Caring for Civil War Soldiers

A biography of Walter M. Prentice (1820 - 1864) & Sarah Prentice (DOD 1876)

Walter M. Prentice, physician and Army surgeon in the Civil War, was born in 1820 in Unionville, Lake County, Ohio, to Athalia Prentice (nee Prentice), who was born in New York and Noyes B. Prentice, who was born in Vermont. Walter’s father was a saddler who, in 1837, took part in military affairs as a Captain of a cavalry company and after the death of his wife came to live in Cleveland with his daughter where he died in 1878 at the age of eighty-five years.

Walter was the second child in the family. In 1850 – 51, Prentice was practicing medicine in Canfield, Ohio with his younger brother, Noyes Billings Prentice, studying medicine under him. By the time of the Civil War, the brothers had formed a partnership and were practicing medicine in Cleveland with an office on Pearl Street (W. 25th Street). Early in the Civil War Walter spent about two years working for the Sanitary Commission. In the Civil War both the Union and Confederate armies and governments were ill-prepared to deal with the vast number of deaths that would occur. In any one battle there could be tens of thousands of soldiers that were killed, or died from wounds or disease and the battle commanders had little time to properly identify the dead let alone accurately locate a gravesite or notify a family of the loved one’s death. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her book This Republic of Suffering, illuminates the reality of death in the Civil War. Regarding the Sanitary Commission she writes, in part:

“Voluntary organizations worked to fill in the void left by the failure of military and governmental officials to provide information to families. In the North both the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission, the two most significant Union-wide charitable efforts to grow out of the war, came to regard communications with families as its central effort.

“In the North, as casualties mounted and war grew more intense, the Sanitary Commission played an increasingly significant role in burials and in handling the dead. This enormous philanthropic organization and its network of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of paid agents worked to provide needed supplies and assistance to soldiers. Sometimes agents in the field assumed care of hospital graveyards and registries of death; others worked to arrange burials in the aftermath of battle; still others assisted families in locating lost loved ones and providing for their shipment home.

“The United States Sanitary Commission sought to bring dispassionate principles of science and efficiency to bear on the national crises; relief efforts, while necessary, seemed less important than the establishment of rules of military organization that would maximize prevention of disease and effective management of wounds. Its Bureau of Vital Statistics, its inspections of camps and of soldiers, represented important manifestations of the effort to use the war as a kind of natural scientific experiment.”

Walter entered the Army as a member of a Kentucky regiment of infantry and was promoted from Regiment Surgeon to Battalion Surgeon on the staff of General Frye. He became recognized as a “surgeon of rare ability.” He was put in charge of the hospital at Point Burnside, Tennessee. Hospitals at that time were notoriously unhygienic and, while there, he contracted dysentery . While he was being taken to the officer’s hospital in Louisville he died at Stanford, KY in 1864 at the age of 44 years.

Married in 1847, Walter and his wife, Sarah, had two children: Frank and Thalia. Walter’s brother, Noyes B., married in 1852 and his wife, Georgia (nee Crary), had two children also: Charles and Mary. Walter and Sarah are buried at Monroe Street Cemetery.

The graves of Walter & Sarah Prentice
The graves of Walter & Sarah Prentice

The practice of medicine was still archaic at the time of the Civil War. While ether was used as an anesthetic it was often in short supply and surgical techniques were primitive.
The following excerpt was taken from The Age of Lincoln by Orville Vernon Burton:

The Civil “War was not the romantic adventure that the proud young gallants who today stare back from faded photographs must have imagined. Nineteenth-Century battle had become bigger, in terms of both time and space, than ever before, and technological advances made it a far more grim and deadly ritual. From the conflict’s first official “battle casualty” – Private Luther Ladd, felled in the streets of Baltimore by a rock hurled by pro-southern rioters as his regiment marched toward Washington in answer to Lincoln’s call for troops – through the next four years, more than six hundred thousand young men would die gloriously and absurdly and horribly in defense of profoundly different visions of America: fifty-six thousand rotted in enemy prisons, another five-thousand drowned, almost nine hundred were killed following quarrels with their fellows or by their own hands, three hundred thirteen expired by sunstroke. More than two-thirds of the dead perished from disease, mostly unheroic, ghastly bouts of dysentery, measles, or fevers of one sort or another as poor sanitation, bad water, and rough, crowded conditions spread viruses among populations with low immunity. Combat deaths totaled by 1865 about 95,000 for the Confederacy and 110,000 for the Union. For every soldier killed in battle, approximately 2.5 others survived wounds; about 240,000 rebels and 275,000 Yankees.

For all their organizational rigor and material resources, northern armies do not seem to have served their soldiers much better in recovering from gunshot wounds than southern forces did. Nineteenth-Century armies were primarily killing forces, focused less on maneuver or self-protection than on striking the enemy a traumatic blow. For the common soldier of the ranks who found himself lying dazed and bloody in an open-air field hospital, the prospects were dire. Most of these men had been struck in the limbs, the loins, or the face by musket or artillery fire. Doctors rarely saw sword or bayonet wounds. Seldom did rival forces close in for hand-to-hand fighting with edged weapons or rifle butts, and when they did, the outcome was usually lethal. Likewise, the place on his body where a soldier had been struck by musket fire or shell fragment offered a fairly reliable guide to his chances of survival. A wound in the lower abdomen was usually inoperable. Even if a bullet missed the liver, the hazards of infection were over whelming. A man shot in the upper trunk had a better chance of survival, provided no vital organs had been struck and blood loss could be curtailed. Still, any Civil War soldier hit in the chest by a bullet suffered a wound rather more ghastly than one endured by his counterparts in later wars. The soft lead of a minie¢ ball expanded and flattened out as it traveled through the air, and it struck its victim at a much lower velocity than twentieth century projectiles, causing relatively greater trauma. Most commonly soldiers were wounded in the arm or leg, and the common remedy was amputation. Army doctors performed surgery very near the battle lines and sometimes, at Spotsylvania for example, actually under fire. Occasionally men had to do without anesthetic, but most operations had ether, administered on a cloth and held over the face for a matter of seconds. Veterans have left countless gruesome tales from Fredericksburg, Atlanta, and Spotsylvania of limbs stacked like cordwood outside hospital tents.

The rude conditions of general medical care dictated that soldiers who suffered major trauma would not survive, but tens of thousands went home blinded or facially disfigured, emasculated, or missing and arm or leg. Thousands more suffered a debilitating emotional or psychological collapse. Nor was sickness evenly distributed among ranks and regiments. Officers on both sides tended to escape the worst effects of epidemic diseases, thanks no doubt to the superior living conditions they enjoyed. Conversely, their insignia of rank and placement at the front of any battle line ensured that leaders in combat were among the first to fall. For many ordinary fellows in the Union ranks, the war was a dreary and eminently safe pursuit; most of those on garrison duty in the forts ringing Washington never smelled the smoke of battle. For the soldiers of the First Minnesota, by contrast, military service was a far deadlier calling: in fifteen minutes of fighting on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, fully 82 percent of their number would be killed or wounded.”