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March 27, 2013

NA BICENTENNIAL: The Civil War: The city’s medical contributions to the Union effort

NEW ALBANY — Despite Indiana being spared the atrocities of having a major Civil War battle within its borders, the Hoosier State did experience the horrors of the fighting in other ways. One such experience was through caring for the Union Army’s sick and injured. Military hospitals were erected in New Albany to care for these soldiers returning from the battlefields. This provided a way for locals to do their part for the men who were sacrificing life and limb to the Northern cause. 

As a vital port city on the Ohio River, New Albany held an advantageous position to provide relief for soldiers wounded in the South. Riverboats transported these men to the docks of our city. Documents show commanders in the battles of Perrysville and Shiloh sent their injured here for medical help. Madison, Evansville and Jeffersonville also received patients from many different encounters. In particular, Jefferson General Hospital, the third-largest military hospital in the nation at the time, was constructed at Port Fulton in Jeff and housed more than 5,000 beds.

New Albany was home to several military hospitals as well, although none were as large as the one up river. In her book “Indiana in the Civil War: Doctors, Hospitals and Medical Care,” author Nancy Pippen Eckerman talked about these medical facilities and how the town facilitated their creation.

“Early in the war, the people of New Albany transformed their school buildings into hospitals,” she said. “At one time there were 11 hospitals scattered around the town. Although this was a unique volunteer effort, it was not efficient use of staff and space.”

With 860 beds, the U.S. General Military Hospital was the largest of the institutions in the area. Generally speaking, the doctors would see all kinds of war injuries. But most troubling were the many lives lost to disease. According to pbs.org, two out of three Civil War deaths occurred from disease rather from battle. With the advent of antibiotics more than 60 years away, nursing staff had few ways to stop the spread of infections in the wards. 

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