News and Tribune

March 27, 2013

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

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

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. 

Almost all the area buildings used for fighting the disease have long since fallen. Only Hospital Number Nine, the old opera theater along Main Street that now houses Auntie Artie’s Antiques, remains. 

Still, New Albanians at the time experienced the war firsthand through these institutions. Eckerman discussed the ways women of the town aided the sick and dying. As side-wheeler steamers pulled along our banks to unload the men, women of the town stood nearby to offer the soldiers drinks. It would not have been uncommon for these ladies to visit the hospitals and provide some friendship to the patients. 

Ladies of New Albany also contributed to the local branch of Indiana’s Sanitation Commission. Both money and supplies were gathered to be used at hospitals both here and abroad. An excerpt of Eckerman’s book even relates a request from a Kentucky hospital for the local women to send them any extra hospital flags they had available. Identifying the medical buildings, the flags were made of yellow fabric and with a giant capital green H centered in the middle. 

In addition to these places of healing, New Albany hosted two hospitals that treated black troops. Pam Peters mentioned these in her book “The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana.” Anti-black sentiments at the time, she explained in a footnote, made it difficult to house black and white soldiers under the same roof. 

“As it was, there was a good deal of controversy in New Albany about the sick and injured black soldiers and where they were treated,” Peters said.

But that didn’t stop New Albany from helping those soldiers in need. At the former Anderson College building along Main Street, Hospital Number 5, also known as the Hospital d’Afrique, exclusively nursed black soldiers back to health. Likewise, an “unseaworthy” docked boat called the Floating Hospital Ohio also treated only black patients. 

After recuperating, men went back either to their homes or to the battlefield. Some didn’t have either option. Many of the soldiers made New Albany their final resting place. Next week, we’ll examine how the city honored these men by setting aside some sacred ground for their burials.