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NP: September 6, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 27: A City of Hospitals

A City Of Hospitals

(The following is the twenty-seventh in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg.)


Hospitals played a large part in the life of Petersburg not only during the ten months with which these articles are concerned but throughout the Civil War. Like the hospitals which had been operated during outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, they were temporary, improvised affairs, with the difference that the emphasis was on treatment rather than isolation.

The story goes that the first wartime hospital in Petersburg was established early in the war when a lady on Bollingbrook Street saw an ill soldier resting in a doorway. Soon a building was found and equipped for the Ladies’ Hospital, and within a week all the families of the fashionable street were sending food and comforts to the hospital. Schools and children presented entertainments for its benefit. A fund which the ladies of Petersburg had raised to finance a gun boat on the James River, which no longer was needed, was diverted to the more immediate and more appealing purpose.

A newspaper article of 1863 reported that ambulances and attendants were always waiting at the Petersburg railroad stations to convey the ill and wounded to other trains or, if necessary, to one of the hospitals. At the same stations canteens had been established for transient soldiers, well or ill. The hospital system was greatly expanded and officially organized before hostilities reached Petersburg. Then, of course, it became more extensive and more urgent.

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The best single source on the subject is Dr. John Herbert Claiborne’s Seventy-Five Years in Old Virginia. His private letters, which are more revealing and more important than many such writings which have been printed during the past few years, provide additional light.

When the shelling of Petersburg began, some 3,000 sick and wounded, many of them too ill to be moved, had to be withdrawn from the hospitals in the eastern part of the city. Residents long would remember the seemingly endless line of wagons, carts, and everything on wheels pressed into service. Lee expressed some impatience with the process, until he was reminded of the difference between moving the wounded from the battlefields and the ill from hospitals. However, Dr. Claiborne, the senior surgeon, observed in one of his letters that being able to say “by command of Gen. Lee” made quite a difference in getting results. Then people would turn around.

Several of the tobacco factories, which were large, airy, and well ventilated, had been converted into hospitals. They included South Carolina, the Virginia, and the Confederate States Hospitals, on Washington Street, and the North Carolina Hospital, on Perry Street. Poular Lawn and the fair grounds, now West End Park, became the sites of pavilion hospitals. All of these establishments seem to have operated for different periods of time, the eastern ones, as already noted, being abandoned after the shelling of the city began.

There was a hospital for Georgians in Ettrick. The New Market at Halifax Street and South Avenue was a receiving hospital. Old Blandford Church, not far behind the Confederate defense line, served as a field hospital. The diary of Charles Campbell mentioned a hospital on East Hill. In all probability there were many more.

The daily hostilities and the long series of great battles placed extraordinary demands upon these establishments, as did the results of exhaustion and malnutrition which became so evident in the winter of 1864-65. Medical officers were in short supply. The cheerful part of the hospital story was that hunger seems to have been kept at a distance. Early in the siege, wrote Dr. Claiborne, the hospital authorities would send wagons into the country to purchase chickens, veal, butter, and eggs.

He paid particular tribute to the foraging activities of Sergeant Joseph Todd. When Sergeant Todd went out with cotton and tobacco requisitioned from government supplies and came back with medicines and food, superiors did not choose to inquire too closely into the nature of the transactions. The inference is that he had been trading with the enemy. Such trade went on all during the war, more often for purposes of profiteering than keeping hospitals operating.

In so far as possible the hospitals kept their own sources of food on hand, as evidenced by a March 31, 1865 advertisement in The Express for a large red cow strayed or stolen from the Confederate States Hospital. Since the Battle of Five Forks would be raging the next day and the Army of Northern Virginia would be crossing over the Appomattox River bridges on the following day, it is unlikely that the sequence of events permitted the large red cow to get back to her proper place in the scheme of things.

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When the Union army entered Petersburg, a representative of Grant’s Petersburg Progress paid a visit to the Confederate States Hospital, on West Washington Street. He found it well adapted for hospital purposes. The upper story had been reserved for Federal patients. On the cots of the lower floor were 200 Confederate patients, most of whom had been wounded in the attack on Fort Stedman. Surgeon J. T. Kilby, the Confederate officer in charge, impressed the visitor as kind and wise.

“We rather enjoyed our visit and were received with gentlemanly respect,” concluded the reporter.

Any attempt to catalogue all of the structures which were used for hospital purposes during the campaign for Petersburg, necessarily would be doomed to failure. As the line of battle extended south and west of the city, county homes and churches suddenly became hospitals. In the city itself, as more formal facilities were taxed beyond capacity, many residences received patients. Relationships in a society in which relationship was not quickly forgotten, old friendships, and even business connections stemming from the city’s heyday in the commission trade seem to have entered into many of these arrangements. If matters did not go well, the patient might account for the less familiar name in the family square.

It would be exaggeration to say that all Petersburg became a hospital in 1864-65. It would be no exaggeration to say that a large part of it was converted to hospital purposes.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “A City Of Hospitals.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  May 6, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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