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Union Surgeon Generals of the War

Posted on Friday, August 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm

During the Civil War, there were four Surgeon Generals on the Union side. What is interesting is the background, military medical experiences, and focus that each brought to the office of Surgeon General.

Surgeon General Thomas Lawson (August 29, 1789 – May 15, 1861) was Surgeon General from Nov. 30, 1836 – May 15, 1861. He was born in Virginia. At nineteen years he entered the navy in 1809, as a surgeon’s mate.  After two years of shipboard life be resigned in January, 1811, and in the following month, in February, 1811, he was appointed to the position of garrison surgeon’s mate in the army. By 1813, he was promoted to the post of surgeon with the 6th Infantry. He held that position through the War of 1812.

With the reduction and reorganization of the army at the close of the War of 1812, he became surgeon of the 7th Infantry in1815.  Upon the reorganization of the medical department in 1821 his name appeared upon the roll as the senior officer in the grade of surgeon until his appointment as Surgeon General in 1836.  During his early service in the field with the 6th Infantry, he won an official commendation for his attention to the wounded and for his courage under fire. In 1832 he was president of a board of medical examiners which visited practically every post in the army for the purpose of holding entrance and promotion examinations in accordance with War Department orders which prescribed for the first time these examinations for the corps.  During the Seminole War, he was appointed medical director at Fort Mitchell, Alabama. He was serving when he was appointed Surgeon General in November, 1836.

Surgeon General Lovell died in October of 1836. The army was almost unanimous for Lawson, senior officer of the corps, and he was appointed on Nov. 30, 1836.  He arrived in Washington only in the late spring of 1837 and was then detailed to accompany ex-President Jackson to his home.  The Seminole War kept him away from his Washington City (D.C.) office until May 1838.

The years between the Seminole War and the Mexican War Lawson had some very definite ideas for the improvement of the service.  He was able to obtain for the corps military rank, two increases in numbers, an improved uniform, and hospital stewards enlisted in the department, and increased pay for soldiers detailed to it for duty.  In 1839 there was issued the first volume of Army Medical Statistics.  It detailed the sickness and mortality of the corps from 1819 to 1839, the medical topography and meteorology of the various posts, a report on the construction and condition of the barracks and hospitals, and other information in reference to prevailing diseases and their treatment.

In December 1846 Lawson left Washington for New Orleans, where General Scott was preparing plans for the capture of Vera Cruz.  In February 1847 he accompanied General Scott as chief of his medical staff.  On Feb. 11, 1847, Congress passed an act to increase the army temporarily which also increased the number medical officers and at the same time definite military ranks to medical officers.

Lawson accompanied General Scott from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, but only in an advisory capacity.  With the cessation of hostilities Lawson returned to his office in Washington.  On May 30, 1848, he was given the brevet rank of brigadier general for meritorious service in the Mexican war.  In July 1856 appeared a second volume of Medical Statistics with much the same class of information brought up to date.  Other equally valuable contributions to science were the Meteorological Register of 1826 to 1830 and that from 1831 to 1842.  Legislation passed August 16, 1856, increased the number of medical officers, provided for the appointment or enlistment of hospital stewards, and for extra pay for special duties in hospitals.  A third volume of Medical Statistics was issued in 1860.  On January 1, 1861, the Medical corps consisted of one surgeon general, thirty surgeons and eighty-three assistant surgeons.  The fall of Fort Sumter found him in impaired health. He was compelled to leave his office and seek treatment at Norfolk, Va.  He entered the home of Dr. Daniel C. Barraud, where on May 15 he was stricken with apoplexy and died within a few hours.  He served his country’s military establishments for fifty years, twenty-four as Surgeon General.  With him passed from the corps the last of the medical participants in the War of 1812.

Surgeon General Clement Alexander Finley (May 11, 1797 – Sept. 8, 1879) was Surgeon General from May 15, 1861 – April 14, 1862, was born at Newville, Cumberland County, Pa. He went to Philadelphia and in 1818 he graduated with the degree of M. D. by the University of Pennsylvania. In August, 1818, he was commissioned as a surgeon’s mate of the 1st Infantry.  His first assignment was four years with his regiment in Louisiana, then two years in Arkansas, at Fort Smith.  In the years from 1825 to 1828 he served in Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, and in Kansas. In 1831 he was ordered to Fort Howard, Wisconsin, and while on this duty he was detached for service as chief medical officer of the forces operating under General Winfield Scott in the Black Hawk War of 1833.  In 1834 he was again sent to Florida where he served throughout the Seminole War until 1838. From 1840 to 1844 he served at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

The outbreak of the Mexican War, in 1846, found him at Fortress Monroe. Because of his rank, he became medical director of this army commanded by General Zachary Taylor, but shortly after was sent north on account of sickness.  In 1847 he returned to duty in Mexico with the army, under General Scott, which was invading Mexico by way of Vera Cruz.  He was medical director of this force until again sickness required that he be sent back to the US.  He was permanently relieved from Mexico duty and ordered to Newport Barracks, Kentucky.  In 1849 he went to Jefferson Barracks for a third tour of duty and in 1854 to duty in Philadelphia with his quarters at Frankford Arsenal.

Surgeon General Lawson’s death came unexpectedly and it was generally considered that his successor would be Surgeon Robert C. Wood, a high ranking officer who was in charge of the office during Lawson’s absence.  President Lincoln chose Finley, the senior officer of the corps, for the position on May 15, 1861.

The new Surgeon General was sixty-four at the time of appointment. Beyond his office work, he was busy with the selection of hospital buildings and sites in the capital city.  An act passed in August, 1861, increasing the number of officers and providing for the employment of medical cadets and female nurses. The act also provided for the creation of boards for the consideration of cases of disability.  A provision for two assistants to the Surgeon General with the rank of lieutenant colonel, contained in the original bill, was stricken out.

By April, 1862, an act was passed for the reorganization of the medical department which gave the Surgeon General the permanent rank of brigadier general, created an assistant Surgeon General and a medical inspector with rank of colonel, eight medical inspectors with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and provided for medical purveyors. Finley was retired in April, 1862. He had fought with Secretary of War Stanton over a hospital appointment and had been relieved from his office and directed to go to Boston and await further orders.  From Boston he applied for admission to the retired list. After his retirement, in 1865, he was given the brevet rank of brigadier general “for long and meritorious service in the army.”

Surgeon General William Alexander Hammond (Aug. 28, 1828 -Jan. 5, 1900) was Surgeon General from April 25, 1862 – August 18, 1864, was born at Annapolis, Md. He began the study of medicine at sixteen and at twenty graduated with degree of M. D. from the University of the City of New York.  After a year of internship in the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, he settled in Maine.  Within a few months he took the examination for the army medical service and was appointed as assistant surgeon in July, 1849.

He was sent to New Mexico. During the following three years he served at nine different posts.  During the first ten years of service, he devoted his spare hours to physiological and botanical investigation. In 1857 he published an exhaustive essay Experimental Research Relative to the Nutritive Value and Physiological Effects of Albumen Starch and Gum, when Singly and Exclusively Used as a Food, which was awarded an American Medical Association Prize.

His academic reputation attracted the attention of the University of Maryland and in October, 1860, he resigned from the army to accept the Chair of Anatomy and Physiology in the medical school in Baltimore.  He taught there until the outbreak of the Civil War.  As surgeon to the Baltimore Infirmary he attended the wounded men of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, who while marching to the defense of Washington were fired upon by a Baltimore mob.

He resigned his professorship in May, 1861, and he reentered the army as an assistant surgeon.  His first position was medical purveyor at Frederick, Md.  Later he organized the Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore and was then transferred to the command of General Rosecrans in West Virginia where he was made inspector of camps and hospitals.  Surgeon General Finley’s break with Secretary Stanton brought the opportunity for Hammond to be appointed Surgeon General in April, 1862.  Surgeon General Hammond initiated a new and vastly enlarged supply table and provided for the provision of hospital clothing for patients.

In May, 1862, he directed the formation of the Army Medical Museum and the collection of specimens and material.  He recommended the formation of a permanent hospital corps, the establishment of an army medical school, the establishment of a permanent general hospital in Washington, the autonomy of the medical department in the construction of hospitals and the transportation of supplies, and the institution of a military medical laboratory.

Secretary Stanton and Surgeon Gen. Hammond’s official and personal relations were always strained and there was constant friction between these two strong willed individuals.  This situation culminated in orders issued in August, 1863, relieving Hammond and directing him to duty inspecting sanitary conditions in the Department of the South with his headquarters in New Orleans.  On Sept. 3, 1863, Medical Inspector General Joseph K. Barnes was placed in charge of the Surgeon General’s office.  Surgeon General Hammond demanded the restoration of his office or trial by court-martial.  He was tried on charges that alleged his involvement in irregularities with the purchase of medical supplies.  This resulted in a verdict of guilty and a sentence of dismissal from the army.  The dismissal took effect August, 1864.

Upon leaving the army Hammond found himself in financial trouble from the expense of his trial.  With the help of friends he was able to establish himself in practice in New York, and in a short time he became a leader in the practice and teaching of neurology, a new medical specialty.  Soon he was appointed lecturer on nervous and mental diseases in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He resigned this position in 1867 to accept the professorship of the same subjects on the faculty of Bellevue Hospital Medical College. By 1874, he transferred the medical department of the University of the City of New York.  At other times he was on the faculty of the University of Vermont at Burlington and of the Post Graduate Medical School of New York, of which he was one of the founders.

In 1878, he started a campaign for vindication of his conduct of the office of Surgeon General.  Under an act of Congress approved in March, 1878, he was restored to the army and placed upon the retired list as Surgeon General with the grade of Brigadier General.  In 1888 he moved to Washington where he established a large sanatorium for the care of cases of nervous and mental diseases.  He died at his Washington home on Jan. 5, 1900.  In 1871 he published his Treatise on Diseases of the Nervous System.  This was “the first text-book of nervous diseases in the English language.” He was the founder of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases (1867-1883).  General Hammond was a pioneer in field of nervous and mental diseases in the United States.

Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes (July 21, 1817 – April 5, 1883) was Surgeon General from August 22, 1864 – June 30, 1882, was born in Philadelphia, Pa., the son of Judge Joseph Barnes. He entered a collegiate course at Harvard University. Because of ill health, he finally received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1838.

After graduation he served a year as resident physician at Blockley Hospital and for another year as visiting physician for the northwestern district of Philadelphia. He was commissioned an assistant surgeon in June, 1840, and was assigned for his first duty to the West Point Military Academy.

For the two following years he served successively at eight posts in New York State.  In 1842, he was assigned to Fort Jesup, La., where he remained until 1846, when with the beginning of the Mexican War he joined the 2d Dragoons in route to Corpus Christi to join the army being mobilized for the invasion of Mexico from the north. He served with the cavalry column of General Taylor’s army during its advance to Monterey. Later transferred to General Scott’s forces before Vera Cruz he served with General Worth. During the advance upon Mexico City he was chief surgeon of the cavalry brigade and participated in the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, Molina del Rey, the storming of Chapultepec and the capture Mexico City. During the thirteen years between 1848 and the Civil War, Barnes saw a service all over the western United States and territories.

At the beginning of the war, he was at Fort Vancouver. He was immediately ordered east and served as medical director of the forces under General David Hunter, medical director of the Western Department, and medical director of the Department of Kansas; all of these assignments were with troops operating in Missouri.

In May, 1862, he was ordered to report to the Surgeon General in Washington and was assigned as attending surgeon for Washington City. On this duty he became friends with Secretary of War Stanton.  By February, 1863, Barnes was appointed a Medical Inspector with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. On August 10, 1863, he was appointed to the position of Medical Inspector General with the rank of Colonel. On September 3, 1863, Barnes was by a special order of the War Department “empowered to take charge of the bureau of the Medical Department of the army and to perform the duties of Surgeon General during the absence of that officer.” He assumed the office of acting Surgeon General the following day. On August 22, 1864, he was advanced to the position of Surgeon General, with the grade of Brigadier General and in March, 1865, he received the brevet of Major General for faithful and meritorious service during the war.

Secretary Stanton, now had a Surgeon General that was personally acceptable to him. For the remainder of Stanton’s term of office he supported Barnes in every way. The work of collecting material for the Medical Museum was a focus of Barnes during the years 1863 and 1864. Secretary Stanton’s support of Surgeon General Barnes was shown in an order of February, 1865, giving to the medical department entire control of hospital transports and hospital boats. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion was first suggested by Surgeon General Hammond in a circular to medical officers inviting cooperation in the collection of material. Since 1862 Major Joseph J. Woodward had been in charge of the Army Medical Museum and of the material for the history. In 1866 Major George A. Otis was brought into the office and he and Major Woodward were charged with the preparation of this collection and publication.

Four of the six volumes were completed under Surgeon General Barnes’ and the other two were in the works by the time of his retirement.  During his term of office, the library, under the supervision of Major John S. Billings, was expanded from a small collection of textbooks to rank first among medical libraries of the U.S.

After the assassination attempt on President Garfield, he was one of the surgeons that served the dying president. The death of President Garfield greatly affected Barnes’ health. An Act of Congress passed June, 1882, required compulsory retirement age for military personnel. Barnes at this time was a year past the retirement age requirement. He retired on June 30, 1882. A chronic kidney infection caused his death at his home in Washington on April 5, 1883.

-Until next time,
Your obt. Servant,
Surgeon T.T. Steinbach


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