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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 09:10 am

Camp Misery

Medicine was sparse at badly overcrowded Camp Butler

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An amputation kit used during the Civil War is in the collection of the Pearson Museum at the SIU School of Medicine, 801 N. Rutledge.
PHOTO BY ROLAND KLOSE

During the Civil War, Springfield had one of the state’s largest soldier-training facilities: Camp Butler, located about six miles northeast of Springfield, west of the current site of Camp Butler National Cemetery near Riverton. The camp was established quickly but not well. According to the Camp Butler history (written by cemetery staffer Mabel Workman), officials announced on Aug. 2, 1861, that the camp would be established, and within three days 23 regiments had arrived. On July 1, 1862, a U.S. Army surgeon checking the camp reported that its barracks were “mere shells, single boards forming the sides and roofs; the sides very low . . . the roofs covered with tarred paper . . . they afford protection neither from storms nor heat.” (Dr. J.C. McKee’s report is in the Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume V, 1870.) Camp Butler wasn’t made to hold the large numbers of people who were dumped at its door. Five thousand men were there within weeks of its opening. The overcrowding, poorly built barracks, and extreme central-Illinois weather contributed to outbreaks of disease and deaths. By Aug. 21, just two-and-a-half weeks after the camp opened, a soldier had died — of “lung fever,” according to the camp history. Camp leaders began to assemble a medical staff, including a surgeon, hospital steward, druggist, and nurses — who, the history says, had to be “plain women over the age of 30.” The history notes, “Hoops were to be abolished and nurses were to be made walking spindles,” in a regulation uniform consisting of a brown dress, pantalets “tight around the ankles,” and black hat. For a little over a year, starting in February 1862 with the Union’s victory at Fort Donelson, Tenn., when about 2,500 Confederate soldiers were shipped here, Camp Butler also served as a prison camp. Prisoners started dying almost immediately. In less than a month, 148 prisoners were buried in a newly developed Confederate cemetery at the camp. The huge influx of POWs created an immediate need for more medicine. On March 1, camp surgeon Dr. Thomas Madison Reece sent the Medical Purveyors Office in Chicago a request for nearly every type of medicine available to hospitals. (The request is among his papers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.) Among many things, he asked for ether (an anesthetic), 192 bottles of alcohol (a stimulant, general tonic, and mixer for other medicines), belladonna extract (for intestinal cramps), sulfate of magnesium (a laxative), blue mass pills (mercury-based pills, potentially toxic, for diarrhea or constipation), opium (for diarrhea or pain), and potassium iodide (for syphilis or wound cleaning). “The sickness among the prisoners has almost assumed the features of an epidemic,” said the March 10, 1862, Illinois State Register. “We learn that on the afternoon of Friday, no less than 9 deaths occurred, and in the previous days the daily average of mortality was 3 or 4.” Days later, 15 men died one Saturday, the paper reported. A severe, lingering winter increased the incidence of illness among the prisoners. “Sharp winds, cold rains for the 2 weeks past have produced colds, coughs and sore throats innumerable,” according to an account in the April 21, 1862, Illinois State Journal. It’s no surprise that, according to Dr. Reece’s reports, pneumonia and typhoid pneumonia were the most common causes of death that winter. Fatalities were such a problem, the camp’s director (who also contracted severe pneumonia) became worried about the cost of coffins and ordered a camp carpenter to construct them to save money, according to Lonnie R. Speer’s Portals to Hell: The Military Prisons of the Civil War (Stackpole Books, 1997). Other common illnesses, according to the Camp Butler history, were measles and “chronic diarrhea, erysipelas [a highly contagious and often fatal skin infection], remittent fever, continued fever and rheumatism.”
The history adds, “Remedies prescribed by Dr. Reece . . . included: whiskey, three times per day, tonic pills, poultices, cod liver oil and flax seed tea.”
McKee, the surgeon who checked Camp Butler for the U.S. Army, arrived here on May 1, 1862, and wasn’t pleased. The stench was “horrid and sickening,” he reported, and the medicine supply was lacking. The camp’s six hospitals were “in a miserable sanitary condition,” McKee wrote. “The floors were filthy; deodorizing agents were not thought of; slops and filth were thrown indiscriminately around. The sick were crowded in wooden bunks; some on the floor, many without blankets.” McKee initiated a camp cleanup that, he said, resulted in far fewer fatalities the following month. While McKee was there, he reported, typhoid, pneumonia, and erysipelas “raged.” Treatment included ammonia, tonics, and stimulants. “One case . . . was saved by blistering the whole length of the spine with ammonia and mustard. Typhoid . . . was treated much in the same way, with the addition of oil of turpentine, of which I cannot speak too highly.”
By mid-June that year, 336 soldiers and prisoners were hospitalized, the largest number during Reece’s tenure, according to his records. Naturally he needed more medicines, so he sent another request to the Purveyor’s Office. This time, however, ugly government bureaucracy got in the way (the response is in Reece’s papers at the ALPL). On July 30, the office wrote that his request “should have been in duplicate.” The purveyor would not fill his order until he resent it the proper way, which delayed soldiers’ getting necessary treatment for who knows how long. How many soldiers died as a result? We’ll never know. (How much sense does it take to ship the desperately needed supplies and ask Reece to send the ridiculous duplicate later?) Overcrowding was still a problem at Camp Butler two years later. The barracks were holding twice as many soldiers as they had been built to handle, and contagious diseases, including smallpox and measles, were breaking out “at a fearful rate,” according to a Feb. 1, 1864, letter written by George R. Clark, a regimental lieutenant. (His letter is part of Reece’s papers.) He was writing officials to request that additions be constructed for the hospitals, which were bursting at the beams. At that point, more than 500 men were sick. We might know more about Camp Butler’s sick men and hospitals if it were not for an 1865 fire that destroyed its hospital office building and all hospital records. The camp served as a training camp and mustering-out facility until the end of the war and closed on June 19, 1866. There are 714 Union soldiers and 866 Confederates buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery.
Contact Tara McAndrew at TMcand22@aol.com.
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