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Dr. Sarah Ann Chadwick (Clapp): Civil War Surgeon

Posted on Thursday, September 1, 2016 at 10:48 am

Chadwick headstoneMove over Dr. Mary Walker. Dr. Sarah Ann Chadwick served as the first woman in a non-commissioned Surgeon and Assistant Surgeon positions in the Civil War, not you! When you think about female Surgeons during the civil war, most people think of Dr. Walker, but there were many other female Doctors.

Sarah Ann Chadwick was born on July 17, 1824 in Maine. She was one of seven children of Lot and Sarah Chadwick. The Chadwick’s moved to the prairie of Illinois in 1838 when Sarah was in her teens. The Native Americans were back across the Mississippi after the short Black Hawk War in 1834. This land was now considered a “safe” area in northwest Illinois. Lee Center, Illinois, where they settled, was on the stagecoach travel road from Chicago to Galena. There were a large number of New England settlers already there including three doctors. Sarah was taught at the Lee Center Union Academy School. This school had over 150 students who learned languages, math, music, philosophy and physiology. Lyceums, lectures, debates and traveling entertainers stopped at Lee Center. By the 1840’s there was even an Abolition Society, along with a stop on the Underground Railroad. Sarah’s sister, Nancy, married a doctor in 1846. Sarah married James Milligan in 1847. She had a daughter listed in the 1850 census who was living with her parents but Sarah is not living with them. By that date, James had deserted his family.

Sarah had been studying medicine with her brother-in-law, Dr. William Welch, sometime between 1850 and 1854. He was practicing medicine in Ottawa, Illinois (LaSalle, County – 52 miles from Lee Center). It is in 1854 that she enrolls in the Cleveland Medical College in Cleveland, Ohio, indicating that Dr. Welch was her preceptor (local medical instructor). Cleveland Medical College was a unique place for women between 1850 and 1856. Now known as the Western Reserve School of Medicine, it was organized in 1843 with sixty-seven students. In 1850, this school decided to admit women to the medical school. The first woman graduate was Dr. Nancy Clark in 1852. She was just the second woman M.D. in the United States (after Dr. Blackwell). Between the years of 1854-56, five more women were admitted to the medical school. Six women in total graduated from Cleveland Medical College with medical degrees. Women were admitted because a new Homeopathic Medical School had opened in Cleveland and the Medical College felt that it needed to compete with this rival non-allopathic school that admitted women. What was unique about this school was that in 1852, a group of prominent Cleveland women had formed the Ohio Female Medical Education Society. This society was established for the purpose of “promoting women’s entry into the medical field by helping them to defray much of the expense of acquiring an education.” The organization was modeled after 19th century women’s benevolent associations, but instead of helping the poor and hungry, it helped middle class women enter medical school a traditionally male vocation. This might be why Sarah went to Cleveland Medical College. The financial support provided her with the opportunity for a woman from a small town on the plains of Illinois to obtain a medical degree at little cost. The Ohio Female Medical Education Society even found the female medical students room and board while they were in Cleveland.

Sarah roomed with another, soon to be famous, medical student Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewsha from Germany who barely spoke English. Sarah enrolled as Sarah Ann Chadwick. Everyone assumed that she was a widow. In reality, she was divorced in 1855 during the interim period between her first and second year at Cleveland Medical College. Her dissertation was “An Essay on Contagion” focusing upon public health. Chadwick argued that contagious diseases are the proof of the individual’s inability to avoid crisis. She looked at three classifications of diseases: (1) communicable directly by contact with someone infected (cowpox, rabies), (2) spread through contact with the atmosphere (tuberculosis, measles, plague) and (3) through the air (mumps, cholera, typhus) She concluded that the westward migration of settlers and movement of troops in wartime indicated that transportation played a role in the spread of disease. Perhaps the swamps of northern Illinois that oozed into the air had something to do with her conclusions in her dissertation. After graduation in 1856, she practiced medicine in Cleveland until 1857 and then disappears from all records. No one knows where she went as she was not found in the Cleveland City Directory nor was she in the 1860 census for Lee County, Illinois. She definitely did not go home and live with her parents and her child Sarah J. Milligan.

Sarah Chadwick does not reappear until soldiers are recruited from Lee County in 1861. Her youngest brother, George H. Chadwick, age 23, enlists in the 7th Illinois Cavalry. Company “C” was made up of men from the villages of Lee Center, Mendota, and Franklin Grove. They were mustered in at Camp Butler, Springfield, Illinois in August, 1861.

Dr. Chadwick began service as a non-commissioned Surgeon with the 7th Illinois on November 15, 1861. She acted in this capacity until December 27, 1861 when she was made an Assistant Surgeon in a Cairo Hospital. She held that position until August 25, 1862. Most of the regiments from Illinois were sent to Cairo, Illinois on the Illinois Central Railroad and then into Missouri or Kentucky. This is the same railroad that Abraham Lincoln represented as a lawyer.

Dr. Chadwick would have been appalled at the conditions at Cairo. It was described as, “a monstrous mud hole over which houses and sidewalks were constructed on 10 foot stilts.” Further descriptions of this town included the following: “a fever ridden campsite of volunteer regiments with debris and dead dogs littering the streets.”  The hospitals were no better. They were described as, “Any tent or empty building was considered good enough for a hospital. There were no pillows or sheets. Some hospitals had no medicines or medical supplies. Unwashed men had nothing to wear but their dirty underclothing. Inside the wards, the smell of sick, dirty bodies, or excrement and grease was all but overpowering.”  Dr. Chadwick would have assisted with or treated men with camp fever, dysentery, and gunshot wounds to the head, body, and limbs.

An eye witness account of the Battle of Shiloh by Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds, wife of a lieutenant of the 17th Illinois Infantry (from Peoria, Illinois) indicated that a “Mrs. C” arrived by the steamer Emerald from Illinois with hospital supplies on the first day of the battle. She and Mrs. Belle Reynolds worked for 36 hours straight on the Emerald. There were 350 Shiloh wounded on-board who were transported to Savannah, Tennessee. This is most likely Dr. Chadwick since as a non-commissioned officer; she would have been referred in this manner.  In August, 1862 she returned to Lee Center in Lee County, Illinois after practicing under some of the most demanding settings for any doctor during the war.  By the way, Dr. Mary Walker was not appointed to her non-commissioned position until 1863.

One month later, Henry Clapp, of the 7th Illinois Cavalry, was given a discharge for medical reasons. Henry Clapp married Sarah Chadwick in 1866. Henry’s first wife had died in March of 1866 leaving him with four children aged 21, 20, 12, and 9. Married in October of that year, it is interesting to speculate about these two people. Did she know him in the hospitals of Cairo? Was she introduced to him by her brother in the same regiment? Did she treat him prior to his release from the cavalry on a medical discharge? Why did they marry so soon after his first wife’s death? Did he need a “nurse” because of his war injuries? We will never know the answers to these questions. We do know that Dr. Chadwick (now Clapp) in the 1870 census, listed her occupation as “housekeeping.” Evidently if she was practicing some medicine, it was not her primary vocation. In 1887, Henry died from heart disease and dropsy (swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water). She returns to her maiden name Chadwick as a widow.

There is little information about what happened to Dr. Sarah Chadwick (Clapp) until January of 1890. At that time money was tight and Henry Clapp’s widow’s pension of $8.00 per month was not sufficient for her. In that year a bill is introduced by Representative Thomas Henderson from Princeton, Illinois requesting retroactive pay for Dr. Sarah Clapp as a Surgeon during the Civil War. The bill indicates she, “served successfully in the capacity indicated, as a Surgeon, of the regiment from November 15 to December 27, 1861 as an Assistant Surgeon from December 27 to the following August; but that, owing to the refusal of the State medical examining board to examine for this service one of her sex, she could not be commissioned or paid.” For the next 17 years the bill was introduced every year and not passed. In 1893, under questioning by the Speaker of the House, her college degree worked for her. The question asked was to her Illinois Representative at the time, “Has she a diploma? The answer was, “She was a regular graduate of the college (referring to the Cleveland Medical College).” Ultimately her claim to a Surgeon’s pension rested upon the fact that she had an M.D. diploma from a recognized medical school, not on the fact that she performed the service to the troops long ago. The bill passed the House, but not the Senate.

In June of 1906, her bill finally passed the House again, 45 years after her service. She wrote President Roosevelt before the bill came up for a vote in the Senate. She stated that her bill had been in Washington a long time, that she would be 82 in July of 1906, and that being lame she was suffering for the “common necessaries of life.” Her bill was finally signed on February 7, 1907. She received $850.00 for her medical services rendered 45 years earlier and a Surgeon’s pension. Unfortunately, she did not get to enjoy the fruits of her persistence. She died on December 1, 1908. Sadly, her obituary in the local paper did not even mention her Civil War work as a Surgeon.  It also did not mention the fact that she had a medical degree. She is buried in the family plot under Sarah Anne Chadwick. Her second husband is buried in the Clapp family plot 30 feet from Sarah. Today there are no signs in Lee Center, Illinois indicating Dr. Chadwick’s service. It was difficult to even find the cemetery as it had been renamed, and once there, the cemetery had no grave register book to find her plot.

Today she is an unknown in Illinois and in Civil War history, but to the men of the 7th Illinois Cavalry and those soldiers she treated in Cairo and at Shiloh she was a pioneer Woman Physician.

Until next time,
Surgeon T.T. Steinbach


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