“the pain and panting of death are in this cot”

--Walt Whitman, Specimen days, 1882

Walt Whitman, Notebook kept in hospital, ca. 1863-1865.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (MSS 3829)

Photograph of Walt Whitman, 1863.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (MSS 3829-h)

In December 1862, Whitman hastened from Brooklyn to Virginia after receiving reports that his brother George, a Union soldier, had been wounded at Fredericksburg. Discovering George recovering safely, Whitman remained to tend to wounded and dying soldiers in camp. Soon he moved on to Washington, D.C., where he volunteered in military hospitals for the remainder of the war. Shown here is one of the many small notebooks Whitman brought to the bedsides of soldiers, whose physical and mental suffering he sought to ease through simple gestures: providing a favorite food, reading letters, or simply offering his cheerful countenance and conversation. These wartime experiences inspired some of Whitman’s most famous poetry and prose.

W. H. Church’s medicine case, undated.
(MSS 54)
Disease, not combat, was the greatest killer of soldiers in the Civil War. This case of medicines used to treat many common illnesses belonged to Dr. W. H. Church, who served as medical officer under Union General Ambrose Burnside. He was likely with Burnside for the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Va., in December of 1862. Dr. Church would have carried this small chest of medications for use in camp, where as much treatment was provided as possible.
The medicines left to right are: calcined magnesia, a cathartic; essence of peppermint, a carminative; rhubarb and magnesia, a laxative; spirit of camphor, used internally as a carminative or respiratory stimulant and externally as a local anesthetic; paregoric, a camphorated tincture of opium used for diarrhea or as a cough medicine; and syrup ipicac, an expectorant and emetic.

Trephine Set, ca. 1835-1855.
Courtesy of the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library, Historical Collections, Gift of Cuthbert Tunstall
Trepanning—the process of cutting a round hole in the skull to reach the brain—was frequently practiced in Civil War hospitals, since so many soldiers suffered head injuries. Performed since antiquity, trepanning could be used to relieve pressure and to provide access to tissue for surgery. Despite the effectiveness of this treatment, a high proportion of patients died due to infection.
This set was manufactured in Philadelphia and inscribed to “Doct. Tunstall,” presumably Robert Baylor Tunstall (1818-1883), a prominent physician in Norfolk, Va. Similar kits were used by doctors in hospitals on both sides in the Civil War.

“Deceased Soldiers,” Record of Charlottesville General Hospital military patients, 1861-1865.
(MSS 2533)

Founded in July 1861, the Charlottesville General Hospital comprised some 500 beds distributed among various buildings in town and at the University of Virginia, including the Rotunda, portions of the Lawn, and on Carr's Hill. This ledger identifies Confederate soldiers who died following admission to the hospital. Entries are arranged by year, followed by rank, name, regiment, company, date and cause of death, and burial location. The deceased soldiers were buried in the Confederate cemetery adjacent to the University of Virginia cemetery; a total of 1,097 soldiers were interred there. The Charlottesville General Hospital treated 22,700 patients, of which 5,000 suffered from gunshot wounds. Union soldiers who were prisoners of war were also treated at this facility.

Detail of “The General Hospital at Fortress Monroe,” from Harper’s Weekly. New York: Harper & Brothers, 7 June 1862.
(AP2 .H32)

During the Civil War, the need to care for the increasing number of wounded soldiers resulted in makeshift hospitals created from warehouses, public buildings, and other repurposed structures. The hospital at Union-controlled Fort Monroe, in Hampton Roads, Va., had been a hotel. The hotel’s dining room served as the surgical ward.

Many of the wounded had to endure wearying journeys to a medical facility. In “Arrival of wounded men from Yorktown,” patients who had traveled to Fort Monroe by steamship are being taken to the hospital by horse-drawn wagons.