Mower Hospital
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In July of 1862, the Union army failed to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia…retreating 25 miles south to the safety of Harrison's Landing. Weeks of rain and heat had taken their toll on Union ranks. Diseases like scurvy clung to the men like the mud on their boots.

From a letter written by Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director, Army of the Potomac:

"They do not feel sick, and yet their energy, their powers of endurance, and their willingness to undergo hardship are in a great degree gone, and they know not why."

The injured poured in like the heavy rains. Letterman and his medical staff rigged makeshift field hospitals not far from the battlefield…amidst the swamp land of Virginia. But he realized the system wasn't working.

George Wunderlich, executive director at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine:

"What Letterman was seeing is men who were of perfectly reasonable health who may have had a minor wound then going into a hospital…"
"...they may have had to amputate a finger because of an accident and now the man has yellow fever or the man has malaria and might die....he saw that as a completely needless waste of human life."

Letterman wanted to get his men away from the swamps, believing bad air and swamp gas were making them sick. He was right…but for the wrong reasons. Civil War doctors had no idea that germs caused disease…that mosquitoes could bring on malaria, or that dirty water could cause typhoid.

Pressed by Letterman and faced with mounting numbers of wounded, the Army built military hospitals throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Philadelphia was home to more than 20 of these hospitals. And the largest of the fleet was Mower.

Charles Greifenstein is the curator at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia:

"What would impress a visitor was how modern this facility was."
"How clearly miraculous this was to take care of the fighting men, the sons of Pennsylvanians and Philadelphians that were fighting in the'd have to call it marvelous, people had never seen anything like this."

Municipal hospitals existed before the Civil War, but they were generally avoided, as places where the poor went to die. Mower was different. Opened in January 1863 in the country air of Chestnut Hill, it was the modern medical thought of the time hammered out into wood and nail. Injured soldiers arrived on trains that brought them right to Mower's white picket gate. The 4,000-bed hospital sprawled over 27 acres…its 50 pavilions radiating out from a central corridor like spokes on a wheel.

George Wunderlich:

"The reason for the spoke design, is no matter which direction the air comes're looking at a breeze...the breeze is funneled between the buildings and then dispersed so that one building is not blocking the air of another building. As the wind blows into the spoke, what happens is all of the buildings around that wheel design have positive airflow."

Clean water flowed in from the nearby Chestnut Hill Water Company…while sewage flowed out through a system of toilets. Patients were grouped in wards by illness, so the spread of disease was contained and doctors could tailor their medical care - an early form of specialization.

To boost patient morale and well-being, there were some of the comforts of home…a bandstand where brass bands played, a facility to make ice-cream, a library, and most importantly, the caring hand of a nurse.

Charles Greifenstein:

"Nursing care was in many ways was probably what saved a lot of the patients… The constant attention. …Taking care of the individual patient's needs. And that went a long way to ensuring recovery, that is food and water when they need it, change of clothes when they need it and so forth. It seems elementary but that was often not the case."
Nursing was still relatively new at the time of the Civil War. That respectable women might witness the horrors of a military hospital seemed inconceivable. But through the efforts of advocates like Dorothea Dix, thousands of Northern women mobilized for the Union as paid army nurses and volunteers.

Dix was frank about her ideal candidate for the job. Not wanting to tempt fate, she sought women over 30 years old and in her words, "very plain looking." Indeed, most of the nurses at Mower were members of the Sisters of Charity.

Private William Ulch, a patient at Mower, wrote a poem about the hospital, and about the kind nurses in this place for wounded men:

Seven miles north on the railway cars
From Philadelphia City the remnant of wars
There's a place where wounded men stop
There's a nice Hospital in a nice spot.

Of 20,000 patients who passed through Mower Hospital's care, only 257 died, a remarkable ratio compared to previous wars. The Army tore down Mower, along with most of its sister hospitals, after the war, but its legacy endures. Proper sanitation, attention to patient morale, professional nursing and patient wards…all have their origins in the Civil War hospital.
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