I’ve found a fascinating description of the Smoketown Hospital as it was in January 1863 in a letter to an Indiana newspaper. I came upon it while looking into one of the many soldiers of the 27th Indiana Infantry wounded at Antietam, Private Thomas Mitchell Gaskins. 

The writer lists some of the patients, like Gaskins, and their status, which is immediately useful, but his description of the hospital facilities and staff are the most interesting pieces to me.   

Here’s my transcription of the complete letter as published:

U.S. Hospital at Smoketown,
or Antietam, Jan. 15, 1863

Editors Sentinel:   As the people of Indiana take a deep interest in the condition and treatment of our sick and wounded soldiers, enclosed I send you a short statement of what came under my own personal observation.  This hospital stands upon the north east edge of the bloody field of  Antietam.  The site was selected by Mr. Vanderkieft on the day of the battle, and was admirably chosen, being a slight elevation, descending gradually in every direction, affording good drainage, and interspersed throughout with small oak and hickory trees, which give in summer a delightful shade. The sick and wounded soldiers at this hospital are very fortunate, both in their physicians and nurses, and in the beauty and comforts of the entire establishment.

The hospital is arranged nearly in the form of a square; the wards in which the patients are placed form one side of the square. There are now eight of these, each ward consisting of six or seven large tents, each tent being fourteen feet square, placed in the rear of each other, thus forming a row, which extends back from the front nine or ten rods. The wards are parallel to each other. There are streets running between them, which are swept every morning, if the weather permits.

Each ward closes at the front with a fly, or, familiarly speaking, with a porch, the pole supporting which is covered with evergreens, forming a verdant pillar a foot thick, which supports at the top a large wreath, having within it the name of the ward in alphabetical order  — as Ward A, Ward B — in large red letters on a white ground.

Entering the ward you see that the tents are not only kept clean and neat, but are tastefully ornamented with wreaths and engravings, arranged to the fancy of the occupants. Each tent has its motto in large letters, surrounded with a wreath, and hung up at the end. For instance, the motto of one of the tents in Ward A is: Though broken and shattered our limbs may be, our hearts feel strong for liberty. In another tent: Our ministering angels — the ladies. In the same tent with the first motto is the following:  to Miss Hall, our benefactress —

Your tender care of wounded men
Speaks loud of sympathy
For us on whom misfortune fell
In strife for liberty.
Angel spirits revive the hopes
In many an aching heart,
And you, in human form, each day
Do act an angel’s part.
Be thanked for it, and do believe
That, in our future days,
Our grateful heart remembers you,
And for your welfare prays.

In Ward B, 3d tent:

Our country, which God in his wisdom designed,
To stand as a sample for nations,
Not all the despots and factions combined
Can sever or shake its foundations.

In Ward C, 1st tent: Don’t give up the ship.

In Ward D, 1st tent: Hurrah for Uncle Sam.

In Ward E, 4th tent: We live in hope.  In the 2nd tent: We bled for our country.

In Ward F, 1st tent: Welcome friends.  In the 3d tent: Death to traitors.  Some wag having stolen out the letter “r”, it now reads: Death to “taitors”.

In the 5th tent, ward B, their motto is:

Oh bright the wreath the warrior twines,
But dark the heart it covers,
For like a blasting fire it shines,
On widowed wives and lovers.

Immediately underneath these lines sits Gen. McClellan upon his war horse, with the words underneath in red letters, Our General, Little Mac, surrounded with a heavy wreath of evergreens. At the other end of the same tent, if I mistake not, hangs a fine likeness of Gen. Banks. 

Running around in festoons overhead in the tents of each ward is a large cord nicely plaited together of red, white and blue cloth. And at the head of each bed, suspended by red tape, hangs a wreath with the likeness of some favorite General or distinguished man, or, it may be, of some battle scene.

At the front of Ward F is a large transparency, with mottoes, sketches and flowers upon it, all made by a patient with simply a bit of coal for a crayon.

At the front of Ward C is a beautiful chandelier, made of a wooden frame entirely concealed from sight by evergreen trimmings, and having in its interior a pyramid of red, white, and blue, with stars upon it. This, perhaps, is the most elaborate piece of workmanship in all the wards, although this ward is beautifully adorned all the way through. The other wards are all ornamented to a greater of less degree,  So much for the ornamental.

The beds are all made of iron, with good ticks well filled with straw, and plenty of blankets. Each tent has a good stove with oven in it. There are five patients in each tent.

The Doctors’ tents with their mess tent form another side of the square. And on the third is the post office, the dispensary, the cooks’ tent, the kitchen with its large iron cauldrons, the bakery, the commissary tent, and the butchery. The fourth side of the square is not entirely filled up with tents. 

The names of the physicians of this well regulated and ably conducted hospital are Dr. B.A. Vanderkieft, Surgeon in charge; Dr. Wm. B. Chambers, Assistant Surgeon 60th New York regiment, temporarily in charge; W.S. Ely, Assistant Surgeon 108th New York; and Wm. Peterson, contract Assistant Surgeon, New York city. Dr. Vanderkieft is a native of Belgium. He has been twelve years in the service in both army and navy in Europe, and is considered an unusually fine surgeon. He is a man of commanding appearance, and possesses great executive ability. He is ably seconded by his assistants, who have won the praise of all by their kindness and attention to their patients.

One great feature is the assistance of Miss Hall, daughter of David A. Hall, a lawyer of high standing in Washington City. She has saved many valuable lives by furnishing delicacies for those unable to eat the plainer food furnished at the kitchen, and by providing for them every article needed to make them comfortable. She has two large tents under her charge, and two good cooks to assist her. 

Another feature is the Chapel, which consists of three large tents, finely decorated. In the center of each tent hangs, suspended from the ridge pole, a large chandelier, ingeniously made of wood, and completely enveloped with evergreen. Service is held nearly every Sabbath, by a clergyman from St. James’ College, an Episcopal institution nearby.

There are now at this hospital the following Indiana boys: James S. Arthur, company F, 27th regiment, fracture of left thigh; doing well, he is from Green County; Kedson Sumner, company B, 27th regiment, wounded in neck; about recovered, Daviess county; George W. Demaree, company F, 7th regiment, injury to spine; improving slowly, Johnson county; Joseph C. Hannah, company B, 27th regiment, wounded in left shoulder; doing well, Daviess county; Philip McManis, company F, 27th regiment, wounded in groin; doing well, Monroe county; Thomas M. Gaskins, company F, 27th regiment, wounded in head; recovered, Monroe County; John C. Williams, company F, 27th regiment, left leg amputated; doing well, Montgomery county; James M. Foster, company F, 27th regiment, index finger, right hand, amputated; convalescent, Monroe county; Tilghman H. Gentry, company F, 27th regiment, amputation of left thigh; he has had a secondary operation performed, also a flesh wound in right leg; at present doing well, Monroe county.

The total number of patients now in this hospital is one hundred and ninety-eight. This number will be increased, with patients from other hospitals, in a few days to about three hundred.

A walk of part of two days over the field of Antietam, through woods and fields and in sight of riddled and demolished buildings, furnish a vivid idea of the destructive character of the modern weapons of war; while the numerous graves and trenches give unmistakeable evidence of the sanguinary struggle. No description, however graphic, can enable one to realize fully the scenes of those memorable days, the 16th and 17th of September. The reality can only be conceived by those who participated in it, and who were so fortunate as to survive it.

Lem. Gentry

 

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Notes

The letter was written by Lemuel K. Gentry, late of the 115th Indiana (3 months’) Infantry.  He’s probably related to – and I’m guessing was visiting –  Tilghman Howard Gentry, of Company F, 27th Indiana, also a patient.

It was published in the Indiana State Sentinel (Indianapolis) of 26 January 1863, page 3, and is online from Newspapers.com.

For much more about Miss Maria Hall of Washington, DC, who was the subject of poetry in the Ward, see several blog posts from the inexhaustible John Banks.

The Indiana men mentioned above also have pages on Antietam on the Web for more information about them:

James S[amuel] Arthur, company F, 27th regiment, fracture of left thigh; doing well, he is from Green County

Kedson [Rezin] Sumner, company B, 27th regiment, wounded in neck; about recovered, Daviess county

George W[hitefield] Demaree, company F, 7th regiment, injury to spine; improving slowly, Johnson county

Joseph C. Hannah, company B, 27th regiment, wounded in left shoulder; doing well, Daviess county

Philip McManis [McManus], company F, 27th regiment, wounded in groin; doing well, Monroe county

Thomas M[itchell] Gaskins, company F, 27th regiment, wounded in head; recovered, Monroe County

John C[alvin] Williams, company F, 27th regiment, left leg amputated; doing well, Montgomery county

James M[ontgomery] Foster, company F, 27th regiment, index finger, right hand, amputated; convalescent, Monroe county

Tilghman H. Gentry, company F, 27th regiment, amputation of left thigh; he has had a secondary operation performed, also a flesh wound in right leg; at present doing well, Monroe county

St. James School is still operating, located about 5 miles southwest of Hagerstown, MD.

For quite a different view of the conditions at Smoketown Hospital, as seen in November 1862, consider the following excerpts from her report back to the home office of the Maine Relief Agency by nurse and volunteer Isabella Fogg:

Again we went to Smoketown, hoping to find them in a more comfortable condition than when we were last there, but how sadly were we disappointed.

How I wish I could introduce you, and the Washington Com. to Smoketown Hos. in the midst of this driving snow storm! You could have seen the poor fellows huddled together, with their pallets of straw on the ground, their tents connected by flyes, the same as erected in the heat of summer, many without walls and no stoves. Those who were able to creep out of their tents were crouched over fires, built in the woods, their heads covered with snow. And all I may say, almost without exception with thin muslin shirts on.

The exposure has been such that diptheria has broken out among them, and in nearly every case proves fatal. One of our poor Maine boys who had been very diligent in looking up for us those belonging to Maine, at our last visit had been seized suddenly with diptheria, caused by exposure, and lived but two or three hours.

Distributing what few articles we had received from the Commission among them, we moved on, deeply regretting we had no winter clothing, as many of them were destitute of stockings. I cannot describe what my feelings were that I had no articles of woolen clothing to distribute especially as the chaplain told us, there were plenty to take their names but few to relieve their wants.

There must have been major improvement in December and January, if Mr. Gentry’s descriptions are accurate.

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Here are page images for the newspaper text above:

 

 

 

 

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