“Altogether filthy in the extreme”

Civil War hospitals tend to conjure up a particularly hellish image in the minds of most people. Piles of amputated limbs, screaming men, blood everywhere. A perfect charnel house. There is, of course, some truth to this mental image. Military hospitals have been scenes of unimaginable suffering since the dawn of warfare and the Civil War was no exception. In the wake of large battles like Gettysburg or Shiloh, or Antietam nearby towns were inundated with the wounded on both sides. Churches, homes, and stables became makeshift operating theaters as surgeons operated around the clock, doing their best to save lives under trying circumstances. To most 21st century minds the practices that took place in these hospitals were little short of barbaric, but the reality is much more complex. Indeed, battlefield medicine as we know it today has its roots in the practices developed during the war. Techniques of triage, transportation of wounded, the formation of an effective medical corps, and emergency surgery were developed during the war. Old myths about “biting the bullet” are giving way to the fact that over 95% of Civil War surgeries were preformed with anesthesia. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but if you haven’t been to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick you need to go. It’s an eyeopening experience that really strips away a lot of the myth and sensationalism that surround the topic.

Battlefield wounds weren’t the only thing that brought Civil War soldiers to the hospital. Indeed, a soldier was far more likely to suffer from disease than any combat wound. According to the Civil War Trust “for every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died of disease.” Childhood illnesses like mumps and measles swept through recruits, killing many and leaving others debilitated. A wound on the battlefield often meant the risk of secondary infection. Hospitals were established in locations throughout the north and south for the treatment of smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, and other camp diseases.

Cumberland, Maryland was an obvious choice for the location of one such military hospital. It was centrally located along the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and the town served as a logistical hub for the Union’s Mountain Department (later Dept. of West Virginia).Situated between the battlefields of the eastern theater and the states of the old northwest Cumberland became a major transit point for soldiers travelling east or west The townspeople were also firmly  pro-Union in sentiment, and would do much in the coming years to support the war effort. Many of Cumberland’s native sons enlisted in the Potomac Home Brigade, while those that remained supported the growing military buildup in the town (1). In the spring of 1862 orders were given to establish hospitals in Cumberland for the “reception of the sick and wounded from points both East and West”(2).

A number of buildings were commandeered in downtown Cumberland for use as military hospitals, including “Belvidere Hall, the old Presbyterian Church, and the “Old Mill”, on South Mechanics Street”(3). Just north of town another hospital complex was established along the National Road at the historic Clarysville Inn. These two hospital complexes treated thousands of sick and wounded soldiers over the course of the war, including a large number of local boys from the Potomac Home Brigade. Unfortunately, these hospitals were the last stop for many soldiers. While surgeons made many great strides during the Civil War they were almost powerless against disease. Germ theory was in its infancy, and the lack of basic antibiotics and basic sanitation doomed many men that would have otherwise recovered.

In March 1862 a study of the hospitals in the Department of West Virginia was conducted by the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The commissioner’s primary concern was that the hospitals be well ventilated and clean, as “cleanliness and abundant fresh air are the first and most indispensable conditions of recovery from disease and injury”(4). What the commissioners found in Cumberland shocked and horrified them. Surgeon William A. Hammond inspected the motley collection of 15 hotels, warehouses, and engine houses that made up the Cumberland hospital and listed their shortcomings. Barnum’s Hotel was “filthy in the extreme” with “men lying on the floor as thickly as they could be packed, each man having about 23 square feet of space“(5). Outside the hotel things were even worse:

The condition of the yard of this building defies description. It is simply disgusting. The outhouses are filled with dirty clothes, such as sheets, bedsacks, shirts, &c., which have been soiled by the discharges from sick men. The privy is fifty yards from the house, and is filthy and offensive, ad nauseum. It consists of a shed built over two trenches. No seats; simply a pole, passing along each trench, for the men to sit on (6).

Conditions weren’t that much better further down Baltimore Street, where a barely ventilated warehouse was being used to house almost 100 men. Hammond reported that the hospital was “crowded with soldiers and women, romping together” while outside “the privy is built over a running stream, but it is so dirty the wonder is how men can use it”(7). According to the report overcrowding, poor sewerage, and terrible sanitation and filth plagued all of Cumberland’s hospitals. Things were so bad that Hammond recommended shutting them all down and moving the patients to Clearysville.

As I mentioned before, many Home Brigaders met an untimely end in the hospitals of Cumberland. Most died of disease, but the occasional patient stands out. One of the more tragic stories involved Private William Rose of the 2nd PHB Infantry. William was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in the early 1820s. In 1861 he enlisted in Company E of the 2nd PHB Infantry at Cumberland for three years service (8). The first year and a half of his service went by without too much incident, but in the spring of 1863 Private Rose was hospitalized in Cumberland. He was sent to a facility on the corner of Baltimore and Mechanics Streets, in a structure that once housed a hotel. A year earlier it had been included in Hammond’s report, and the surgeon had called the place “altogether filthy in the extreme.” In the spring of 1862 there were 169 patients and attendants crammed in a building that ideally should have housed only 30 (9). The reason for Private Rose’s hospitalization is not recorded, but in any event he didn’t stay long. The Cumberland Citizen recorded his sad ending:


Cumberland Citizen 28 May, 1863

Its impossible to say what drove Private Rose to throw himself from the hospital window that night. Maybe his alcoholism was what got him hospitalized in the first place, or maybe it was a way of coping with his experiences. Either way he became yet another life unexpectedly cut short in Maryland’s Queen City. Rose was initially buried in Cumberland among the others who died of dysentery or typhoid or any number of other diseases. Later his remains were removed and taken to Antietam National Cemetery, where he was buried alongside several other men of the Home Brigade.


Private William M. Rose, Antietam National Cemetery (FindAGrave.com)

The story of Private Rose hearkens back to an earlier post I made about how we remember death in the Civil War. For the majority of Civil War soldiers the hospital was a far more deadly place than the battlefield, and they often struggled against their unseen enemy in the most squalid of conditions.


1 Lowdermilk, William. A History of Cumberland, Maryland. p 392-395, 400-405.

Ibid. p 404. 

Ibid. p 408.

4 US Sanitary Comission. Two Reports on the Condition of Military Hospitals at Grafton, Va., and Cumberland, Md. 1862. p 3.

Ibid. p 17.

Ibid. p 18.

7 Ibid.  pp 23-24.

8 NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland.  Roll: 0103

9 USSC 1862. pp 33-34.


One thought on ““Altogether filthy in the extreme”

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #27 | Whewell's Ghost

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