Did you know that a Rhode Island hospital cared for thousands of wounded Civil War soldiers, both Union forces and Confederate prisoners of war?
Rhode Island resident Frank L. Grzyb, who has written many books and articles about the Civil War, has written a detailed account of entitled Rhode Island’s Civil War Hospital: Life and Death at Portsmouth Grove, 1862-1865. He uses military records, photographs (many from his own collection), lithographs, broadsides, and soldiers’ diaries to paint a vivid picture of life (and death) at the hospital.
The first wounded – 1,800 men – arrived in Portsmouth in July 1862, transported by steamer from field hospitals near the seige of Yorktown, as Union officers feared that area would quickly be taken by Confederate forces. Many had typhoid in addition to their wounds. Dr. Francis L. Wheaton, an experienced physician and member of the 2nd Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers, came north with the ships and assumed the title of surgeon-in-charge of the new facility, named Lovell General Hospital. The “hospital” at first consisted only of one resort hotel plus some shade trees; the troop ships had brought inadequate supplies of tents and food, and the local community, while well-intentioned, lacked the means to supply even basic necessities for such a large influx of patients.
Grzyb’s account details the many difficulties faced by the hospital staff, and evaluates the frequent criticisms lobbed by local newspaper accounts. Food was erratic and poor-quality; clean (and lice-free) clothing and bedding were at a premium; patient care varied from heroic to negligent; local citizens who tried to help were sent away. Both patients and staff, especially guards, drank too much liquor, causing disturbances in the town. Over the next year, the government erected buildings, intended as temporary, and improved standards and record-keeping.
At the end of the war, the hospital closed. Senator (and former Governor) William Sprague and a real-estate investor relative purchased the land; the buildings were either sold and moved or torn down. Most of the 308 remains in the cemetery were removed to the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. (Grzyb includes a list of those reburials in his Appendix.) The usable books from the hospital library were sent south to schools for newly freed slaves. The Portsmouth Grove hospital disappeared, until Grzyb resurrected it with this engaging account.
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