The Civil War’s 6th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment was among the first to be inspected by members of the United States Sanitary Commission. On the 30th of September, 1861 the regiment was billeted at Camp Buckingham located between 7th and 14th Streets in Washington, DC when Dr. George L. Andrew made the regiment’s first of four inspections. Made up of 90 day veterans and new 3 year recruits, the 925 soldiers were sent from New Haven, CT to Washington, DC to be formed into the Army of the Potomac by General George B. McClellan. Dr. Andrew taught the Connecticut volunteers how to guard themselves from camp diseases that had disproportionately felled soldiers in all previous wars.
President Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington, DC hours after the 1st Battle of Bull Run to protect the Capitol from the Confederate Army that had defeated General Irvin McDowell. Union citizens were shocked and the Capitol was in near panic after the Army retreat in the first major land battle of the Civil War, just over 150 years ago.
The Sanitary Commission responded to the fear by offering an explanation for the disarray. Hartford native, Frederick Law Olmsted, General Secretary of the newly appointed Commission, analyzed the data gathered from inspections done prior to and just after the Bull Run battle. He pronounced the soldiers ‘demoralized’ and recommended a course of action based on what he and the Commissioners had learned from the British Sanitary Commission after their 1854-1856 war with Russia. The Crimean War had yielded an enormous amount of information about the ill health of the British Army thanks to Florence Nightingale and her collaborators who insisted on medical reforms that were to protect the troops from the preventable diseases that had nearly cost the Empire the Russian War.
By 1861 Florence Nightingale had become a household name and a respected sanitarian, statistician and British Army reformer. Her ‘Notes on Nursing’ was published in America in 1860 the year her School of Nursing was established in London. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman educated as a physician was associated with Nightingale for more than a decade when the Civil War broke out and it was Blackwell that called the first meeting in New York City where the Women’s Central Association for Relief was established. The women sent a delegation of men to Washington, DC where President Lincoln approved Secretary of War, Simon Cameron’s June 9, 1861 stipulation a “Commission of Inquiry and Advice in respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces” be formed.
Sanitary science was touted by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and others in the North as key to preserving a military force capable of maintaining the Union. Chief among the proponents of this new science was Harriet Martineau, a British journalist, who Nightingale had contacted to popularize the report she had written about the needs for reforms in the Army medical establishment. Martineau published, ‘England and Her Soldiers’, an 1859 book that sold well in America. Among the innovations Martineau described were those that warranted the systematic collection of statistics on the health of the Army, similar to those employed by Olmsted in his examination of the Union’s Bull Run defeat. Other Army reforms achieved by the British and included in regulations sent to the US for preserving the health of troops were; cooking to both promote health and prevent disease, training of officers to site camps in healthy locations, use of clean water separated from sewage, cleanliness of person and camp, establishment of hospitals, training of nurses, and assignment of senior officers to see that the regulations were enforced.
McClellan, like many of his contemporary officers, could easily have ignored the lay members of the Sanitary Commission were it not for a chance encounter he had with Florence Nightingale only six years before Lincoln called him to Washington. Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and Secretary of War in Franklin Pierce’s 1855 cabinet, sent a military delegation to Russia to observe the war in Europe. Major Richard Delafield headed the Commission that spent several weeks in Constantinople and in the Crimea after having toured European capitals and military installations. Each of the three commissioners prepared a book detailing the workings of the engaged armies. Major Alfred Mordecai wrote about artillery [ordnance], Captain George B. McClellan on cavalry and Delafield on infantry and all logistical support including hospitals. Mordecai became ill with dysentery while in the Crimea and was hospitalized at the Castle Hospital in Balaclava where Nightingale was in attendance and after preventive efforts there had lowered disease mortality. The three commissioners had twice visited Nightingale’s Barrack Hospital near Constantinople and Delafield repeatedly commended her and the British Sanitary Commission in his 1861 book.
Union regimental inspections by the lay members of the US Sanitary Commission were facilitated by General McClellan and more than 900 were done before the Spring of 1862 when his Army finally moved south. Prominent medical and other men of science like Dr. Andrew had taught officers in hundreds of new Union volunteer regiments how to prevent air, water, insect and vermin vector, and food borne diseases from decimating the ranks. The British saw nearly 20% of their troops die from disease while the Union, less than a decade later and without knowledge of the germ theory, lost only 5.4 per cent.
The 6th Connecticut went on to distinguished service on the Atlantic seaboard participating in the capture of Hilton Head Island, the siege of Petersburg and assaults on Forts Wagner and Fisher. Among the soldiers of the 6th Connecticut to benefit from the nascent Public Health movement was Patrick McMahon, my great-grandfather.
Long after the War, Olmsted wrote “What was the use of the Sanitary Commission and by what means and methods did it become of that use?” He continued, “ I have said the preventive work of the Commission was, from the day it was organized, regarded as a more important of its duty than that of providing for the sick and wounded.” The only foreign person Olmsted mentioned in his 1890 reflection on the United States Sanitary Commission was Florence Nightingale, among the first to write that prevention trumps relief.