Lynchburg served as site of many Civil War hospitals

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Throughout the Civil War, tens of thousands of soldiers descended on Lynchburg, not to fight, but to heal.

During the war, Lynchburg was the site of the second largest permanent hospital center in the Confederacy behind Richmond. It, like other Civil War hospitals, also was a site for new medical treatments and practices, some of which still are seen today.

These were just some of the things touched upon in Thursday night’s presentation, “Hospitals in Civil War Lynchburg,” at the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox. Forty people attended the presentation by Ted Delaney, assistant director of Old City Cemetery Museums and Arboretum in Lynchburg. Delaney began researching the city’s role in the war, after learning more about the 2,200 Civil War soldiers buried in the cemetery.

In 1860, Lynchburg was the seventh largest city in Virginia with a population of less than 7,000. It made Delaney question what made Lynchburg one of the most popular sites to send sick or wounded soldiers. He referenced scholarly works and first hand accounts from those who lived or worked in the city during the war, as well as archived hospital logs and newspapers.

He discovered three contributing factors to Lynchburg’s use as a medical site: room for the soldiers, railroad connections and the area’s remoteness.

Lynchburg met its peak of patients in May and June 1864 when there were more than 10,000 soldiers in the city, outnumbering the residents there by about 4,000. Union troops had control of the railroads, blocking the way to Richmond and redirecting the roughly 80,000 soldiers wounded during Gen. Grant’s seven-week campaign. In May, about one third of all soldiers treated in Virginia were in Lynchburg, Delaney said.

As a major industrial center and tobacco producer, the city had a number of large tobacco warehouses that, when emptied, made great hospital wards. More than 30 buildings were converted for medical uses during the war, including 18 warehouses that could hold several hundred patients. Only one of these buildings remains standing and is located at the intersection of 12th St. and Dunbar Drive.

“It didn’t take long for them to disappear,” Delaney said, adding most were torn down for new industry years ago or collapsed.

There are reports of people turning meeting halls and stables into places for patients. The old Lynchburg College, which no longer stands, had 500 beds for patients since all the students were enlisted at the time, Delaney said.

During the war, hospitals were not set up like today’s facilities. They consisted of several buildings in a complex, each with their own staffs of doctors, surgeons, nurses, cooks, stewards and guards. Throughout the war, the city assigned different purposes and specialties to the buildings, beginning with a general place where the patients were met. Each building focused on issues such as specialty nursing, surgery, general care, convalescence or quarantine.

“The concept of a large hospital and a large division of labor didn’t exist anywhere in 1860 or 1861,” Delaney said.

Lynchburg was an ideal site for the popular medical complex because it sat at the intersection of two major railroad lines, allowing for transportation in all four cardinal directions.

In addition to the convenience, the city was far enough away from the major fighting to be safe, yet close enough to provide care to the wounded.

Some medical and social breakthroughs also occurred during the Civil War in Lynchburg.

“There were great advances made here just as well as anywhere else in the country,” he said.

Dr. John J. Terrell, of Campbell County, made a lot of positive changes at the quarantine hospital, called the pest house, which was in place to treat soldiers with illnesses, such as small pox.

“It was a retched place, basically a place where people would die in isolation,” Delaney said.

Terrell began volunteering there in 1862 and, through his changes, reduced the mortality rate from 50 percent to 5 percent. He stopped the nurses from drinking the patients’ medicinal whiskey, created an ointment for sores, added sand to the floor to absorb the smell and make it easier to clean and painted the walls black because small pox patients are sensitive to light.

The mortality rate in Lynchburg during the war stood at just one percent.

On the social front, women played a large role in Civil War hospitals, breaking the traditional ideas of what women could do and paving the way for the women’s rights and suffragette movement. Slaves played a huge part working alongside the free people and assuming various duties, such as nurses, cooks and laundresses, Delaney said.

Women’s responsibilities included tending to wounds, comforting the soldiers, writing home for them as well as giving them food, water and support.

“If it had not been for these ladies, many of [the soldiers] would have starved to death,” Delaney said, referencing a diary entry describing how the nurses tended to the wounded as they lay on straw waiting to see a doctor.

Lucy Mina Otey created one of the most known Lynchburg hospitals, the Ladies’ Relief Hospital, in 1861 to help the soldiers since many surgeons wouldn’t allow women in their hospitals.

“The Ladies’ Relief Hospital developed a reputation to be the place to send soldiers who needed specialized nursing,” Delaney said.

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