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.


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)

Patrick Coad, patentee of the galvanic battery, and interesting miscellaneous items

I am almost finished processing a small collection, Patrick Coad Family Papers (MC 37). An online finding aid will soon be available.

Patrick Coad, undated

Patrick Coad (1783-1872), an Irish immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, was the first American patentee of a graduated galvanic battery with insulated poles. Coad was a noted teacher and lecturer of medicine and the natural sciences, but gained wider notoriety after he invented and patented his galvanic battery in March 1842. The patent Coad received was for the “improvement in the mode of constructing the galvanic battery so as to vary the intensity of its effect, and in the construction of insulated conductors applied to the same for adapting it to medical purposes.” The instrument, which Coad and others touted as one that helped cure various diseases, garnered a good deal of attention within the medical community, which at the time was very interested in the use of electricity and magnetism for medical treatment.

Pamphlet with information on how to use Coad's galvanic battery during surgical procedures, 1844

Broadside publicizing Coad's lectures, undated

The collection includes some of Coad’s correspondence, his lecture notes and medical remedies, testimonials noting the capabilities of his galvanic battery, as well as related ephemera. Ephemeral materials include newspaper clippings, pamphlets and broadsides publicizing his invention, lectures, as well as the school that Coad opened for boys and girls. Also included in the collection is correspondence, ephemera, some estate items, and a scrapbook relating to Patrick Coad’s family, including his son Joseph R. Coad (1829-1868), a prominent Philadelphia physician who served as president of the city’s Board of Health.

Dr. Joseph R. Coad, circa 1860

Thus far, I have found that manuscript collections, particularly collections of family papers, often have some interesting miscellaneous items that seemingly have nothing to do with the family that is being documented. This collection is no exception. The following are two items that I felt warranted some attention:

1. A document listing the number of those in the city who died during the Yellow Fever epidemic in (possibly?) August and September 1798. The deaths are broken down by religion, church, and section of the city. (These obviously are in need of conservation!)

Yellow fever deaths, September 1798

Yellow fever deaths, Summer 1798

2. The other item of interest is another list, this one a list of food items requested by military personnel and civilians who were stationed at St. Paul’s Church during the first phase of the Nativist riots in May 1844. After violence had spread from Irish Kensington to the city of Philadelphia itself, authorities and citizens finally took action. On Thursday, May 9, Philadelphia County was placed under martial law. Several thousand of the city’s elite formed into divisions of “Peace Police” and assisted the militia in guarding the Catholic churches of the city for the next several days.

It appears as if these soldiers and citizens were not going to defend their city without proper nourishment, which included ham, veal, poultry, eggs, 10 pounds of sugar, and 2,000 stewed and 600 fried oysters. Oh yes, and don’t forget the segars.

Food ordered by military personnel and citizens guarding St. Paul's Catholic Church, May 1844

Robert M. O’Reilly, Surgeon General

A small manuscript collection that I recently finished processing is the Robert M. O’Reilly papers (MC 34).

Robert Maitland O’Reilly (1845-1912) was the 20th Surgeon General of the United States Army serving from September 7, 1902 to January 14, 1909.  O’Reilly served a long military medical career beginning as a medical cadet in August 1862 during the Civil War.  Notable accomplishments include a position as the physician at the White House during both of President Grover Cleveland’s administrations, Chief Surgeon of the First Independent Division at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, and delegate at the International Conference for the Revision of the Geneva Convention in Geneva in 1906.  The collection contains correspondence, general orders, assignments, certificates of appointment, circulars, clippings, invitations, a notebook and a scrapbook.

O’Reilly led a long and successful military career starting as a medical cadet during the Civil War.  His first assignment was at Cuyler General Hospital in Philadelphia followed by a general field hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee in March 1864 where he writes almost daily to his mother.  These letters to his mother are the bulk of the collection.  Below is a typical letter in which O’Reilly discusses his main duty of tabulating the lists of wounded and killed soldiers into reports.

Robert M. O'Reilly to his mother Ellen O'Reilly, June 21, 1864 (Front)

Robert M. O'Reilly to his mother Ellen O'Reilly, June 21, 1864 (Back)

On March 24, 1901 O’Reilly’s son Jack died unexpectedly in early adulthood of peritonitis.  Below is a telegram and letter informing his sister, Mary “Siss” O’Reilly, of the event.

Telegram from Robert M. O'Reilly to Mary O'Reilly, October 24, 1901

Robert O'Reilly to Mary O'Reilly, October 24, 1901 (Front)

Robert O'Reilly to Mary O'Reilly, October 24, 1901 (Back)


When the Civil War ended O’Reilly finished his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  After graduating in 1866 he served in the army around the country and was continually promoted to higher ranking positions.  The actual certificates are large in scale, below is a letter congratulating O’Reilly on his new position as Assistant Surgeon.

Letter from War Department, August 5, 1867

Letter from War Department, August 5, 1867

A high point in the collection is a scrapbook kept while O’Reilly was abroad serving as a delegate at the 1906 International Conference for the Revisions of the Geneva Convention for the conference.  The scrapbook contains calling cards, menus, invitations, and notes.

Scrapbook page, 1906

Scrapbook page, 1906