Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dueling and Navy Surgeons

This week we read that on 22 March 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the “Old Navy” for his daring exploits against the Barbary pirates, met Commodore James Barron on the infamous dueling field at Bladensburg, Maryland (now the town of Colmar Manor), just outside Washington DC. The dispute appears to have arisen over Decatur’s role in opposing Barron’s re-entry into the Navy five years after a Navy Board (upon which Decatur sat) ejected him from the Navy. Barron’s offense had been the ignominious but quite proper surrender of his ship Chesapeake after brief but futile combat with the British ship Leopard early in the War of 1812. According to duel witnesses’ descriptions(1), both men fell, seriously wounded. Two surgeons were nearby – Bailey Washington and Samuel R Trevett – but we have no details of any treatments given. Barron recovered from his wounds; Decatur died 12 hours later.

Dueling as a quasi-judicial means of dispute settlement appears to have emerged in Europe after the fall of Rome. Even as more formal court proceedings replaced judicial dueling, the institution – complete with precise regulations governing the giver of injury, the aggrieved and their representatives (“seconds”) – reached full development in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Originally, dueling served as an honorable way to settle grievances among royalty and high gentry. Later, any man with social aspirations saw the proof of his mettle in private combat as a way of advancing his status. Arthur Krystal, writing in the New Yorker, notes “[a]lthough English gentlemen did not duel with the fervor of their French counterparts, duelling remained a good career move in Britain into the early nineteenth century.”(2) In democratic America, while “gentlemen” were seen to fight the majority of duels, a more egalitarian spirit prevailed. A man of any social stratum might see the combat of honor as socially beneficial. Politicians, perhaps because they are a contentious lot, seem to have been particularly susceptible to a challenge to duel.(3)

Early regulations – the Codes Duello – did not specify the presence of medical attendants during the proceedings, though it seems reasonable that the parties would deem such presence to be prudent. Later Codes, for instance, “THE CODE OF HONOR; or RULES FOR THE GOVERNMENT of PRINCIPALS AND SECONDS in DUELLING by John Lyde Wilson (published in 1838; Wilson was Governor of South Carolina) specified in Chapter Six, “Who Should Be on the Ground”, that besides the principles and their seconds, there should be “one surgeon and one assistant surgeon to each principal; but the assistant surgeon may be dispensed with.”(4)

Mark Twain, in his very funny tongue-in-cheek description of a duel between contentious French legislators describes this conversation between himself, the second for one of the principles, and his counterpart:

“If agreeable to you, your chief surgeons and ours shall proceed to the field in the same carriage as is customary.”

“It is entirely agreeable to me, and I am obliged to you for mentioning the surgeons, for I am afraid I should not have thought of them. How many shall I want? I supposed two or three will be enough?”

“Two is the customary number for each party. I refer to ‘chief’ surgeons; but considering the exalted positions occupied by our clients, it will be well and decorous that each of us appoint several consulting surgeons, from among the highest in the profession. These will come in their own private carriages. Have you engaged a hearse?”(5)

So, while the surgeon’s role at the duel was commonplace enough to find its way into satire, that is not the whole story. Surgeons were fairly common duellers themselves, despite their frequent protestations against the custom as protectors of life. Disputes over the proper management of a particular case seems to have been a fairly common inducement for single combat.(6)

In the old Navy, Paulin records no fewer than 8 surgeons or surgeon’s mates (junior surgeons) as dueling principles in 82 duels recorded between 1799 and 1850. Three surgeons died, one was wounded; one surgeon killed his opposite, another wounded his; outcomes in the rest weren’t reported. Navy regulations, a culture opposing the dueling tradition, and, perhaps, more important things to do, all conspired to bring this sordid business to an end in our Navy.

In the last recorded old Navy duel, Lieutenant Charles F Flusser met an unnamed opponent in Rio de Janiero. Both men were wounded. The surgeons’ actions have not come down to us.

(1) Paulin, Charles Oscar, “Dueling in the Old Navy”, Reprinted from the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 35, No. 4, Whole Number 132, pp 1182-83, accessed 28-29 March 2012. 
(2) Krystal, Arthur, “En Garde!” – The History of Duelling”, New Yorker, March 12, 2007,, accessed 28-29 March 2012.
(3) PBS American Experience: “The History of Dueling in America”,, accessed 28, 29 March 2012.
(4) The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Code of Honor, by John Lyde Wilson,, accessed 29 March 2012.
(5) From Chapter VIII, “The Great French Duel” in “A Tramp Abroad”, originally published in 1880; converted to HTML by Alan Eliasen for the Mark Twain Library,, accessed 29 March 2012.
(6) Keane, MD, James R, “Dueling Doctors: Physician Duels” posted online at “Medscape Family Medicine News”, 9/1/2000, from South Med J. 2000;93(9) © 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins,, accessed 28, 29 March 2012.
©2012 Thomas L Snyder

Weekend Divertissement – Naval War College National Security Symposium

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Naval War College brief given in northern California. This symposium – originally intended for the Naval Reserve community in the San Francisco Bay area but now open to the public by advanced registration – has been going on for several years: four professors from NWC give a two-day overview of the geostrategic situation, and the U. S. Navy’s role in it. This year’s Symposium was entitled “US GRAND STRATEGY DOES A REGIONAL REFOCUS: WILL THE U.S. NAVY BE READY”.

What a lot there is for a non-policy wonk to learn! First: in January of this year, President Obama announced a new national defense guidance, entitled “Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense“. In this document – as the professors describe it – the President lays out a strategic “pivot toward Asia”. As we wind down our involvement in central Asia (Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Iraq), our national focus turns decisively toward the western Pacific, and in particular toward China. The professors described several and extensive interviews with Naval leadership at the highest levels and their message is “we are completely in agreement with this strategic pivot”.

In his sessions, Doctor Toshi Yoshihara from the NWC China Maritime Studies Institute discussed the newly aggressive Chinese policy regarding the economic zone encompassed by the South China Sea. Professor Yoshihara also pointed out an associated policy expressing military reach to – and beyond – the “First Island Chain” – the rim of (mostly island) nations (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore) and the islands (with under-water resources) lying within their territorial waters – just off the Chinese mainland. It’s interesting to observe these nations’ response: increasing their defense budgets and sidling up to the US. What’s especially remarkable in this context is recent gestures by nations like Vietnam and the Philippines to “tilt” toward the US.

Another observation from Professor Yoshihara regards the immense amount of intellectual horsepower the Chinese are bringing to bear to develop an understanding of U.S. policy and capabilities – and to prepare policy and military responses. What’s especially remarkable about this is just how open the discourse is: Professor Yoshihara displayed a recent screenshot of his database search – key word “first island chain” – of Chinese academic literature: 657 papers, articles and books showed up. He also observed that any OpEd-like article he, as a recognized international China policy expert, publishes will appear, “in excellent Chinese translation”, in a substantial Chinese publication, within two weeks. Major academic articles or chapters appear within 2 months. Clearly, the Chinese are very interested in us…

The Professors went on to provide snapshots of the rest of the world: the middle powers in the western Pacific (Doctor David Cooper, Chair of the National Security Affairs Department): nervous and “tilting toward the US”; Africa: “So Much Coast, So Little Navy” (Doctor Richard Norton, National Security Affairs Department): problems with piracy and a lot of resource extraction by China and – India!; a newly emerging Russian navy (Doctor Thomas Fedysyn, National Security Affairs Department): visits to 7 nations in 2002, 37 last year – showing the flag and promoting Russian commerce; South America (Dr Norton), with an interesting observation that the Brazilian government has announced the intent to build its own, domestic, nuclear-powered submarine. And more.

One thing sure: even if one’s focus is in the past, it behooves us all to inform ourselves about the future. Seminars like this one are invaluable, and the Naval War College Foundation, which sponsors these events, are to be encouraged and congratulated.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

History “Changes” — A Lesson From Science: The First Surgeon Appointed to the United States Navy

History, like Science, is, or should be, in a state of constant change as old information is refined in the face of new discovery. I experienced this very kind of change this morning.

Sometimes, when I’m at a loss for a subject for these ramblings, I google “This Day in Naval History” and I’m rewarded with a link to the (U S) Naval History and Heritage Command’s “Dates in American Naval History” page. There, for instance, I learned that 9 March marks the date, in 1798, the “[a]ppointment of the first surgeon U. S. Navy, George Balfour”.

A google of “Naval surgeon George Balfour” yields several repeats of this one line commentary and a smattering of other material, including the mention of Balfour in a letter from Hugh Blair Grigsby, Chancellor of the College of William & Mary to Dr Robert Tunstall of Norfolk, VA, April 21st, 1876. Grigsby states that Balfour, born in Hampton, VA “about 1773” served a regular apprenticeship of seven years “as was the order of the time, in the offices of Doctors Taylor and Hansford, the elder.” He entered the army “and was with General Anthony Wayne when that hero died in 1796, at Presque Isle. He afterwards entered the Navy, and in 1800, having received from the administration of the elder Adams the appointment of surgeon of the Marine Hospital at Norfolk, resigned his naval commission, and settled himself in Norfolk…”

But this is where history, as regards the Navy’s “first” surgeon, has “changed”:

With scant other material concerning this presumed Naval medical precedent-setter available on the internet, I turned to my trusty copy of Professor Harold Langley’s A History of Medicine in the Early U. S. Navy (Johns Hopkins Press 1995). In Chapter 2, “The Quasi-War with France”, Professor Langley carefully lays out the chronology of the provision of medical care for the now-famed Six Frigates being built and commissioned as the nucleus of the newly resurgent U S Navy. Inasmuch as the frigate United States was launched in May, 1797, its Captain, John Berry requested information regarding obtaining the services of a Medical Officer. The War Department ordered Dr George Gillaspy, then surgeon to the Second Infantry, to Philadelphia for this purpose. Gillaspy identified himself as “Acting Surgeon, Frigate United States” in late fall of 1797. He was officially ordered aboard the United States some time after 30 August 1797. On the other hand, according to Langley, Surgeon Balfour took up his duties aboard Constellation “in February or early March 1798”. Gillaspy is surely then the “first surgeon appointed to the U. S. Navy”.

According to Professor Langley, “of the 12 surgeons appointed to the Navy in 1798, 2 died, 1 committed suicide and 2 resigned. Gillaspy, the first naval surgeon appointed, apparently made only one cruise. He returned to Philadelphia, formed a partnership with Surgeon’s Mate Joseph C Strong, and began supplying the navy with medicines.” He apparently gave up his pay and rations early in 1799, but kept his rank until he was discharged from service in April 1801. Balfour stayed in the service until 1804 when, facing orders to sea, he resigned his commission. All of the surgeons appointed in 1798 were gone by March 1805. Sic transit gloria mundi.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

U S Naval Convalescent Hospitals Glenwood Springs, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina Asbury Park, NJ

Following the precedent of earlier conflicts, the Navy Medical Department leased resort hotels during World War II. They were commissioned to operate for the benefit of sailors and Marines recovering from the physical and psychic wounds of war. Today I highlight two of them.

These are not definitive histories, but are notes taken from material in the “USNCH Glenwood Springs Colorado” and “USNCH Asheville, NC” files at the Historical Library of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Both hospitals were commissioned in 1943

U S Naval Convalescent Hospital Glenwood Springs, Colo.

In  “Know Your Hospital” mimeographed newsletters from March and April 1944, LT (jg) William X Heelan, (HC)*, USN, described the facility thus: “[It] was formerly the Hotel Colorado and was built by a British syndicate of investors in 1893. It is a six-story edifice constructed of native matched red sandstone and pressed brick, with a slate roof, and contains 250 guest rooms.

Complements of

 “[It] has several unique features which are extremely valuable for its function as a rehabilitation center. It has three natural hot water springs which have served as a spa to health seekers for over fifty years… The world’s largest warm mineral water swimming pool is in conjunction with the hospital. … The water is supplied by Yampah, the largest of the hot mineral water springs, flowing 3600 gallons per minute at a temperature of 127 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In describing the location, LT (jg) Heelan noted “In spite of its convenient location [by rail and automobile from Denver and Salt Lake City], Glenwood Springs is well isolated from the standpoint of military objectives. No military operations are conducted within a radius of well over 700 miles all line distance. It is off the route of all the flying lanes and the locality is well protected on all sides by the high and rugged Rocky Mountains of the Eastern Slope. Persons subjected to the shock of combat may here find relaxation and recuperation in the absence of nerve racking elements.”

It appears that the facilities once encompassed by the Hospital are now operated as two separate facilities, the Hotel Colorado and  Glenwood Hot Springs.

U S Naval Convalescent Hospital Asheville North Carolina

Medical Officer in Command W. A. Angwin wrote in his  November 1945 Historical Supplement to Fourth Quarterly Sanitary Report, Cumulative Report for the period of World War II: “At the time of the [lease], this property was under lease by the Asheville Holding Company to Appalachian Hall, Inc., operated by Doctors William Ray and Mark A. Griffin, as a mental and nervous sanitarium. The name ‘Appalachian Hall’ is proprietary to the Doctors Griffin.” He went on “The site is splendidly adapted for the particular purpose for which it is now used. … Being in a sparsely settled region, it is quiet and secluded, yet only two miles from the very center of the city [of Asheville]…

Historical Library, U S Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

“The local situation provided, and has continued to provide, physical surroundings for patients entirely different from the usual naval environment. This difference was capitalized. The hotel or club idea was made prominent. The patient entering this hospital receives the benefit of a complete change in his naval routine in much the same way that a person in civil life is benefited by a vacation that takes him away from his usual business or vocation.”

The Hospital building is now listed in the National Register of Historic Structures, and is operated as the Kenilworth Inn Apartments.

It is notable, I think, that such a premium was placed on quiet, sequestered and “peaceful” environs which would promote the healing of war injuries. Both facilities live on today, serving as retreats and domiciles.

* Congress established the Hospital Corps of the Navy in 1898, to consist of Pharmacists (with rank equivalent to Warrant Officer), hospital stewards and hospital apprentices. With war time expansion in sight, new regulations permitted members of the hospital corps to receive commissions as officers (not Warrant…) wearing the hospital corps caduceus. These officers were offered conversion to the Medical Service Corps when it was established in 1947. See, accessed 2012Mar09.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

Getting “History” Into the Community – Walking the Walk…

If you walk into your community Historical Society or Museum, you’ll likely find it staffed by retirees – volunteer footsoldiers defending the ramparts of local history against the dual assaults of time and indifference.

Local historical establishments are typically underfunded, even neglected, especially in times of economic distress. In my community, the museum lost its modest ($35,000) annual grant from the city when the city went bankrupt. The single paid (and very modestly at that) professional Museum Director has to divide his time and energy between what he’s there for – preserving and displaying local history – and the much more onerous task of raising funds. His volunteer Board and staff struggle doggedly, enthusiastically, to keep the place open. Our local Historical Society fell on hard times several years ago as the original organizers aged and died off – and were not replaced. Its current president, a young woman degreed in history, volunteering her time and energy, has virtually single-handedly brought the organization back to life. At the same time, again almost single-handedly, she recently snatched a local structure from the jaws of developers who would have destroyed an architectural and historical treasure. The County Historical Collection (it doesn’t have official “archives” status despite its being a repository of county governmental and court records reaching back to the County’s establishment in the 1850s) is managed by a trained archivist who works at least forty hours a week – as a volunteer. The County budget to operate the place (aside from power and light) – $3500 a year – was just cut to zero. The archivist is now contemplating setting up a 501(c)(3) charity to fund her operations because she fears that without any money, and without official status, the records she and her volunteer crew access, catalog, restore and preserve, could end up in the dumps, where, at one time in recent past, they were  consigned.

Could this be the situation in your locale? What to do? First, of course, is to learn about your local historical establishments – simply become aware of their existence. Then, you can begin to learn about their status and their needs. Once you understand their situation, you likely will want to help by writing a generous check every year, by becoming part of the volunteer staff, or even serving on the Board of Directors where you will play a key role in raising funds. I guarantee this: you, your energy and your expertise will be welcomed, warmly. Double this if you bring skills and knowledge as an historian or an archivist!

Once you’re “hooked” you can help raise consciousness of local history (and of those that are “doing” it) to the larger community. For instance, as President-elect of my Rotary Club, I just sponsored a “History Month” by inviting the above-mentioned Museum Director, Historical Society President, the County Archivist, and the president of a local historical foundation to speak at our weekly meetings. Many of my fellow Rotarians – community leaders and opinion influencers all – came to me during this series to declare that they had been completely unaware of the activities, even the existence, of some of the organizations we highlighted.

Think about this: you could even take a “local history status report” on the road. Service Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, PTAs all have vital interest in local cultural and educational resources. They also are always on the lookout for good speakers! The whole idea: get people informed, interested and involved in their history.

So, in 2012, make yourself into a leader in the battle against the assaults of time and indifference upon our history.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder