During the summer of 1861, Confederate troops inundated the capital city. In Richmond's east end, the undeveloped forty-acre plateau known as Chimborazo Hill was selected as a camp for soldiers from half a dozen Southern states. Those soldiers inquisitive enough to ask were told that the name originated with the Ecuadorian volcano Mount Chimborazo. Richmond is surrounded by seven hills, but this high prominence above the James River stood out so majestically that the name seemed appropriate. To accommodate the recruits late in September and early in October 1861, a workforce consisting of slave labor began erecting permanent winter quarters on the site. The plans included soldiers' barracks, officers' quarters, three hospitals, and a large bake house.
A native Richmonder, McCaw was born in 1823 into a family of physicians. He earned his medical degree from the University of New York in 1844, and immediately went into private practice. In 1858, he joined the Medical College of Virginia staff as professor of chemistry, while also serving as the editor of the Virginia Medical and Surgical Journal. His contemporaries viewed McCaw as incredibly competent, extremely modest, and a great organizer and administrator. "He was energetic—capable—skillful … Difficulties melted away beneath the warmth of his ready interest," recorded a hospital matron. All these traits served him well as Chimborazo's head surgeon.
Surviving records suggest that McCaw converted the nearly complete winter quarters into Chimborazo Hospital. Details about the facilities, particularly the patient wards, are plentiful. Evidence suggests that they measured about eighty by twenty-eight feet. The walls were crudely constructed by nailing two-inch-thick boards vertically to a simple frame, then applying a coat of whitewash to both the interior and exterior. The roofs were shingled, and the floors covered with wood planks. Three doors and ten windows ran along each side, providing both access and necessary ventilation. To soften the crudeness of the rough-hewn interior, every window had a white curtain, and often a growing vine or shelf of plants. A woodstove provided warmth, and a single candle lit the interior for the nighttime shift of attending physicians.
The ninety hospital wards accommodated approximately forty beds each, giving the hospital a capacity ranging from 3,400 to 3,600 patients. Wide avenues separated the rows of ward buildings to take full advantage of the fresh air that McCaw believed necessary to speed patient recovery. With the buildings arranged in this fashion, Chimborazo became the first of the pavilion-style hospitals in America. In addition to the patient wards, McCaw's workmen constructed bake houses, kitchens, a soap house, five ice houses, a large stable, a guard house, a chapel, a bathhouse, five dead houses, and carpenter, blacksmith, and apothecary shops, bringing the total number of buildings to nearly 150.
This medical corps was supplemented by hospital stewards, ward masters, nurses, druggists, cooks, dentists, and matrons. These ranks were filled with convalescing soldiers, free blacks, slaves, and women. To this list was added contract surgeons as needed, and civilian doctors occasionally volunteered their services. During one month alone in 1864, Chimborazo's Hospital Number 4 employed six medical staff members, six nurses, one druggist, ten detailed soldiers, six stewards, six matrons, and twenty-eight African American servants functioning as cooks and nurses.
While medical regulations imparted strict supervision at all levels of the organization, the proficient Chimborazo staff was encouraged to practice innovation in order to provide the best quality of care available during the mid-nineteenth century. For those who didn't survive their treatment, the nearby city cemetery known as Oakwood received the dead. By 1865, they totaled more than 16,000.
The hospital's first month of operation was anything but calm. More than 1,000
patients arrived in October 1861. That number fluctuated until the summer of 1862,
when the Seven Days'
Battles, fought on the outskirts of Richmond, filled the hospital beyond
Medical care varied tremendously in all hospitals and Chimborazo was no exception. Numerous patient accounts offer glowing praise for the doctors and the care provided by the female matrons. Yet ample evidence also exists from other letters that the organization sometimes broke down. At times food was unavailable, and certain wards suffered from poor supervision. The result, according to eyewitnesses, was a negligent medical staff and a filthy, foul-smelling environment that did not foster healing.
The Fall of Richmond
By early summer, the patients were removed and a portion of the wards breathed new life as classrooms for a Freedmen's Bureau school. Nearly 200 recently freed slaves were enrolled in an afternoon session, and their number grew to 345 by fall. Other wards were inhabited by up to 1,500 ex-slaves, some of whom were employed by Union authorities to begin the cleanup of the city. By 1874, few of the wards remained when the city purchased the property for a park. In 1909, a United States Weather Bureau Station was constructed on the site. In 1959 the National Park Service acquired six acres of Chimborazo that included the weather station building to use as a visitor center for Richmond National Battlefield Park. Today, the facility interprets the story of the Confederate Medical Service.
November 1, 1861–November 1, 1863 - The Confederate States Medical and Surgical Journal reports that 47,176 soldiers were admitted to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond during this period, and of that number, 3,031 died. This produced an aggregate ratio of mortality of 6.62 percent for those two years.
May 17, 1862 - Dr. James B. McCaw, head surgeon at Richmond's Chimborazo Hospital, reports to his superior that he has nearly 4,000 patients and 256 employed slaves to help care for the men. He now requests that these slaves be impressed into military service in order to avoid their inevitable return to their owners during this critical time.
August 13, 1863 - Orders are issued forbidding the practice of allowing Chimborazo Hospital matrons to use the ambulances as pleasure carriages.
June 3, 1864 - William A. Carrington, the chief inspector of Richmond area hospitals, begins preparing for the large number of wounded from the Overland Campaign by reducing the space allotted to each patient at Chimborazo Hospital from 800 to 500 cubic feet. He also sends more tents for the overflow, instructing Dr. James B. McCaw to prepare to pitch them.
June 1865 - Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond is used by the Freedmen's Bureau as classroom space for recently freed slaves.
1959 - The National Park Service acquires six acres of the former Chimborazo Hospital site to be used as a visitor center for Richmond National Battlefield Park.
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First published: January 21, 2010 | Last modified: March 1, 2011