War Papers

Surgeon John F. Ely
Iowa Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
(First Published 1893)

Transcribed by Douglas R. Niermeyer, Commander-in-Chief
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
(March 2004)

Under the several calls of the President for volunteer service in defense of the Union, no class throughout the North responded with greater readiness than the members of the medical profession. Aside from the one common patriotic impulse which constrained the thousands and millions of our countrymen to place themselves on the altar of sacrifice, if need be, the war opened to them a wide field for extensive and valuable experience; yet few of this class, like all others in the volunteer service, till actually in the field of strife, had any clear or adequate conception of what this service implied, of its arduous toil, its responsibilities, and its sacrifices. With some few exceptions, the volunteer surgeons were able and competent ; men of the highest standing in the community, professionally and otherwise. It was their specific duty, in every possible degree, to conserve the life and health of the soldiers. To this end, every advantage circumstances would adroit was afforded them. The records of the war disclose how cheerfully this high responsibility was assumed, and how nobly and creditably it was sustained. So much at large. I will now refer briefly to the composition of the Twenty-fourth Regiment of Iowa Volunteers, and then pass on to a sketch of its first year's medical history. The imperfections of this sketch will be excused when I tell you "the drawing" is all from memory, except a few data from the adjutant-general's report.

The regiment was Composed of ten companies, which, by the favor of the governor to its colonel, were selected from twenty four formed in the central and eastern portions of the state. The sentiment that governed this selection may be inferred from the fact that the colonel was a Methodist minister in good repute, and the old "war governor" was a good Methodist private, if anything, as he readily acceded to the colonel's choice of ten companies, respectively commanded by good Methodists, several of whom were clergymen of high standing. The organization became known as the "Methodist Regiment, " a term n synonymous with the good and the brave. Its fighting material and qualities were certainly second to none in the service. it was also styled and known as "the Temperance Regiment." I never knew how, or why, it got this name. It was quite a puzzle to many of the men, who were anything but "total abstainers," and the query more than once arose in my own mind whether it had anything to do with the sad lack of good whisky on that most disastrous, "Cold Water expedition" in December, 1862; the first very serious and unavoidable exposure the regiment encountered on Southern soil, and whereby over one thousand men of Hovey's division were more or less disabled, and of whom some hundreds were lost to the service. I have very vivid recollections of that forced march of two days, when our division, with others, in all about eighteen thousand men, were ordered to the relief of General Grant then cut off from his base at Holly Springs. The division left Friar's Point at daybreak, after a night in the mud and cold rain without shelter; marched twenty-two miles, over. a rough road most of the way, ankle deep in clay mud, making occasional halts only for rest and eating, finally stopping at ten o'clock, the night pitch dark, on a wooded slope, all too tired and exhausted for anything like making fires, or even to eat. It was then, as the men dropped down on the wet ground, most of them on the very spot where they were halted, that the surgeons would have I "given their kingdom" for enough whisky to "go round." The little stock of six bottles was good, of course, so far as it went. The experience of St day was repeated on the second, when eighteen miles more were covered at the junction of the Coldwater and Tallahatchie Rivers, and the camp made on the bottom in the mud of a cornfield. Little or nothing, under these circumstances, could be done to counteract the effects of such terrible exposure. A plenty of good whisky would have done it measurably, but doubtless a plentiful supply of strong, hot coffee would have done it far better.

The Twenty-fourth was organized and went into barracks at Camp Strong, near Muscatine, in August, 1862. Its three surgeons, Messrs. Lyons, Witherwax, and myself, joined it here soon after. Prior to our arrival, the camp was under the charge of Post Surgeon Hershey. We were informed that the men had been examined by him for disabilities, and no attention was given to this point, further than now and then noting a case supposed to have been overlooked by the post surgeon. These, to the number of about twenty, were promptly rejected by Captain Hendershott, the United States mustering officer. To our great regret, it was afterward ascertained that about sixty more should have been rejected, for these, with various disabilities, were only a burden and more than worthless to the service, as their presence had the effect, more or less, of discouraging the rest.

While at Camp Storm an epidemic of measles broke out, attacking some one hundred and twenty-five men. The cause was supposed to be the fungus of wheat straw, which had been affected with the rust, and which was used in the barrack bunks. The disease was unusually severe, in three instances soon proving fatal. It may well be doubted if any of those who suffered from it ever fully recovered from its effects. These "measly boys" were easily recognized for months after by peculiar signs. They seemed of all the men to be most frequently and more easily impressed by other maladies, especially by the common "camp disease," and so severe and obstinate was the complication that it seldom yielded to the best care the camp afforded, and many died. It was the duty of the surgeon, if possible, to save the services of these poor fellows to the government. To this end, many of the bad cases were transferred to the general hospital at St. Louis or Memphis. The result was about the same. The sad experience of a few months led us finally, in every instance where we found chronic disease of the lungs or bowels thus complicated, to make a certificate for discharge. House care and treatment thus restored many who otherwise would have perished.

Late in October, the regiment was transferred for winter quarters to Helena, Arkansas. Such cases as required hospital treatment were left at Muscatine and Keokuk. Nothing of note occurred on the passage, except the severe exposure of the measly convalescents, inducing in most of them more or less bronchial trouble.

The regiment remained in camp at Helena a little over five months, though making occasional expeditions, as to "the Cold Water," up the White River, and to Yazoo Pass. These expeditions were always welcomed by the surgeons as conducive to the good health and vigor of the soldiers, for the inactivity of camp life soon told on the general health, efficiency of men unaccustomed to this mode of living, and the frequent changes were deemed essential. For a forced march, as that to the Cold Water, none but strictly able bodied men were allowed ' For other expeditions and in the field, it was soon found that the change not only promoted good health among the men generally, but it also had a splendid effect upon numerous cases of light camp disease and other ills, many of whom were compelled to march along, regarding it at first as a great hardship.

As was usual during the first year of the war, the men suffered most from the common disorders of the digestive organs, known as the "camp diseases," very often assuming a chronic and persistent form. Many of these cases, not yielding to camp treatment, were sent to the general hospital. Several, which were complicated, proved fatal. Two were found dead in their bunks one morning. Upon investigation, it was found that these men had in the night cooked and eaten a hearty meal of pork and beans. A morbid appetite was characteristic of these chronic cases, and its victims seemed destitute of all common sense and discretion.

When in camp at Helena, some of our men thought themselves very fortunate one day in procuring some very nice looking sugarcured ham. It was in canvas and most of it somewhat dry. The men preferred to use it raw, chipped as dried beef, for a relish. Its appearance and taste, as I remember it, was quite appetizing. Soon after a class of cases appeared, six or seven in number, all presenting the same grave specific symptoms from the commencement to their fatal termination. Poisoning was suspected and the treatment directed accordingly, but the course of the disease and advanced symptoms were totally unlike those caused by any known poison; and the surgeons were nonplussed as to the true nature and cause of this malady. It was treated by them in the main and reported as typhoid fever. None of us, nor indeed any one in this country, were the wiser touching this disease and its management for several years after the war, and until a distinguished Prussian surgeon (Langenbeck) had demonstrated the Trichina Spiralis to be the cause of a terrible and usually fatal disease. This raw ham used by our men was infected by that parasite; and it is a sad reflection that probably many hundreds of the brave men in our armies thus fell as the victims of a roost loathsome malady in the manner described.

In the effort to make themselves more comfortable during the winter, most of the messes constructed small cabins, closing up the small openings with clay; in fact, leaving nothing for ventilation except the doorway, and this, too, was usually closed at night with a blanket as tight as might be. As a most natural consequence, there were soon on our hands numerous cases of fever and other diseases of a typhoid type. Among other remedial means, an order was made one morning to take off the roofs of these comfortable cabins. It seemed hard, and the surgeons received many harsh compliments, but the remedy was complete.

During the winter of 1862-63, an important and greatly needed change was effected by our surgeons in the affairs of the post hospital at Helena. Surgeon Pease was transferred to Memphis, and our accomplished assistant surgeon, Lyons, appointed post surgeon. With his large experience in the hospitals of New York, he was soon able to place those of this post in the best possible condition. His first step was to compel our generals to vacate their fine quarters in the large mansions of the Confederate generals, Hindman and Tappan. I may note, in passing, that in all matters pertaining to health, the authority of the army surgeon was then supreme. These large houses were well adapted for hospital purposes, and were used for this service afterward during the occupation of the post by our forces.

I may mention here an incidental advantage of great professional value to our surgeons, growing out of the change above referred to. Helena was at this time filled with negro refugees from the surrounding region. Most of them were improvident and without proper shelter. The exposure was fatal to many hundreds of them during that winter. Under arrangements made by Post Surgeon Lyons, a few of us were enabled for six weeks, and just before taking the field, to make a good and proper use of many of these defunct unfortunates. All the known operations in military surgery were performed over and over again on these subjects. None but professional men can fully esteem the great value of this work under the circumstances. The fresh knowledge of relative anatomy thus gained gave to us a most decided advantage over all others of the medical staff around us, for we alone were able to perform on the field afterward those critical operations in cases of wounds which required immediate and skilful attention in order to save life.

On the 12th of April, the regiment broke camp at Helena, and moved on with the main body of the army toward Vicksburg. On the river bottoms, and soon after leaving Milliken's Bend, the men, in large numbers, were disabled with ague. As a preventive, eight-grain doses of quinine were ordered daily for all, both sick and well, with the effect of soon relieving us from the pest of that region.

During the month of May, the regiment suffered most severely in the battles of Port Gibson and Champion Hill, or "Baker's Creek," as the Rebels termed it. In this last fight, of four hundred and forty-five men engaged but two hundred and forty-four answered to roll call the next morning. My report gave forty-three killed, one hundred and thirty-seven wounded, and twenty-one missing. Some of our wounded were cared for on the field, or near by; but usually they were removed as soon as could be to the division hospitals.

These division hospitals were intended to be located about one and a half miles from the lines of the enemy. That at Champion Hill was, by a natural mistake, placed less than one-half mile distant, but this mistake in the end proved fortunate for us. It was protected in front by a high and sharp ridge, at the foot of which, on the other side, was the enemy's line. I was not aware of these close quarters till late in the morning, and our preparations being nearly complete, General Grant, then on the spot, so informed me. With his assurance that we should not suffer from any flank movements. of the enemy, we regarded the location as safe and very desirable. Its advantages for our purposes could hardly be surpassed; a large now house, somewhat elevated and in an open space; a small stream of running water, skirted with timber, coursed along the foot of the ridge. On this stream near by was a saw mill with piles of dry lumber. One hundred yards from the house were stored one hundred bales of cotton marked "C.S.A."; and last, but not least, as will be seen7 was a canebrake on the edge of the clearing. Preparations were commenced here early in the morning of the 16th of May, the pioneer corps clearing the house, and erecting on its surrounding lines of fences a wide shade with branches of trees. By nine o'clock the preparations were complete, under the direction of the writer, who was then acting medical director of the Twelfth Division (Hovey's) of the Thirteenth Army Corps. In five hours we had under our care on this Spot over Seven hundred wounded, principally of our division, which that day had borne the brunt of the fight. A few of the most severe cases, and those requiring capital and other larger operations, were taken into the house; the others were placed in the shade, where for each one a soft bed was provided by first placing on the ground several layers of the cotton bale, and covering this with the rubber poncho of the wounded man. The peculiar advantage of this rubber covering was appreciated by all, as for some days after, more or less, water dressings were used on all wounds. These fortunate circumstances enabled us to provide speedily and comfortably for the needs of the large number of wounded thus under our care ; and it may be doubted whether in any similar instance during the war the unfortunate wounded were better provided for on the day of battle.

We were immediately left in the rear of our forces, and on the morning of the 19th we had news that Johnston's army was advancing to our vicinity. I received orders to make our wounded as comfortable as might be, and move the next day to Black River with all that could safely go. We had -no transportation of any kind. Our first step was to put on the road all who could walk. Some two hundred or more of the least disabled thus helped themselves; for the rest, it was decided to move all, except those in the house, to the bank of the stream, which was a little elevated and deeply shaded. Here was constructed for each one a comfortable spring bed, using four short forked posts for the foundation, with short canes placed crosswise on the ends, and long ones lengthwise resting on them. This bedstead was six and one-half feet in length by three feet wide, and of the ordinary height. On it were placed new layers of cotton, and the poncho as before. By ten o'clock next morning about four hundred and fifty of the wounded, thus most comfortably provided for, were left in charge of eleven surgeons and assistants. About 4o'clock the same day the enemy appeared, and went through the ceremony of paroling the whole.

I found my regiment in camp on the west bank of Black River - at least I found the remnants of it - about one half only of nine companies. Company B had been detailed several days before for the body guard of the corps commander, General McClernand, and had not been in the fight.

On the 27th of May the Twenty-fourth was with the rest of the division, on the line of investment in the rear of Vicksburg. Here it remained, taking active part in the siege till the surrender of this stronghold in July following. Its location, like most of our forces on the line, was in ravines and the men suffered greatly at first by the use of the impure surface water, obtained most anywhere at the depth of two to three feet. None other was to be had. On our arrival here, eighteen were on the sick list; the third day after the number was seventy. Instructions were given to use the water only after being boiled. It was thus used in tea and coffee for ordinary drink. The effect of this precaution was soon apparent in the good health of the regiment.

My connection with the Twenty-fourth ceased on the 9th of June, 1863, on account of disability, I had been with it during its most trying period - nearly through its first year of service We were all "pretty green" at the beginning - surgeons like the rest; and we were to learn the art of war by an experience which cost toil and unwonted hardships, such as none could have had any adequate conception, and none can realize, save those in the army service of those trying days.

At its organization, the Twenty-fourth was one thousand strong. I am safe in saying that at least one-fourth of this number were unfit to become soldiers, and most of them did not but in name. With a few exceptions, I believe the enlistment of all of the men was inspired by motives of true patriotism. But many, as I have said before, had disabilities which should have prevented, with proper care, their being mustered in. Those who were the victims of measles, as I have described, proved, as a rule, worthless before the end of their first year; and it was fortunate for them, as well as for the service, that I was able to procure their discharge. A few of the men were inveterate shirks and malignerers, some of them to the extent of actual self-maiming to avoid service. One, I recollect, "fell on his axe," severing the first two fingers of his right hand. Another lost those two fingers from a Rebel minnie shot while on picket duty, be said, though fresh powder marks were abundant on the other fingers. These two were detached for the artillery service; and afterwards, as I was informed and am very happy to say, they made a very creditable record for themselves, serving through the war honorably, and are now enjoying the grateful recognition of the Republic in the shape of liberal pensions. There were some few, also, whose patriotism all seemed to ooze out and vanish in the presence of danger. When all these classes were weeded out and gone, the regiment reached its highest efficiency. During the first year very few, if any, escaped from more or less of the "camp disease," and from other ills incident to exposure. Further on the men suffered little comparatively from disease, for experience had taught them pretty well how to take care of themselves - not only how to prevent sickness, but, also, in most circumstances, what was best to do for it.

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Iowa Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States


Ely, J.F. 1893. FIRST YEAR'S MEDICAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTY-FOURTH IOWA, War Sketches and Incidents as Related by Companions of the Iowa Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Press of P.C. Kenyon, Des Moines, Iowa. Volume 1, pp.105-114.

Copyright © 2004 Douglas Niermeyer, Missouri Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

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