A lengthy and active military career

I recently finished processing the Robert M. O’Reilly papers (MC 34) which document a good portion of O’Reilly’s career as a surgeon for the U.S. Army.

Portrait photograph of Robert M. O'Reilly, circa 1870

circa 1870

O’Reilly’s appointment as surgeon general of the army, a position he held from 1902 until  his retirement in 1909, was the last in a long line of assignments that came during his almost 50 years of service. O’Reilly certainly did not experience many dull moments during his career as it coincided with several national and international wars and conflicts.

O’Reilly’s career began in 1862 when he interrupted his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania to enlist as a medical cadet during the Civil War. A good deal of correspondence in the collection is O’Reilly’s letters to his mother that he wrote while stationed in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Order for O’Reilly to report to the General Field Hospital near Chattanooga Creek, Chattanooga, Tennessee, March 12, 1864

In 1867, O’Reilly was sent to several army posts in the southwest and was then stationed in Wyoming Territory ending up at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. While there, he was involved in clashes between the U.S. military and the Sioux Nation in 1874  and 1880.

For a time, O’Reilly was stationed at Red Cloud Agency, one of the first reservations established by the U.S. government, located in the northwestern corner of present-day Nebraska. This agency served as one of the centers of activity during the Sioux Wars of 1876-77.

The government assigned troops to Red Cloud Agency in March 1874 after the killing of an agency clerk. The military encampment was named Camp Robinson (Fort Robinson). One of the letters from O’Reilly to his mother discusses the troop’s arrival to the camp.

In the letter, O’Reilly writes

The Indians looked pretty blue when we arrived and well they might. A command of over 600 cavalry men with 40 wagons takes up a tremendous length of road when on the march…

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, page 1

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, pages 2-3

During the Spanish- American War, O’Reilly served as chief surgeon of the First Independent Division, the 4th Army Corps, and later chief surgeon on the staff of Major General James F. Wade in Havana.

One of the reasons Spanish troops stationed in Cuba were at a disadvantage during the war was that they were suffering severely from yellow fever. In a letter O’Reilly wrote to his sister Mary while he was stationed in Florida, he notes the concern over the yellow fever outbreak and discusses the movement of troops in the area, as well as how he had been treating members of women’s religious orders.

O’Reilly writes:

There hasn’t been any fever- yellow fever I mean- in Tampa. There is or was a good deal of typhoid as this is pretty ?? to be in camps of green troops.

My associations since the General and staff went to Huntsville has been largely sick holy people. On Saturday I sent seven Sisters of Charity from New Orleans off on a ship to Santiago…They are yellow fever nurses.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 1

He continues on the second page:

We are moving the troops out of here as fast as possible and by the end of  week they should all have gone. I suppose then I shall go to Huntsville but I don’t know.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 2

O’Reilly’s letter also seems to indicate that his son, Philip, who he refers to as “Jack” was also involved in the war. Philip, a cadet in the U.S. Navy, died in 1901 at age 22. On page one, he notes:

In that now the blockade is over Jack’s ship is ordered back to League Island, so no doubt you will see him soon…

The finding aid for the Robert M. O’Reilly papers is now available online.

Daughters of Charity Nursed Wounded Civil War Soldiers at West Philadelphia hospital

by Christine McCullough-Friend

Women’s religious orders have served both Catholics and non-Catholics within the Philadelphia community since the establishment of the Diocese of Philadelphia two centuries ago. These women, who have and who continue to devote their lives to the betterment of society have played a pivotal role in social work, education and medicine.

As we begin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, one example of this service that should be highlighted is the work of the Daughters of Charity (formerly Sisters of Charity) at Satterlee Military Hospital. The sisters ministered to thousands of wounded and dying Civil War soldiers from 1862 until the hospital closed in 1865. 

Nurses and staff

The 12-acre site where the Satterlee Hospital was located in West Philadelphia, bounded roughly by 40th to 44th Streets, from Spruce to Pine Streets, was at that time very rural, far removed from the cramped and crowded conditions of urban Philadelphia. The ‘pure country air’ afforded the soldiers an opportunity to rest and recover from their wounds.

The hospital, initially called West Philadelphia Hospital, was renamed Satterlee Military Hospital in honor of Richard Smith Satterlee, a distinguished army surgeon. The surgeon in charge was Dr. Isaac Hayes, an Artic explorer before he joined the army. The hastily constructed buildings were completed in just over 40 days. The 2,500-bed facility was not quite finished when 22 Daughters of Charity arrived on June 9, 1862.

Initially, the hospital was fairly ill equipped, especially with regard to the accommodations for the sisters. Beverages were served in wash pitchers and the food in basins. The sisters ate their meals earlier than the officers, sharing just four eating utensils reserved for officers’ use. The chapel was so small that some sisters had to exit the room so others could enter and receive Holy Communion.  

Satterlee Hospital became a self-contained city when a tent city was built on the grounds in 1863. The hospital increased its capacity to accommodate 4,500 wounded soldiers. A 14-foot high fence surrounded the property, which now sprawled south to Baltimore Avenue and west to 46th Street. On the grounds there was a post office, clothing store, laundry facility, carpenter shop, printing shop, dispensary, library, and three kitchens referred to as restaurants.

Although the official capacity of Satterlee was 4,500, the actual capacity exceeded this number. After the Battle of Bull Run, the wounded arrived by the hundreds. After the Battle of Gettysburg, they arrived by the thousands, swelling the hospital population to more than 6,000. During the Battle of Gettysburg which occurred during July 1863, the greatest number of wounded were admitted to the hospital in a single month. The following month of August saw the greatest number of deaths in any one month, averaging at least one per day. In just one year, patients consumed more than 800,000 pounds of bread, 16,000 pounds of butter and 334,000 quarts of milk.

During the war, more than 100 Daughters of Charity passed through the doors of Satterlee Hospital, ministering to the wounded soldiers’ spiritual and medical needs. The tiny chapel was soon expanded to seat 400 worshippers. Many soldiers often arrived several hours before mass to obtain a seat. Several wounded soldiers contributed generously to outfit the chapel properly, purchasing a set of stations of the cross and taking great pains to decorate the chapel for feasts and special occasions. 

The hospital’s chaplain was Father Peter McGrane who was stationed at St. Patrick’s at 20th and Locust Streets. Every day, Father McGrane traveled from St. Patrick’s to Satterlee to say mass, hear confessions, instruct and baptize and frequently arrange for burial. He labored throughout the war ministering to the wounded and dying. Archbishop James Wood also visited Satterlee several times to confirm many adult converts.

Father Peter McGrane, no date

The practice of military medicine during the war was an eye-opening experience. The wounds caused by the new and improved artillery met the outdated medical practices of understaffed field hospitals, resulting in an epidemic of needless deaths. Conditions began to improve with the advent of permanent army hospitals like Sattelee, staffed by experiences surgeons and dedicated sisters.

During its four-year existence, more than 50,000 wounded soldiers were treated at Satterlee. The contributions made by the medical professionals and the Daughters of Charity who staffed the hospital are immeasurable.

PAHRC holds a copy of a diary kept by a Daughter of Charity at the hospital from 1862 to 1865.

References:

Smith, Sara Trainer, ed. “Notes on Satterlee Military Hospital…from the journal kept at the hospital by a Sister of Charity.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 8, no. 4 (December 1897): 399-449.

West, Nathaniel. History of the Satterlee U.S.A. Gen. Hospital at West Philadelphia from October 8, 1862 to October 8, 1863. The Hosptial Press, 1863. (Call# IC0135)

Last Days of the Union

This month of April, 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

The state of South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860.

In apparent response to this news, Reverend Joseph Cullen from St. Bridget’s Parish recorded a brief yet profound statement in the church marriage register. Dated December 1860, Father Cullen wrote: 

Last days of the Union

 

Secular notations such as these were rare in 19th century sacramental registers.

The Battle of Antietam: a Philadelphia soldier’s experience

This past Monday, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The 69th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, with which Philadelphia native William C. White served, participated in this harrowing conflict. Several letters that White wrote to his parents shortly after the battle describe some his experiences.

In a letter dated September 19, 1862, White writes:

we had a terrible battle in which Sargent Neal Gillen a great friend of Jimmy Hughes had his leg nearly torn off from a solid shot and i am almost certain he is dead his brother our captain stayed with him and was taken prisoner our brigade was on the right and the left broke and [??] then the rebels got on our left and rear and we got out as quick as we could the rebels were behind us we had to get out the best way we could our company lost from eight to ten killed and wounded and prisoners…we expected another battle to day but they have skedadled…

September 19, 1862, page 1

September 19, 1862, page 2

One week later, White continues to discuss the horror he had experienced:

after i wrote the last letter i took a walk over to the battlefield it was an awful sight if it had been the first battlefield i saw it would make me sick it was worse than Fair Oak [Battle of Fair Oaks, also known as the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place in Virginia on May 31 and June 1, 1862]. it was four miles long and the dead lie all along in lines in one place there was a regular line of battle for about one hundred yards they lay in twos where Ricketts [Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts] battery opened grape and canister it mowed the rebels down like grass i saw a great many of our dead, but twice as many rebels…

September 26, 1862, page 1

September 26, 1862, page 2

White began his service during the Civil War on August 19, 1861. His collection of letters to his parents recount his experiences in some of the most important battles of the war– Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The letters provide a glimpse of Union camp life during the Civil War and insight into the psyche of a Union soldier. They also document the experience of Irish Americans, specifically in White’s case Irish Catholics,  as the men who made up the 69th regiment were mostly of Irish origin from Philadelphia.