The United States General Hospital

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The United States General Hospital [at Georgetown, D.C., formerly the Union Hotel-Volunteer Nurses Attending the Sick and Wounded.]
July 6, 1861
Unknown Artist
Page 125
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. No. 294 Vol. 12.
Oversize A 5 .34 Vol 12.
Newberry Library

Look closely at the room depicted in this sketch. We see women--volunteer nurses--looking after the sick and wounded soldiers at the United States Army General Hospital in Georgetown, D.C.  The high ceiling and windows, large chandeliers, ornate beds, and fancy ceiling decorations don’t look like they belong to a hospital.  In fact, the building used to be the Union Hotel, described by hospital supervisors as “well-adapted to hospital use.”  Author Louisa May Alcott, who volunteered as a nurse there in 1862, disagreed and thought the hospital was terribly run. And indeed, the closeness of the latrines to the kitchen facilities made the problem of disease very serious. The facility was shut down for renovation in 1862, and then opened again briefly the next year, only to be abandoned again for good within months. 

It was common for large buildings like this, as well as churches, schools, and large homes, to be converted into hospitals to help injured soldiers fighting nearby. Can you see the ways that the beds on the left have been set up, footboard to footboard, to maximize the space? Do you see the child playing with an injured soldier? The child could belong to one of the nurses, or maybe she was the soldier's daughter. Soldiers reportedly enjoyed the company of children in the hospitals during the Civil War. It made the gloomy hospitals feel more “homey.”

1.The Union Hospital was so poorly run that it was reserved for enlisted men while officers went to nicer facilities. Would you have thought this to be the case when you first looked at the picture? Why do you think that the artist presents the hospital scene the way he did?

2. How does this hopital scene look different from today's hospitals? What kinds of problems could occur with this type of setup?

Further reading:
Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

Gay, George Henry, Report to William J. Dale, Surgeon General, Massachusett. Boston, October 1, 1862.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago