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U.S. NAVY-- Section #7-- Battle Injuries and Sickness on the Ships-- Wooden to Metal Ships

1-Civil War Medical Home Page-Tasks & Article 2-Introduction to: Ironclads in the Civil War 3-U.S. Naval: Typical Battle & Non-Battle Injuries 4-U.S. Naval Hospitals: Mound City Naval Base Hospital 5-U.S. Naval Medical Care

6- U.S. Sanitary Commission Hospitals & Article & Military Medical Personnel

7-First Battle of the Ironclads Monitor & Virginia--Casualties Care

8-U.S. Red Rover Hospital /ship 9.-Civil War Nurses Dorothea Dix & Susie King Taylor 10. U.S. Hospital Ships

   There were many differences between wounds sustained in battle on the old wooden ships and those encountered aboard ironclads. Shots striking wooden vessels tended to throw about splinters which, as secondary projectiles, caused many of the wounds. Burns were uncommon. In yardarm engagements and during the hand-to-hand fighting resulting from boarding an enemy’s vessel, many wounds were caused by small arms, cutlasses, bayonets, and pikes.
In ironclad fighting, splinters might be fewer, but burns and fragment wounds became commonplace. The so-called protected environment an ironclad warship provided was illusory. If anything, it offered fatal hazards the crew of a wooden ship rarely experienced. Take the example of the monitor Nahant. Engaged in Samuel Du Pont’s attack on the Charleston forts in April 1863, shellfire from the forts slammed against her pilot house and turret with such velocity that broken bolts ricocheted about her pilot house like bullets, killing one man and injuring two others, including her captain.

        Indeed, there were significant differences in warfare once ironclads came into their own. Naval guns up to the middle of the nineteenth century had an effective range of only about a mile and a half. These were the smoothbores throwing balls weighing 24 and 32 pounds. The strategy therefore called for close-in fighting terminated by boarding parties and hand-to-hand combat.


Iron shot weighing over 150 pounds were now common, making the 24- and 32-pound size thrown by earlier guns seem quite puny in comparison. What’s more, a newer generation of rifled guns that could pulverize masonry forts could do worse to those enclosed within an iron-sheathed hull. What resulted was the “garbage can” effect. Imagine yourself encased in a typical galvanized steel garbage pail or a 55-gallon steel oil drum, ears unprotected, and then having your antagonists hurling 50-pound cement blocks against your cocoon, one per second. With blood dripping from nose and ears, crewmen were sometimes driven mad under the barrage of both rifled and unrifled artillery impacting against iron armor. And if not driven mad, many sailors had their eardrums ruptured or, at very least, suffered temporary or permanent deafness. Civil War sailors frequently described ringing in the ears or tinnitus. With noise levels aboard Civil War ironclads routinely exceeding 130 decibels, one can only conjecture what kind of hearing damage resulted among these warriors. For comparison, a modern F-18 jet engine produces about 125 decibels of noise. The noise on the flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier during flight operations routinely exceeds that level. And these crews have available hearing protection. One can only imagine the degree of hearing loss suffered by Civil War sailors.

As similar as the practice of medicine may have been for both Army and Navy physicians--certainly in the treatment of battle injuries--the marine environment offered some very unique circumstances. Sailors on blockade duty experienced little battle and much boredom. Off Cape Fear, NC, a sailor in the blockading squadron wrote home to his mother that she should get some notion of blockade duty if she would go to the roof on a hot summer day, talk to a half dozen degenerates, descend to the basement, drink tepid water full of iron rust, climb to the roof again, and repeat the process at intervals until she was fagged out. Then go to bed with everything shut tight.

Needless to say, under these conditions, the psychological health of sailors was often in question. “Give me a discharge and let me go home,” a distraught coal-heaver begged his skipper after months of duty outside of Charleston. “I am a poor, weak, miserable, nervous, half crazy boy. Everything jarred upon my delicate nerves.”
And this routine was accompanied by an unbroken diet of moldy beans, stale biscuits, and sour pork. To ease the monotony or perhaps to anesthetize themselves from reality, mess crews specialized in the manufacture of outlaw whiskey distilled from almost any substance that fermented in the southern heat. Commanding officers and medical officers assigned to the James River Flotilla complained a great deal of the lack of fresh provisions and vegetables. Following a July 1862 inspection, Fleet Surgeon of the North Atlantic Squadron, Dr. James Wood, recommended that vessels be furnished with fresh provisions twice a week. His report on his inspection also contained a recommendation for improving the water supply used in the vessels. He said that the “turbid and objectionable” river water used tended to produce diarrhea. He saw no reason for continuing to use impure river water, since steam vessels could condense more pure water than their crews needed.
Even though sanitary conditions aboard ship were often superior to those ashore, and both navies probably fared better than the armies when it came to the frequency of disease, rheumatism and scurvy kept the doctors busy along with typhoid, dysentery, break bone fever, hemorrhoids, and damage done by knuckles. In the southern climes, insect-borne malaria and yellow fever laid low many a crew. And, regardless of what they had to work with, surgeons aboard the ironclads, and indeed every vessel, had no medicine for the ills of the spirit brought on by the strain of monotony, poor food, and unhealthy living conditions which produced much longer casualty lists than did Confederate shells or mines.
The ironclad navy of the Civil War was neither all wood nor all iron. Nevertheless, it represented the first, halting steps into the modern age. Even though many of the hulls were still wood with but a veneer of iron, such vessels as Monitor and the vessels it spawned would soon become commonplace. The age of sail was over and had been since Monitor and Virginia fought their legendary duel in 1862. It was a new navy in 1865, even though hard-bitten conservatives in Washington had been loathe to trade traditional wooden hulls and canvas for an all-iron fleet. By the late 1870s and certainly by the turn of the twentieth century that fact was a reality. Medical planners and health care providers would now have to face squarely the realities Civil War surgeons had already encountered during their war. The new steel ships now carried rifled, breach-loading artillery. What their muzzle-loading predecessors had inflicted upon human flesh and bone had already been demonstrated. Traumatic amputations, penetrating fragment wounds, and horrific burns had become commonplace during that war. In the post- Civil War environment, these wounds would increase exponentially as would new kinds of injuries merely hinted at during the Civil War—primary and secondary blast injuries, scalded skin and flesh caused by ruptured steam pipes and boilers, toxic smoke inhalation—the products of fire below decks. The problems first encountered during the war of the ironclads would now have to be dealt with aboard ships of the all-steel, all-steam navy.
Whether victims of disease or hostile action, sailors required treatment and much Navy medicine took place in the three existing hospitals at Chelsea, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. By the fall of 1862, all three were filled to their utmost capacity. As a result, medical facilities at navy yards and naval stations were expanded and both civilian and Army hospitals were also treating naval patients. To remedy the situation, a major hospital expansion campaign began. Unfortunately, many of these improvements weren’t realized until the very end of the war.


Nevertheless, the new technology of iron and steam introduced brand-new hazards—exploding boilers, scalding with live steam, burn injuries, and primary and secondary wounds resulting from large caliber, rifled naval guns. Ironclad vessels also introduced environmental and occupational concerns for sailors aggravated by badly ventilated and hell-hot engine rooms. It is estimated that a typical low ranking coal heaver aboard a poorly ventilated ironclad routinely endured temperatures approaching 130 degrees F. In fact, aboard Monitor in summer, temperatures of 125 degrees were recorded on the berth deck and 150 degrees in the galley. One cannot underestimate the utility of awnings in deflecting the sun from ironclads decks.
Almost everyone has experienced opening the door of an automobile after the vehicle has been baking in the summer sun all afternoon. Those freshly scrubbed teak decks on World War I and World War II era battleships were not designed for aesthetics. They insulated steel decks and made living conditions somewhat bearable in the days before air conditioning. One can only imagine then, the plight of the typical Civil War ironclad sailor stationed on an inland river of the deep south or in the vicinity of the besieged Charleston, SC. Add the oppressive humidity of July or August and now one can begin to understand the life of an ironclad sailor.


There were other hazards to be endured. With only inches of freeboard, many ironclads of both navies were literally only inches from disaster. One has only to contemplate Monitor’s ill-starred voyage to Hampton Roads even before her fight with ex-Merrimack. Only one day out of New York, she encountered a storm which soon had heavy seas cascading over her deck, washing out turret caulking, flooding her berth deck, disabling her blowers, and nearly extinguishing her boiler fires. Her paymaster recalled what the ironclad’s fight for survival meant for her crew.
“Turning to go down from the turret I met one of our engineers coming up the steps, pale, black, wet and staggering along gasping for breath. He asked me for brandy and I turned to go down and get him some and met the sailors dragging up the fireman and other engineers apparently lifeless. I got down as soon as possible and found the whole between decks filled with steam and gas and smoke; the sailors were rushing up stifled with gas. I found when I reached the berth deck that it came from the engine room, the door of which was open. As I went to shut it one of our sailors said he believed that one of the engineers was still in there—no time was to be lost, though by this time almost suffocated myself, I rushed in over heaps of coal and ashes and fortunately found the man lying insensible. One of the sailors who had followed me helped pull him out and close the door.”
This nightmare would be played out again—fatally—at the end of the year when Monitor’s pumps failed to stem the incoming seas and John Ericsson’s ironclad pioneer plunged to the bottom off Cape Hatteras with the loss of several crewmen.

       Even the fuel that fired an ironclad’s boilers was a threat. Coal, while not a new fuel used by the Navy, had the potential of becoming a silent killer. Fossil fuels require proper ventilation and this concept was not yet adequately understood by Civil War engineers. Untold casualties, some fatal, occurred when crewmen either loaded wet bituminous coal in below-deck bunkers or bilge water contaminated the fuel. Both the Mississippi Squadron and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron reported a number of cases of sailors being discovered either dead or unconscious below deck. The more fortunate were revived when exposed to the fresh air. Besides unconsciousness, surgeons described their patients as being cyanotic—blueness of the skin caused by oxygen starvation with foreheads and eyelids markedly swollen. Similar cases reported aboard a coal-fired ship in 1913 recognized the problem as carbon monoxide poisoning. Wet, unventilated coal produces high levels of that dangerous gas.

Go to the USS Red Rover Hospital site to find details about the Red Rover.

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