By early 1862, Major General George B. McClellan settled on a strategy to capture the capital of the southern Confederacy at Richmond, to transport his 120,000-man Army of the Potomac from Alexandria to Urbanna, Virginia via the Atlantic Ocean and advance 50 miles west to Richmond. On March 9, Confederate General Joseph Johnston pulled his forces from the Manassas/Centreville area and moved south of the Rappahannock River, forcing McClellan to change his strategy. Eight days later, McClellan’s Army was on its way to Fort[ress] Monroe to take the Confederate capital on an overland campaign up the peninsula.
Not only did the ‘Young Napoleon’ have to consider the logistics of transporting 120,000 Federal troops to enemy territory via the Chesapeake, he also had to figure out the logistics of waging war. How do we continue to supply the army so far from our supply base? How can we ensure the efficient arrival of munitions to the troops? How can we protect our supply lines once we move? Being on the Virginia Peninsula, these armies were also forced to deal with swamps and rivers that surrounded them as they moved further inland. As these troops encountered the enemy, a bigger question of medical care came to be. How can we care for and transport the wounded and sick from the Virginia Peninsula? A new system of care had to be created and designed as part of these initial plans.
Luckily for McClellan, the United States Sanitary Commission had already created a waterborne medical service that could assist in the efficient and safe evacuation of the wounded from the Peninsula back to major hospital centers, such as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. The system of utilizing steam ships had already been in existence since the first year of the war, assisting in the transportation of the wounded in major Western campaigns, such as Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh. These ships were spearheaded by the St. Louis-based Western Sanitary Commission, which was based in the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters.19 steamers were deployed to the Peninsula along the Pamunkey, James, and York Rivers for immediate embarkation. These ships were steamers that could navigate all types of rivers, both up and down stream. They had multiple floors with stacked cots attached to the walls to utilize space.
These vital evacuation transport ships assisted both the wounded and sick. Union troops who were wounded in battles such as Yorktown, Williamsburg, West Point, Seven Pines, and into the Seven Days Battles needed evacuation via the rivers. Malaria, yellow fever, heat exhaustion, dysentery, typhoid, heat stroke, and other illnesses ran rampant throughout the army, leading to well over 5,000 deaths during the campaign. Over one-tenth of the army was disabled by disease, spread by insects and poor sanitation. Below, is the report from newly appointed Medical Director Jonathan Letterman regarding the diseases:
“The army when it reached Harrison’s Landing was greatly exhausted. The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects upon the health of the men. In addition to this the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog. The labors of the troops had been excessive, the excitement intense. They were called upon to subsist upon a scanty supply of food, and but little time even to prepare the meager allowance. They had little time for sleep, and even when the chance presented itself it was to lie in the rain and mud, with the expectation of being called to arms at any moment. The marching and fighting in such a country, with such weather, with lack of food, want of rest, great excitement, and the depression necessarily consequent upon it, could not have other than the effect of greatly increasing the numbers of sick in the army after it reached Harrison’s Landing.
Scurvy had made its appearance before its arrival there, the seeds of which had doubtless been planted some months previously, and was due not merely to the want of vegetables, but also to exposure to cold and wet, working and sleeping En the mud and rain, and to the inexperience of these troops in taking proper care of themselves under difficult circumstances. This disease is not to be dreaded merely by the numbers it sends upon the reports of sick. It goes much further, and the causes which give rise to it undermine the strength, depress the spirits, take away the energy, courage, and elasticity of those who do not report themselves sick, and who yet are not well. They do not feel sick, and yet their energy, their powers of endurance, and their willingness to undergo hardship are in a great degree gone, and they know not why. In this way it had affected the fighting powers of the army, and much more than was indicated by the numbers it had sent upon the reports of sick.
All these influences were not without their effect upon the medical officers as well as upon the rest of the army. A number of them became sick from the exposure and privations to which they had been subjected, and those who did not succumb entirely to these influences were worn-out by the excessive labor required of them during the campaign upon the Peninsula, and especially by the labor incident to the battles immediately preceding the arrival of the army at Harrison’s Landing.
The nature of the military operations unavoidably placed the medical department, when the army reached this point, in a condition far from being satisfactory.”
Like across the other United States medical corps, the hospital ships received patients from the field hospitals located on the ground near the field or by camps, finally taking them to the general hospitals located in the cities listed above in the map and table. The medical situation in southeastern Virginia was horrendous, yet the improvements were made through the new Army of the Potomac Medical Director Jonathan Letterman in June. With the horrendous medical conditions on the Peninsula, the hospital ships saved thousands of lives. Over the course of the Peninsula Campaign through the spring and summer of 1862, between 8,000 and 10,000 casualties were ultimately evacuated from the Peninsula.
1. Stephen Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 163-164, 355.
2. Report of Jonathan Letterman, US Army, in Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, ser. 1, vol. XI, no 12.
3. Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2015), 146.