of the inexperienced for no better reason than because they were young.

The administrative duties of the medical department among the continental nations are chiefly committed to experienced officers of the line. In France these officers are called military intendants. In Russia I believe they have no distinct title. In Great Britain, however, these duties are performed by medical officers who have qualified themselves for them by faithful service in inferior grades. The British is a practical, the French a theoretical, nation. I think the experience of the Crimea has shown the British system to be the best. The military intendant being a non-professional man cannot understand that the laws of nature may require a modification of an army regulation to prevent mischief. The medical administrative officer will probably be better qualified to judge as to this point, and having the advantage of equal military experience with the other will not be likely to embarrass the operations of a campaign by medical follies that are harmless only in the newspapers.

Some capital plans were suggested to me for the comfort of the sick and wounded while on the Peninsula. The difficulty in the way of adopting them was that the Yorktown road was not a Broadway, nor the railway to White House the New York Central. Cars might have been fitted up for the hospital department while we were upon the Chickahominy if we had had the cars ; if we had had the time and means to fit them up; if the road had not been required for the transportation of ammunition, subsistence, and forage. The army was, perhaps, unfortunate in having a medical director who supposed it was assembled to make war, and that cartridges were more indispensable than bed-quilts.

For a medical department in the field I would provide, if it were possible, that a surgeon of a regiment should have served not less than five years as an assistant surgeon. This is the law in relation to the Regular Army, but for an irregular and temporary force it is plainly impossible. While we insist upon the principle for efficiency we are compelled to yield it for expediency.

The British army has a surgeon and three assistants to a regiment of infantry of 1,025 men. They have also a staff of thirty-ninee administrative and one hundred and forty-nine executive medical officers. The latter are for hospital duties and the like.

In the field one medical officer to 250 men is, in my opinion, a minimum. It is not necessary to keep so many constantly with a regiment, but some are always required fordetached service, such, for instance, as our hospitals at White House and Yorktown and the hospital transports. These demands must always occur in a campaign. They should be provided for in time, and not left to chance. Scientific citizen surgeons volunteered their services at the battles on the Peninsula, but how many found their way to Port Royal or to Vicksburg.

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How to cite this article

Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.193-194

web page Rickard, J (25 October 2006),

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