The Experiences of a Medical Hero

Frank Hastings Hamilton, MD is remembered for his skills at the Battle of Bull Run and his educational ties.

Civil War battle
Civil War surgeons, like Frank Hastings Hamilton, operated bare-handed and often with instruments that were not properly sterilized.
© 2009 Gingerich

Frank Hastings Hamilton, MD, soon got a chance to practice what he preached in his new book, “A Practical Treatise on Military Surgery.”

No sooner was the book published than the author found himself performing amputations following the bloody Civil War battle of Bull Run, Va.

His operating room was an old stone church where the surgeon saw wounded soldiers “lying upon every seat, between all the seats, and on every foot of the floor; a few on stretchers, perhaps three or four; a dozen more on blankets – occasionally upon a litter, hay or straw, but mostly on the boards.”

On July 26, 1861 – 5 days after the battle – Hamilton wrote the American Medical Times describing his experience as a combat surgeon. The letter was published with the title “One day’s experience on the battle-field.”

A medical hero

Hamilton, 47, was the surgeon of the 31st New York Infantry Regiment. A medical hero of the Bull Run battle, he was promoted to brigade surgeon, corps surgeon and medical inspector of the U.S. Army, according to his obituary in the New York Times. He returned to civilian practice in 1863.

cWhen the Civil War began in April, 1861, Hamilton practiced and taught surgery at the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn and Bellevue Hospital Medical College in Manhattan. He helped found the Bellevue Medical School, according to his newspaper death notice. Hamilton died in 1886 at age 72.

Born in Vermont, Hamilton was well-known in surgical circles when he offered his skills to the Union army and went south with the troops. At Bull Run, Hamilton ended up in charge of the Union field hospital at The Church of the Ascension in Centreville, near the battlefield. The Episcopal Church still welcomes worshippers.

Hamilton and his staff shifted to the church from a log cabin and a house.

“The scene here was a little different. It was dark; we had but two or three tallow-candles,” he wrote of the church. “The men had been waiting longer, and were in general more severely wounded; and, although now and then a man asked us to pass him, and to look first after someone lying near him who was suffering more, yet from all sides were constantly begged and implored to do something for them.”

He added, “Only two amputations were made by myself; one below the knee, and one above the elbow-joint. Both of them, I confess, were done very badly, but I could, at the time, and under the circumstances, do no better. My back seemed broken, my hands were stiff with blood. We still had no sponges, and scarcely more water than was necessary to quench the thirst of the wounded men. My assistants were equally worn out – Dr. [Edward F.] Taylor [of the First New Jersey Infantry] alone seemed vigorous and ready for more toil.”

Primitive conditions

Modern surgeons – civilian or military – would be appalled to operate under the primitive conditions of Civil War field hospitals. At least Hamilton was sheltered in a building; many field hospitals were mere tents pitched at the edge of battlefields.

Civil War surgeons operated bare-handed with instruments that were not sterile. Antiseptic surgery did not develop until later.

Anesthesia was usually available to Union and Confederate surgeons, but they had to work fast.

“Operative surgery, especially an arm or leg, had forever been a speed event in which a surgeon’s ego and a patient’s suffering were intimately bound up with how fast the former could relieve the latter of his extremity,” Ira M. Rutkow, MD, wrote in “Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine.” “Tissues were incised, bones sawed, and blood vessels tied all in a few minutes to minimize blood loss and lessen a patient’s anguish and pain.”

At 12:30 a.m., Hamilton said a candle was needed to permit Taylor to amputate a soldier’s arm at the shoulder joint. The man proved to be too far gone, his arm “terribly shattered with a cannon ball or fragment of a shell,” Hamilton wrote. “It was nearly torn off at the shoulder-joint, but the haemorrhage was trivial, he was dying of the shock. We gave him whiskey, the only stimulant we had, with water, dressed the wound slightly and left him to his fate.”


Other wounded were brought in during the night, but Hamilton and his staff, which managed to get a little rest, were preparing to retreat to Washington the next day, trailing the remnants of the shattered Union army.

“I could not tell them I was about to leave them, and I trust in leaving them so I did them no wrong,” he wrote. “I could be of no more service to them until morning, and then I presumed they would be in the hands of a civilized and humane enemy who would care for them better than we could. As I passed along out of the village I requested one gentleman who lived there to look after them, and also a family composed of a man and wife with two daughters. They all promised to do what they could.”

In their haste to depart, Hamilton and his staff could not take their surgical instruments. He walked and rode army ambulances to the national capital – about 25 miles away – arriving at 10 a.m. and washing his “bloody hands and arms, for here I found the first water.”

In 1862, he was back in New York City, where, according to Appletons Encyclopedia, he organized the United States General Hospital in Central Park to help care for the ever-growing number of sick and wounded Union soldiers. The next year, he rejoined the staff at Bellevue Medical College. He was chair of surgery until he resigned in 1875, according to his Times obituary.

Hamilton continued to practice medicine. When President James A. Garfield was fatally wounded by an assassin in 1881, first lady Lucretia Garfield summoned Hamilton.

“He was telegraphed for, and a special train being provided him, he went directly to the President’s bedside,” Hamilton’s death notice said. “Until the President died, Dr. Hamilton, in connection with Drs. [D.W.] Bliss and [D. Hayes] Agnew, was almost constantly in attendance.”

Hamilton wrote widely on the practice of surgery and invented several medical devices.

“One of the doctor’s greatest achievements was the introducing of gutta percha as a split where irregular joint surfaces require support,” his Times obituary said.

Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.

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