Army Medical Museum Founded
Anatomy specimens solicited for study; collection will grow over time to become an institute with millions of specimens.
On May 21, 1862 the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, DC, issued Circular No. 2, which contained guidance to medical officers in the Union Army on the collection and reporting of wounds, surgeries, and illnesses in their monthly reports to the Surgeon General. Doctors were urged to keep detailed notes on the nature of injuries, causation, treatment, and if autopsies were performed, “accounts of the pathological results should be carefully prepared.”
Then, in the penultimate paragraph was this statement: “As it is proposed to establish in Washington, an Army Medical Museum, Medical officers are directly diligently to collect, and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery.”
The Army Surgeon General William Hammond, MD had no way of knowing that his Medical Museum would grow from a few shelves of mangled bones to a collection of millions of specimens housed by the world-famous Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), which functioned as a world reference for surgical pathology and research until it was closed in 2011 under the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005.
During the Civil War most specimens were large anatomic preparations, either dry bones or preserved soft tissues. Histology (the study of microscopic structure of tissue) awaited the widespread adoption of the microscope to study and diagnose human disease. Most specimens arrived in barrels of whiskey, the most ready “preservative” near or on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Perhaps the most famous specimen was an unsolicited donation from the “patient” himself — General Dan Sickles, who lost a leg to a cannon shot while commanding (some claimed
incompetently) III Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Shortly thereafter, the museum received a small, coffin-shaped box bearing the General’s greeting card and the notation “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” In the years after the war, General Sickles often visited his leg’s skeletal remains in the museum display cases, usually on the anniversary of the injury. (He was not slowed down by his injury, serving somewhat controversially as US ambassador to Spain during the Grant Administration, purportedly carrying on an affair with Queen Isabella II, and later devoting himself to ensuring the Gettysburg Battlefield became a national military park. He died in 1914 at the age of 95.)
In the years after the Civil War, the Army Medical Museum staff published the six-volume, 6000-page Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion while amassing specimens from the army medical staff on the emerging Western Frontier. Staff experimented with photo-microscopy and new techniques for preserving tissues and stains for microscopic preparations.
By 1900 the museum had moved multiple times and during subsequent military conflicts, continued to grow. By the late 20th century the transformed institute, now the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, had a collection of millions of gross and microscopic specimens, and its pathologists were leaders in their fields of study. “The AFIP Fascicles,” standard reference books on the histology of tumors throughout the body, are still used around the world.
The AFIP was closed in the summer of 2011, just shy of its 150th birthday, to the regret of pathologists worldwide.
– Submitted by Philip A. Branton, M.D. FCAP, a consulting pathologist to laboratories in the Washington, DC area
Vermont Promotes Precision Manufacturing that Arms the Union
Late May of 1862 marked the end of the first big arms buildup for the Union. When the war began a year earlier, the U.S. Army held too few guns, and had too little capacity to make more. The federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry had been burned, and most of the machinery had been carried off to Richmond. The remaining federal armory, in Springfield, Massachusetts, possessed the latest in gun-making tools and technology, but Springfield alone would not be able to equip the two million men who would ultimately fight for the Union.
The nation’s needs would have to be met by drawing upon private factories that would build guns according to exacting specifications. By May of 1862, a modest factory in Windsor, Vermont had already played a crucial role in the rapid buildup of military small arms.
Altogether, more than a million and a half .58-caliber rifles were made in the North during the war, along with tens of thousands of pistols and carbines (short rifles prized by cavalrymen). That level of production was possible only using the latest machinery and techniques.
Before about 1840, every gun had been unique, with all of its parts hand filed and fitted together. But during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, new machinery was developed for making guns — machinery that automatically and efficiently shaped gun parts that were all alike and interchangeable.
In Windsor, Vermont, the Robbins & Lawrence Armory (now home of the American Precision Museum) had become one of the places where the new system of manufacturing was perfected. Developing their own machines, and improving on the work of others, Robbins & Lawrence had produced 25,000 guns for the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and then thousands more for British use in the Crimean War of 1853-56.
During the brief intervals of peace leading up to 1861, the buildings and equipment in Windsor were kept busy making sewing machines and other peacetime products. When the war broke out in April 1861, Ebenezer Lamson of Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, the factory’s owners at the time, quickly secured a government contract to manufacture guns and began re-tooling. LG&Y would ultimately produce 50,000 Special Model 1861 military rifles. More important, however, would be their production of the machinery for other contractors, including Colt, Remington, Sharps Rifle, the Providence Tool Company, and the Springfield Armory.
During the fall and winter of 1861-62, the pace of production was frantic. Lamson recruited skilled machinists and gun makers from all over New England. Gas lighting was installed, and more than three hundred men worked in shifts around the clock, filling orders that came in from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New York. In Manchester, New Hampshire, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company converted from a textile mill to a gun factory within a matter of months — completely outfitted with machinery from Windsor.
By spring 1862, however, orders for gun-making machines had slowed. June and July would bring few orders. Most of the government’s contractors were now outfitted, and gun production across the North was rapid and steady. By the summer of 1862, most Union soldiers were equipped with high quality rifled muskets, while many Confederate troops were still using old smooth-bore muskets. Historian James M. McPherson cites this discrepancy as one reason why Confederate losses were so much higher than Union casualties during the Battle of Seven Days in Virginia at the end of June. Although Lee managed to drive McClellan’s troops away from Richmond, Lee’s own army suffered far greater casualties.
The machinists in Windsor just had time to catch their breath. Union military setbacks in May and June were about to dash all hope that the war would end soon. President Lincoln called for another 300,000 men, and in response, gun makers redoubled their efforts. In the fall, at the factory in Windsor, new orders would come in for lathes, drill presses, barrel turning machines, rifling machines, and milling machines of many types. Northern factories would continue to turn out rifles right up to the war’s end. In many of them, some of the most productive machines had come from Vermont.
– Submitted by Carrie Brown, Curator, American Precision Museum’s exhibit Arming the Union: Gunmakers in Windsor, Vermont, opening May 26, 2012. The Vermont Humanities Council supplied a grant to help fund this exhibit.
Carrie Brown, “Guns for Billy Yank,” Vermont History, vol. 79, no.2, Summer/Fall 2011.
“Precision Manufacturing,” Vermont Public Radio commentary by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter Gilbert