Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pull Up a Chair!

     If you’ve ever been camping, you know that it’s helpful to bring along a camp chair.  Surgeons in the Civil War discovered the same thing!

In this Library of Congress photo taken in 1863, and titled, “Bealeton, Va. Noncommissioned officers' mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry”  you can see that the men are seated on folding camp chairs.

This Civil War folding camp chair belonged to Assistant Surgeon Sheffield Greene of the 15th New York Cavalry.  It is a small chair, standing just over 31” high when unfolded.  It folds flat when not in use, and the back wood support behind the seat also functions as a carrying handle. 

     Let’s find out a little more about the owner of this chair.  Sheffield Wells Greene was born in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, in 1814.  He attended Geneva Medical College in 1845 which made him a bit older than most medical students.  He began practicing medicine after his graduation in 1846.  On December 26, 1863, he enlisted with Company D, 15th New York Cavalry Regiment.  I was not able to find an image of him, but the vital statistics on his enlistment papers list him as being a 44 year old physician, 5’ 10” tall, with gray eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion.  There is a discrepancy here regarding his age, as according to the birth date listed in his family records he would have actually been 49 years old when he enlisted.  It’s possible he was afraid of being rejected and so lied about his age.  It’s also possible the age listed on his enlistment papers is a clerical error.  In either case, it is interesting to note that he was older than the average Civil War recruit.   

     Though there is no record of Assistant Surgeon Greene being wounded in battle, he was sent to the Geisboro hospital in Washington D.C. in April 1864.  A month later he returned to camp, but it was recorded that he was still unable to perform his regular duties.  There is one notation in the Company Muster Roll which indicates he was “Absent on detached service” and assigned as a nurse at the Camp Stoneman Hospital starting in July 1864.  It was a common practice at the time to assign some of the nearly-recovered patients to nursing duties.  
     An excerpt from a later letter to the Pension Office uncovers the reason for his hospitalization:  “…during the forepart of the months of April 1864 while on return march from Burlington Gap, West Virginia [we] dismounted.  And in consequence of exposure at Springfield, West Virginia, and being under orders to continue the march of the mountains on the way to Pleasant Valley state of Maryland was turned over by Order for Rupture to the camp Hospital at that place and remained there about one week, and from there to Washington D.C.   My comrade Rev. David Rittenhouse who had entire charge of me and had the said order of the evidence of this disability that the Diarrhea followed in train, from which I never recovered, and that I was treated for Rupture in the Hospital by the proper treatment of Suspencery Bandages and for the Diarrhea secundum artem and that I was in the fourth ward Hospital at Camp Stoneman D.C. and also at Judiciary Square Hospital D.C. December 1864 and remained there until in January 1865 and that said Rupture was brought upon me as alleged in my original applications by carrying heavy Cavalry Baggage on the return march from West Virginia.”

     In other words, he developed a hernia, and chronic diarrhea  - a prevalent complaint for Civil War soldiers!  A hospital record from his stay at Judiciary Square General Hospital in December 1864 lists his age as 50 (which supports his enlistment age of 49).  He was diagnosed there with hydrocele and was granted a furlough on December 16, 1864.  After reporting back for duty in January 1865, he was commissioned into Field & Staff New York 147th Infantry.  Despite his medical issues, it appears that he continued to serve for as long as he was able.  He was mustered out on June 7, 1865, and he returned home to New York to practice medicine.  

There are no manufacturer’s marks on the chair, but it does have the initials ‘S.W.G’ stenciled in black paint onto the back of the chair.  Perhaps they were put there by the doctor himself? 

     In 1882, Dr. Greene applied for a pension, but a series of letters between him and the pension office indicate that there was some question as to whether his disability was sustained during his service or was a preexisting condition.  Ultimately it was argued that his recruitment papers stated he had been examined by a physician and found to be in good health when he enlisted.  It took four years, but his request was finally approved.  He died in 1899 at the age of 85, and is buried in the Richburg Cemetery in Wirt, NY.

     A bit more about Dr. Greene is found in the book, Allegany County and Its People: a centennial memorial history of Allegany County, New York, by John Stearns Minard and Georgia Drew Merrill.  The conclusion of the summary of his life tells more about his character, “The doctor for 40 years has given arduous and unspared labors for the relief of human suffering, and can look back along an honest and diligent life with a consciousness of doing well all duties falling to his lot.”

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Taking Care of Artifacts at Home

     Artifacts aren't just found in museums.  Most people have family treasures they want to protect and preserve.  I sometimes get inquiries about how to best care for and store old papers, photographs, or other items of historical or sentimental significance.  So, today I thought I’d share a few very basic guidelines for artifact care.

     I’ll start with the disclaimer that the specific storage conditions depend on the materials which make up each artifact.  The optimal storage conditions are not identical for every artifact, and having items made of more than one material complicates matters even more.  These are general guidelines!  If you have a particular artifact which is of great value to you, I’d strongly suggest researching more specific guidelines for the material of which it’s composed, and consulting a conservator.

     Guideline #1 – Document it!  Take a photo or photos of your items, and date the photos.  This is helpful when having your items insured, or for proving that you owned them if they are stolen.  It also serves as a reference point.  You may not notice gradual fading or damage, but a photograph can help to alert you to the fact that something has changed.

With this photo, you would easily be able to see if any of these surgical needles were missing later, or if the cloth started to fade or become discolored.

If you have an item like this field medical case which is already damaged, a photo serves to document the damage.  It can also still be used to check this case later to ensure that the damaged areas are not deteriorating further. 

     Another part of documenting your artifact includes keeping a file which details its story.  You can’t always rely on your memory of the item’s history, and future generations certainly won’t know its history if you don’t document it!  

     Guideline #2 – Location matters!  People tend to store their old mementos in the attic or the basement of their homes.  Those are the two worst storage spots for artifacts!  It’s best to keep artifacts in an environment with a relatively stable temperature and relative humidity.  The temperature and relative humidity in the basement and attic tend to fluctuate much more than in the living areas of a house.  Find a closet or cabinet in the main section of your home to store your artifacts.  This will keep them out of the more extreme conditions in the attic or basement, and also will help to limit their exposure to light and dust.  

     Guideline #3 – Use the right storage materials.  It doesn’t do much good to store your family’s treasures in the right area if you pack them in materials which will damage them.  Old cardboard boxes and newspapers seem to be commonly used for storing and packing items, but both are acidic and can damage artifacts.  Instead, purchase acid-free boxes and tissue paper for artifact storage.  Mylar sleeves or acid-free folders are good for storing photos and papers.  Photo albums can also be used for photos, as long as they are labeled for archival use.  Unbleached muslin fabric is another option for use with artifacts, especially as a dust cover for textiles and furniture.  Take the time to learn about what materials make up your storage items, and get used to looking for the term “acid-free!”

Archival cardboard boxes come in many shapes and sizes to fit a wide variety of artifacts.  If you need to go with something cheaper, plastic storage boxes work as well and have the advantage of offering more protection against moisture.
     Guideline #4 – Don’t try to fix it! – Probably the most important message I’d like to share here is to not attempt to do any repairs yourself, even if they seem like minor repairs.  Seriously, I considered titling this section “Don’t Use Scotch Tape!” because that is the source of many of the repair attempts I see.  Not that I have anything against cellophane tape for household uses, but I do cringe when I find that it has been used on an artifact.  I know that people mean well.  They want to repair that ripped book page, or to make sure that card with the artifact’s history is securely attached to it.  But have you ever seen an old newspaper, book, or photo which was repaired with tape years ago?  

You can see the damage caused to this Confederate note by the cellophane tape.  Over time the tape starts to decompose and become yellow, and the acid adhesive on the tape damages the paper.  Even if the tape is removed, there will be some acidic residue left on the paper.  And, just so I’m not accused of picking on Scotch tape, remember that acetate tape (“Magic tape”), masking tape, packaging tape, and even Post It notes also have adhesive which can damage artifacts.

     Aim to simply stabilize any damage, not to repair it.  Be sure that anything you do to your artifact is reversible.  For instance, the bill pictured above could have been put inside a Mylar sleeve to prevent it from ripping further.  The sleeve would have supported the paper, without doing further damage to it.  For books with loose or ripped pages, consider storing the book in a box, or tying the book shut with cloth tape.  

     I don’t have the space here to cover all the possibilities, but I hope I’ve given you a good starting point at least.  Take good care of those artifacts so that future generations can enjoy them, and don’t be afraid to call on a professional for advice!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

An Exhibit at the Missing Soldiers Office!

     It seems that I have been writing about the preparations to open the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office for quite a while now.  It takes a lot of work to open a new museum!  There has been quite a lot for us to do; especially since the space needed restoration work done before we could tackle developing exhibits for it.  However, I’m happy to report that the museum’s official opening is imminent. 

     While we wait for that, let’s take a look at what is happening there now!

The Welcome Center on the first floor of the building now has a wonderful mural called “Washington in Wartime – A Capital in Crisis.”  Tours of the Missing Soldiers Office will start here.

Next, visitors can ascend the same steps which Clara Barton used to get to her third floor boarding room and office.  It’s a bit of a climb, but is definitely worth the effort!

If you’ve seen my previous posts about the Missing Soldiers Office, this hallway is probably familiar by now!  The doors to the Missing Soldiers Office are to the left, and Clara Barton’s room is at the end of the hall to the left.

     Though the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office is still a work in progress, we have recently been able to put the first exhibit in the space!  “Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps: Rediscovering Alexander Gardner’s Antietam Photographs,” was created as a collaboration between the NMCWM and the Frederick County Civil War Round Table, with support from Hood College of Frederick, MD.  If it looks familiar to you it is because it was first exhibited in the fall of 2012 at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield.  You can read more about that exhibit here. 

The exhibit, which is located in the room used as the Missing Soldiers Office, uses photo reproductions in the same dimensions as Alexander Gardner’s original photographic images.  The images are displayed in the same manner as they were 150 years ago, complete with magnifying glasses for the visitors.

     Though none of these images are of Clara Barton, these images from the Antietam Battlefield relate to her because this was where she first served as a relief worker during a Civil War battle.  They also relate to her Missing Soldiers Office, where she identified many of the soldiers who were killed on this and other battlefields.  It is a very fitting opening exhibit for the CBMSO.

Across the hall, another room is set up to show the images in 3-D.  The original photos were shot with stereoscopic cameras, so this allows visitors to view them in the way they were originally intended.

     The CBMSO is now open just on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, and this exhibit will run through May 18th of this year.

I hope you can come out for a visit.  Marcie and Garrett are eager to show off every detail of the museum!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.