Civil War Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield

Initially, the military hospital system was neither well-organized nor efficiently developed, and both Union and Confederate medical officers were ill-prepared for the enormous numbers of battlefield casualties and victims of rampant camp diseases. The lack of nutritious food and a clean hospital environment would have grave consequences on patient recovery.

Lynchburg Va
10 Augt 1864
Dear Parents,
This is the 3rd time that I have written you since I was wounded and taken prisoner. I hope you have long since read my previous letters. and learned that I was wounded in my right arm and it was amputated about 3 or 4 inches below the elbow. It is now I hope nearly well —
I was taken prisoner near this place on the 18th of June last. was conveyed to a good hospital, and have received kind treatment, have plenty to eat and a nice clean bed to sleep on. I would be very glad to see you all and hope it may not be long until I should have the pleasure of doing so. I send love to you and all the family. Kind regards to all friends. Yours.&.c. Melker M. Jefferys Donated by Sally Thayer. 

In August 1864, Union POW, Melker M. Jefferys, 15th West Virginia Volunteers, had recuperated sufficiently from an amputation to send word home about the care and food he had received as a patient in a Confederate military hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The tenor of his letter was largely reassuring to his parents with respect to his hospital stay and to his sparse rations as a POW. A collection of Jeffery’s letters, post-war journals, and newspaper clippings, housed in the archives of Historic Sandusky, persistently convey a stoic, matter-of-fact attitude in respect to the dreadful events of June 18, 1864.

Union soldier Melker Jefferys was injured June 18, 1864 during General David Hunter’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Lynchburg, an important Confederate transportation and hospital center. By May 1864, 10,000 patients had already overwhelmed Lynchburg’s hospitals and taxed its nearly depleted supplies. Monthly supply requisitions revealed an urgent need to replenish dwindling stocks of medicines like morphine and whiskey for pain relief, as well as bandages and splints.

Envelope from Union POW Melker Jefferys, 10 August 1864

Back of envelope inscribed in ink with, “Letter sent by Flag of Truce”
Pasted to the envelope and written in pencil at a latter date, “I sent this letter by flag of Truce while a prisoner of war at Lynchburg Va in August 1864. M. M. Jefferys Nov 6th 1897″

Melker Jefferys photographed in Union uniform. Donated by Sally Thayer. 

Undated post-war photograph of Melker Jefferys. Note that he is posed to conceal the disfigurement of his right arm which was amputated below the elbow.  This image is in the reverse, likely because it was not produced from a negative. (Donated by Sally Thayer).

Melker Jefferys’ June 18, 1892 diary entry recalling his June 18, 1864 battle wound.                                                                  “Saturday, June 18, 1892
“This has been a very pretty day and warm. I went to town in the afternoon to see ___ about Bank business for . . .
On June 18, 1864 ___ I lost my arm in battle at Lynchburg Va_it was a hot sultry day. I was wounded about 3 or 4 oclock pm, was taken back to the rear, where the surgeons were operating and my hand was taken off after which I, along with others, was sent in a brick barn, with green clover hay for a bed, and left in the hands of the enemy The 3rd day or Tuesday – we were moved into Lynchburg and put into a hospital with the confederate soldiers. John W. Britton and I of the same company were to gether. We were h__ Saturday and taken prisoner that night. It will always remain fresh in memory as long as I have my right mind.” Donated by Sally Thayer. 

Confederate Colonel J. Risque Hutter’s struggles typified the hardships endured by soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  Hutter, Virginia Military Institute cadet and son of Sandusky owner, retired Major George C. Hutter, endured a lengthy bout with typhoid fever as well as a battle wound and capture at Gettysburg.  In addition to the risk of suffering battlefield injury, many soldiers, away from rural homes for the first time, fell victim to diseases like typhoid, smallpox, dysentery, measles, mumps, and “nostalgia,” a psychosomatic illness. Before the advent of modern aseptic surgical treatments and bacteriology, treatments could be more wretched than the ailments from which they suffered and possibly more threatening to a patient’s health and well being. In fact, military surgeons regularly treated dysentery and other odious diseases with toxic substances like mercury and strychnine. Hospital records in the Historic Sandusky collection indicate these drugs were regularly requisitioned.

J. Risque Hutter.  VMI half plate ambrotype
J. Risque Hutter. VMI half plate ambrotype Taken August 25, 1859 during encampment. 1st ___. Each party had a third part & played at cards the best three of five games & I won it (this photograph). Captain J. Risque Hutter is seated front right.