Navy Medicine in the War of 1812 – Action in the Year 1812, Part I

War of 1812 Propaganda Poster (Image: Ohio History Central.

The history community in the US and Canada (I don’t know about the UK) are ramping up for observations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Inasmuch as this war was in large part fought on water, it occurs to me that we should be looking, so far as we can, at the role navy medicine played in the conflict. For Part I of this discussion, I will depend largely on Professor Harry Langley’s 1995 book A History of Medicine in the Early U.S. Navy.

You’ll recall that British had raised the ire of Americans by their interference in our commerce with Napoleonic Europe, and, more importantly, by their impressment of American mariners into the Royal Navy. Initially, the US Congress retaliated with legislation – the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts of 1807 and 1809 – but these further decreased our overseas trade.  With New England merchants crying economic ruin, first the House (79-49 on June 4, 1812), then the Senate (19-13 on June 17) voted for war, and President Madison signed the Declaration on 18 June.

Commodore John Rodgers’s quickly assembled a squadron of four ships. Soon after they departed New York, on 25 June, they encountered HMS Belvidera, 36, northeast of New York. A brief but violent action followed, with USS President, 44,  pursuing. In the end, Belvidera ran north to Halifax, having sustained the loss of 2 killed and 22 wounded. President, the only American ship to engage, experienced 3 killed and 19 wounded. Langley says “…its surgeon and mates cared for the wounded.”(1)

Commodore Rodgers and his squadron proceeded to patrol within a day’s sail of the English Channel. Despite success in capturing British merchant ships – he had 80 – 100 prisoners aboard – the squadron had to return home to Boston earlier than planned because of a widespread outbreak of scurvy among his crews.(2) Langley says that his crews were hospitalized at the Boston Navy Yard, but this care must have been given in the Marine Hospital, because a Navy hospital in Boston was not constructed until 1836.(3)

USS Constitution meets HMS Guerriere (Image: U S Naval History and Heritage Command)

On August 19, USS Constitution won a celebrated victory over HMS Guerriere. Constitution suffered 7 killed and 7 wounded while her adversary lost 15 dead and 62 wounded. Surgeon Amos A Evans(4) and Surgeon’s Mate John D Armstrong attended the American injured; when the fighting was over, the two men transferred to Guerriere to assist her surgeon, who himself had been wounded, in the care of British sailors. Professor Langley gives us an interesting detail of Evans’s care of an amputee, one Richard Dunn. Two days after his surgery, when the patient complained of stump pain, Evans “wetted it with laudanum and gave the patient laudanum mixed with wine”.(5)

In October, November and December, ships in the American navy fought three more sea battles (I’ll write about lake battles later in this series) resulting in injuries cared for by naval surgeons. Stand by for future posts.

(1) Langley, Harold D., “A History of Medicine in the Early U.S. Navy”, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1995, p 176.
(2) It is curious that scurvy should have been seen in large numbers at this late date, as the disease had been virtually eliminated from the Royal Navy by 1800, due to the common acceptance – by medical officers and commanders alike – of citrus juice as an effective antiscorbutic. The discussion of the conquest of scurvy in the Royal Navy by Lloyd and Coulter (Lloyd, Christopher, and Jack L S Coulter, “Medicine and the Navy, 1200-1900. Volume III–1714-1815”, Edinburgh and London, Livingstone, 1961, Chapter 18) is comprehensive.
(3) Langley tells that Congress appropriated $15,000 for a hospital in Boston to care for all sailors, both merchant mariners and navy sailors in 1802. The Boston Marine Hospital was constructed in 1803, and received its first patients in January 1804. The Marine Hospitals were operated by the Secretary of the Treasury; Navy officials came to believe this was an unsatisfactory arrangement because navy sailors had a propensity to desert from these places as they recovered from their illnesses or injuries. A Naval Hospital Fund, intended to pay for construction of hospitals specifically for the Navy, was passed in February 1811 and immediately funded with $50,000 transferred from the Marine Hospital Fund. The War of 1812 interrupted plans to build a Naval Hospital in Boston. It finally saw fruition in 1836. accessed 4 August 2012.
(4) According to a brief University of Michigan biography, Evans studied medicine with a hometown practitioner “and attended lectures by Benjamin Rush in Philadephia”. He was admitted to the Navy in 1808, served in the naval hospital in New Orleans, in USS Constitution. While on shore duty, he earned his MD from Harvard in 1814. In 1815, he was promoted to be the navy’ s first Fleet Surgeon. He resigned from the navy in 1824., accessed 3 August 2012.
(5) Langley, pp 177-178. Laudanum – tincture of opium – is a powerful narcotic pain medication. In his “Materia Medica and Therapeutics” (Philadelphia, F A Davis, 1891), John V Shoemaker, AB, MD, describes its beneficial application to wounds as “an antiseptic and to relieve pain”. accessed 3 August 2012.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

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