A Letters Home Account of a Civil War Naval Surgeon
By Carter Stewart, Public History Center Fellow, Class of 2018, Christopher Newport University
Editor: Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University
Soldiers who fought in the Civil War lived differently than we do today. They marched long distances, worked countless hours, and fought battles not knowing if they would survive, all without the technologies that we take for granted. The navy offered a unique way of life that many people, even their contemporaries and soldiers with experience in military affairs, found peculiar. Here, we will examine the naval life of one sailor, Dr. Aaron S. Oberly, and what his experiences can tell us about life at sea during wartime from a medical perspective. Serving as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, Dr. Aaron Oberly helped save the lives of those sick and wounded in battle or in various accidents; by treating the men, Oberly helped keep them ready for service so the ships could function and perform all of the tasks that ultimately won the war.
When Abraham Lincoln became the sixteenth President of the United States in 1861, much of the South had seceded from the Union and created a new country with its own government, the Confederate States of America. Several other slave states were considering secession. Yet the North lacked the political unity and will to bring the country into a military conflict. The United States only controlled two places in the South by this time, both forts in port cities: Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston. Though many of Lincoln’s advisors warned him against it, Lincoln decided to resupply Fort Sumter after South Carolinians had refused to sell to the fort and had taken control of the rest of the military installations in Charleston Harbor. After Lincoln informed South Carolina officials of his intentions to resupply Fort Sumter by sea, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, and compelled it to surrender before it could be resupplied. As one historian described the aftermath, “This attack on Fort Sumter angrily united the North much as a later generation was united after Pearl Harbor.” Several Border States felt otherwise, and joined the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.
Lincoln decided to blockade the South after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, decided to use privateers (legal pirates) to attack Northern shipping. The Southern blockade, however, was more than just a response to Davis’ decision to embrace commerce raiding. General Winfield Scott, a Virginia Unionist who did not take the side of his state, helped devise the Anaconda Plan, adopted by the Union military; it called for a naval force to completely control Southern waters from the Chesapeake Bay all the way up to the Mississippi River through the Confederacy, while the army attacked important locations in the South. This plan made the Union blockade unusual. It had to prevent commerce and trade between the Confederate States of America and all potential suppliers. The U.S. Navy also had to control major rivers and support army operations near waterways. As the navy prepared for these tasks, it was in a better logistical position than it had been at the beginning of any of the wars the country had fought in the past. But it was still not prepared to fulfill all of its objectives at the beginning of the Civil War. Men such as Dr. Aaron Oberly had to help the navy overcome its challenges to meet the requirements of the war.
The USS Kineo, Santiago de Cuba, and Union Blockades
Dr. Aaron S. Oberly became an assistant surgeon in the Union navy in the summer of 1861 at the age of 24. He was born in Pennsylvania, but lived much of his life in Connecticut; he studied medicine at Yale University. He served in various theaters during the course of the Civil War, including his service on the USS Kineo along the Mississippi River in 1861. The control of the Mississippi River was an important goal of the Union navy; Confederate control of the river harmed Northern commerce. Both armies also used it to move their armies quickly. Combined Union forces attacked Confederate-controlled portions of the river from two different directions, with one portion attacking northern positions and moving south, and the other moving in the opposite direction. Part of this effort was the Union plan to capture New Orleans; the navy put David Farragut in command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron to make the attack. The USS Kineo, with Oberly aboard, was part of this squadron. Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip protected New Orleans from the direction of Farragut’s attack, and he had to fight his way past these two forts. In addition to these forts, the Confederate navy had the CSS Manassas, a ram with armor protection. The Confederates also had gunboats, and an incomplete ironclad that it used to position cannons in the water, though it had no way of moving itself without assistance. Farragut put the USS Kineo in the first division of his attack against Fort St. Philip. The Kineo fought its way past the fort and then engaged the Confederate ships, even assisting another ship in its chase of the Manassas, which ran aground as it fled from its pursuers. The USS Kineo had assisted in the battle to this point, but had to remove itself from the fighting because of the damage it had suffered it the battle. Dr. Oberly wrote the casualty report for his ship, informing his superiors that the Kineo had one casualty, Charles H. Kelly (the captain of the afterguard), and eight wounded. After the Union navy reached New Orleans, the Confederate forces in the area surrendered their positions. Farragut gained control of New Orleans and part of the Mississippi River.
The capture of New Orleans allowed another advance in the Union strategy. Admiral Farragut proceeded towards Vicksburg to remove Confederate activity from the river. The USS Kineo had several different jobs during this time. For example, it helped protect transport ships on the Red River from Confederate ships that were waiting to attack them, and it also guarded supplies from potential attacks. After a conflict with another Confederate ironclad, the CSS Arkansas, and severe diseases limiting the number of men able to work, the Union fleets withdrew from their positions near Vicksburg, to which they had advanced after taking New Orleans, and the Confederates regained control of part of the river. Vicksburg would not surrender until the summer of 1863.
After serving on the USS Kineo, Oberly was eventually assigned to the USS Santiago de Cuba. Among other tasks, this ship also served in the blockade and worked to completely cut off Southern commerce. As one historian said of this assignment, “No navy in history had ever attempted to assert such complete control over so vast a coastline.” The blockaders faced many challenges in attempting to prevent Southern trade. Oberly complained after a blockade-runner evaded his ship: “It is very well for orders to be issued that all vessels shall be prevented going in or out, but it is a very difficult matter to check them.” To address the problems posed by their task, the navy had tried to completely barricade some of the ports with various obstructions, but they proved to be ineffective and could not be maintained permanently. Because the ports could not be blocked, the navy guarded the major points along the coastline in an attempt to prevent other ships from entering.
One of the problems that the Union faced was the active interest of Southerners, British mariners, and even some Northerners who sought the excitement and the riches that could be had in running the blockade. These were in addition to the Confederates who operated and supported blockade-runners for the C.S.A. Private blockade-runners (most were private until the Confederate government had to start buying its own to prevent runners from taking advantage of the situation) brought in expensive goods to sell, and then bought cotton that they would sell outside the country. Many people were willing to try to run the blockade because they could make so much money, and only needed to do it successfully with a few trips to recover all the money they invested in the attempts. So many people ran the blockade in just the first year of the war, that the blockaders, who could not stop ninety percent of the ships trying to reach the Confederacy, still caught 153.
The Union blockade improved over the course of the war. In 1861, the blockade divided into two sections, with one in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Atlantic. The Atlantic Blockading Squadron was based in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Oberly served in this squadron for a time on the ship, USS Sabone, on the late summer of 1861. The bases of operation proved to be too far from the more distant stretches of the coast the few ships actually on blockade duty ships needed to shut down the coast, so the two squadrons eventually divided in half and the Union captured points closer to major areas of operations to better resupply their ships. Ships frequently had to repair and resupply, so they needed nearby ports. Even in 1864, the Santiago de Cuba had to return to Norfolk to resupply its coal, no matter where it went along the Atlantic coast. The navy learned from its mistakes, and its leaders continued to change practices as the war progressed, and the number of ships grew over time. These changes continued until the military took control of vital Confederate positions and ports on land, ending the threat posed by blockade-runners in those areas.
The Santiago de Cuba participated in one of the most important efforts by the Union navy to stop blockade-runners. It was part of the force that attacked and captured Fort Fisher. By this point in the war, Wilmington had become one of the most important sites for blockade-runners in the Confederacy. Fort Fisher was one of the sites that protected blockade-runners as they tried to reach Wilmington. The first Union attempt to take Fort Fisher came in December of 1864, but it was not until January of 1865 that they were able to mount a successful attack on the fort, and ultimately take control of it. Fort Fisher was one of the most important parts of Wilmington’s defenses, and the Cape Fear region fell to the Union soon after the navy captured it; Wilmington fell soon after Oberly’s ship helped to capture the fort.
Medicine in the Navy
Dr. Aaron Oberly helped various ships fulfil their goals by caring for the sailors on board. Naval surgeons had to treat a number of conditions, and some were simpler than others. For example, a number of the injuries Oberly treated were caused by sailors falling. This appears to have been a common problem. On a day that Oberly describes as “monotonous,” he said, “To commence the day I was aroused to see one of our men who had just fallen [by accident while on duty] from the upper deck into the ship’s hold.” This sailor broke a leg and bruised his head. Oberly would have provided any care that was necessary on the ship, and in this case he sent the sailor to a hospital on shore to allow him to heal on a steady surface that he could not find on the ship. Oberly’s ship’s proximity to the port at Norfolk, Virginia through much of 1864 and 1865 made such transfers easier.
Naval doctors also treated wounds from fights with crewmembers. Average enlisted Union sailors were very proud and often fought each other to defend their honor, or just for entertainment. They did not need much of an excuse to become violent. Doctors also tended wounds from boiler explosions; these men suffered from severe scalding and potentially lifelong handicaps to any part of their bodies. As Oberly served in ships that saw combat, he not only had to take care of his own men, but also those aboard other ships, such as one that lost its medical personnel while attacking Fort Fisher.
One of the most important concerns of doctors was to stop bleeding. If a bullet wounded a man in the stomach or the chest, doctors would use their fingers to feel into the wound. The only other way they could treat such wounds was to ease the pain, usually with morphine. More than half of men wounded in the war died, though the location of the wound on the body affected their chances of survival. If men bullets were in parts of the body that could safely be removed, amputations saved their lives. Most people who received amputations lived through the procedure itself, and doctors only made them endure it if they needed to prevent death from wound suppuration or infection. Sometimes, medical officials decided that amputations were not necessary, and restrained the wounded limb to prevent its movement. They monitored the wound, and cleaned out anything that might cause harm, such as bone fragments. Because such procedures were extremely painful, surgeons used either ether or chloroform to limit the suffering of the wounded. These wounds could easily become infected, and infections often proved fatal. Civil War medical personnel were not unaware of the problem, and used chemicals like Bromine and carbolic acid to try to disinfect wounds and removed gangrene from others who were healing to prevent the spread of the infection. Even though they took these actions, surgeons did not understand the true nature of such ailments, and did not understand that surgeons helped to spread infections like “tetanus, erysipelas, hospital-gangrene and pyemia (blood poisoning)” with poor sanitation and unsterilized medical equipment used on multiple patients.
In addition to injuries and wounds, surgeons had to treat diseases. The living conditions sailors faced caused disease, whether from their own personal manner of living, or the cramped conditions of shipboard life. Fumes from the engines may have been a factor in the serious coughs that developed among many in the navy. Oberly even complained of having problems with coughing himself. Doctors also had to deal with diseases like yellow fever during the war. They never fully gained control of the disease, and even decades later, Southern cities were evacuated and the army moved away from infected areas when the disease broke out. Still, doctors could use chemicals like quinine to help treat such diseases, even if they had no cure. Doctors tried using creams and techniques that involved creating suction between the skin and small cups believing that they could either absorb the disease, or create a beneficial skin reaction. Diarrhea was another common problem in the war, and diseases like dysentery killed many who fought. Medical workers administered medicines to forcefully remove the contents of the stomach, hoping to extract the cause of the problem in the process; yet this kind of treatment did not help many men. Doctors also had medicines that contained mercury, believing that it benefited the liver (that they blamed for many stomach ailments); they did understand some of the dangers such medicines could pose to the health of the patient. Some of those treatments may actually have helped to kill the bacteria causing the diseases, even if no one knew that was what the medicine was actually doing. They used quinine to treat fevers of all kinds, and frequently used alcohol to treat patients with varying afflictions.
Medical practices of the Civil War may seem strange to us in modern times, yet Oberly and others in the medical field had a number of advanced practices at that time to care for the sick and wounded. Today, we have many technologies that help treat disease, and we expect all medical procedures to be completed in sterile environments and used with clean, disinfected tools, and we with prescribed antibiotics to treat any other problems. But given the beliefs many held about diseases and infections, their actions were the best that could be done. Their experiences led to better medical conditions in the future. Medical workers encountered many different diseases during the war, and they started learning how to treat them. They began to research and share what they learned so that everyone could improve healthcare. The Civil War forced practitioners to work with exceptional numbers of diverse medical problems, and they began to create standard practices and treatments employed by all doctors. These developments increased medical knowledge and allowed experts to make important improvements in their field before the end of the century.
Life Aboard Ships
Oberly and the men in the Union navy had to adjust to the life the sea and the technology imposed on them. They had to make the shift from living on land to living at sea, and to learn how to handle themselves and operate their ships as most were not accustomed to nautical work. Sailors lived very close to one another and had little room of their own below decks; unfortunately this included many different kinds of pests in that confined space. They were concerned that the dampness and dirtiness of the ships and their own clothing—part of which resulted from their own refusal to care for their own cleanliness—would make them sick. Chemicals and refuse in the ship and gasses from the boilers often blew into areas frequently inhabited by sailors, possibly leading to some of the medical issues previously discussed. Sailors were busy on their ships, and meals often provided sailors with variety and rest needed in long days of work, especially monotonous days like those on blockade. These meals consisted of mostly the same foods served on the same days every week, though sailors did receive some variety on occasion. Most ships had fresh supplies on a regular basis, and the food issued to sailors was fairly good for their health.
Sailors in the navy had to face threats from their enemy and had to deal with circumstances imposed on them by the war. Mines, then called torpedoes, could easily destroy ships, and many sailors were especially concerned about them. Many also had to face combat, and the threats posed by such attacks, including boiler explosions. On the Mississippi, guerrilla attacks and conflicts with residents along the river could cause problems. Sailors also had to learn to live with many interruptions to their sleep, and to work throughout the day and sit up at night watching for blockade-runners. They also had to face extreme boredom from both monotony and separation from their friends and family. Just a few months into the war, Oberly wrote home: “You cannot imagine how I miss the singing we need to enjoy together. During the past week when lonely I would have given almost anything for the privilege.” While these might not seem to be significant problems, they could cause the mental health of sailors to suffer, and depressed sailors often stopped speaking socially to one another. Some even committed suicide. They became much less productive as workers, and they became more hostile to one another.
Oberly showed that he was concerned about the effects of his separation from those he loved, but he supported himself mentally by writing letters. He often wrote to a woman, Anna Maria Woodford. In one letter he wrote, “At all times you are my hearts companion, and one to whom I look both to enjoy and endure.” The exchange of letters was one way men in the navy entertained themselves. Many also used alcohol to amuse themselves, though this was banned from the navy during the war. Many sailors resented this, but one reason for the decision was that many doctors believed it was actually contributing to the depression of the men as they felt much less happy after they became sober. They also could fish, play games, and converse with others to amuse themselves during their free time. Some, like Oberly, read books and sought to learn more in the times they did not have to work, and Oberly turned to writing if circumstances made these hobbies difficult.
After the war, Dr. Aaron S. Oberly married his “dearest friend,” Anna Woodford, whom he called Maria. He lived until 1918. Serving as an assistant surgeon in the navy, Oberly helped to save the lives of those sick and wounded during the war. Not only did disease limit the number of people able to fight and maintain the blockade, hindering the Union war effort, but also wounds and serious injuries, and the U.S. Navy lacked the numbers it needed to effectively carry out all of its tasks for most of the war. By treating the men, Dr. Aaron Oberly helped to keep men ready for service and get them back to health quickly so that the ships could function in every way the war required. This is one of many stories of the American Civil War.
Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War by Michael J. Bennett
American Naval History, 1607-1865 by Jonathan R. Dull
Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization by William H. Roberts
War on the Waters by James McPherson
The Civil War at Sea by Craig L. Symonds
Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade by Dawson Carr
Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy by Steven J. Ramold
Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War by Margaret Humphreys
“The Naval Strategy of the Civil War,” by Bern Anderson in Military Affairs 26, no. 26 (1962)
“River Navies in the Civil War” in Military Affairs 18, no. 1 (1954)
“A Medical Perspective on the Civil War” by Richard H. Shryock in American Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1962)
“The Threat from Havana: Southern Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the U.S. Intervention in the Cuban Struggle for Independence, 1878-1898” by Mariola Espinosa in The Journal of Southern History 72, no. 3 (2006)
“Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggle for Empire in the American Tropics,” by J.R. McNeil in OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 3 (2004)
“Aaron S. Oberly Papers” in Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1448
Officials Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 18:
-“Instructions of Flag-Officer Farragut, U.S. Navy to Captain Bailey, U.S. Navy, commanding first division of gunboats in attacking force,” April 17, 1862
-“Report of Lieutenant Ransom, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Kineo,” April 25, 1862
-“Report of Assistant Surgeon Oberly, U.S. Navy, of the U.S.S. Kineo,” April 24, 1862
-“Report of Commander Porter, U.S. Navy, of the arrival of the bomb flotilla at New Orleans, with comments on condition of affairs in the Mississippi River,” July 13, 1862
-“Detailed report of Flag Officer Farragut, U.S. Navy, regarding operations in the Mississippi River,” May 30, 1862
Letters of Aaron S. Oberly, Transcribed by Emily Brown
 Michael J. Bennett, Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), ix; “Historical Note,” Aaron S. Oberly Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries” http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1448.
 Bern Anderson, “The Naval Strategy of the Civil War,” Military Affairs 26, no. 1 (1962), 12.
 Anderson, “The Naval Strategy,” 12; Jonathan R. Dull, American Naval History, 1607-1865 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 87.
 Anderson, “Naval Strategy,” 12; William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 10-11., Dull, American Naval History, 92; Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7-8, 41-42; “River Navies in the Civil War,” Military Affairs 18, no. 1 (1954), 29.
 “River Navies,” 29-30; Dull, American Naval History, 97-99; James McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 55, 65-66; David Farragut, “Instructions of Flag-Officer Farragut, U.S. Navy to Captain Bailey, U.S. Navy, commanding first division of gunboats in attacking force,” April 17, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 18 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 132; “Report of Lieutenant Ransom, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Kineo,” April 25, 1862, in Official Records, 217-218; “Report of Assistant Surgeon Oberly, U.S. Navy, of the U.S.S. Kineo,” April 24, 1862, Official Records, 219.
 McPherson, War on the Waters, 67-68, 94-95; “Report of Commander Porter, U.S. Navy, of the arrival of the bomb flotilla at New Orleans, with comments on condition of affairs in the Mississippi River,” July 13, 1862, in Official Records, 678-679; “Detailed report of Flag Officer Farragut, U.S. Navy, regarding operations in the Mississippi River,” May 30, 1862, in Official Records, 520-521.
 Craig Symonds, The Civil War at Sea, ed. John David Smith (Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009), 42.
 Aaron Oberly, “U.S. ‘St[eame]r de Cuba,’ Somewhere in the Atlantic,” November 23, 1864, 7.
 Aaron Oberly, “U.S. ‘St[eame]r de Cuba,’ Somewhere in the Atlantic,” November 23, 1864, 7; Symonds, The Civil War, 42; McPherson, War on the Waters, 48; Dawson Carr, Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1998), 14.
 McPherson, War on the Waters, 32, 118-119; Carr, Gray Phantom, 213; Anderson, “The Naval Strategy,” 19-20.
 McPherson, War on the Waters, 31; Oberly, “U.S. Frigate Sabine,” September 23, 1861, 28; Anderson, “The Naval Strategy,” 15. Carr, Gray Phantoms, 24, 34-35, 209; Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Off Norfolk, VA,” November 10, 1864, 5.
 Carr, Gray Phantom, 58, 187, 191, 198, 205-206.
 Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Off Norfolk, VA,” November 10, 1864, 5.
 Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ off Norfolk, VA,” November 10, 1864, 4-5; Bennett, Union Jacks, 23, 192-193., Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba, Norfolk Navy Yard,” January 22, 1865, 21; Richard H. Shryock, “A Medical Perspective on the Civil War,” American Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1962), 162; Margaret Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 30-31.
 Shryock, “A Medical Perspective,” 163.
 Shryock, “A Medical Perspective,” 165; Bennett, Union Jacks, 31-32; Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Off Norfolk, VA,” November 11, 1864, 16; Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy, 27, 29-30; Mariola Espinosa, “The Threat from Havana: Southern Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the U.S. Intervention in the Cuban Struggle for Independence, 1878-1898,” The Journal of Southern History 72, no. 3 (2006), 543-544; J.R. McNeil, “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1650-1825, OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 3 (2004), 10.
 Shryock, “A Medical Perspective,” 165-6; Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy, 30, 293.
 Bennett, Union Jacks, 28, 31-32; Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens, 95.
 Oberly, “U.S. Frigate Sabine,” September 23, 1861, 29.
 Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Off Norfolk, VA,” November 11, 1864, 16.
 Bennett, Union Jacks, 55-56, 67-68, 72-74, 76, 85-87, 107, 191-192; “Scope and Content,” Aaron S. Oberly Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1448; Carr, Gray Phantoms, 37; Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Hampton Roads, VA,” March 10, 1865, 25.
 Oberly, “U.S. Steamer ‘Santiago de Cuba,’ Hampton Roads, VA,” March 10, 1865, 25.
 “Historical Note,”“Aaron S. Oberly Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.” http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1448., Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy, 22, 29., Carr, Gray Phantoms, 17.