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    Albert G. Sprague of the 7th and 9th Rhode Island Archive. A group of 35 letters from the 25-year-old Assistant Surgeon. All of the letters are war dated, ranging from February 1, 1863 to March 3, 1865, and addressed to his wife, Ellen ("Nellie"). Albert Gallatin Sprague Jr. (1836-1908) had attended Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and graduated just two years before the Civil War began. He enlisted in May of 1862 and was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant and Assistant Surgeon. He served with the 7th and 9th Rhode Island Infantries throughout the war, and worked both in the field and at the City Point Hospital in Virginia. The Depot Field Hospital at City Point operated during the Siege of Petersburg and covered nearly 200 acres. The immense group of hospitals had approximately 1,200 tents and could tend to almost 10,000 patients, with a functioning dining hall, icehouse, kitchens, etc. It is believed that only two percent of patients sent to City Point Depot Field Hospital died.

    After having served a year with the Union Army, Sprague was already disheartened and incredibly critical of the way the army supported its soldiers. He had become disgusted with camp sanitation, and complained that the men were being treated more or less as animals being led to their doom. His February 1, 1863 letter details, "That glorious old Regt. which started from Prov. and done its duty bravely at Fredericksburg, has turned into a half-barbarous, semi-civilized set of men, who care no more for their person than the dirtiest wench that ever breathed. Neither have they any manliness or pride about them. However there are many extenuating circumstances. 1st They have been used by the Government as dogs and mere machines, to be led here & there to the slaughter like cattle. 2nd They are half-fed, half-clothed, and miserably supplied in every way. I pity a soldier. All honor is due to him, even if he be altered into a lazy groveling beast. The Government has done it, and they alone are to blame for it. If the men get lousy & filthy, it is not their (the men) fault. Give them good quarters, good clothing & good food, and they will take pride in their persons, as much as the veriest dandy in Providence. As things are now they are disheartened, and we cannot blame them. Sickness and death play sad havoc among them...The camp is in a miserable locality, the ground being damp. Sometimes there are two or three inches of water covering their quarters. Then comes Rheumatism which is the all prevailing disease here now. To go into some of the tents it looks like hog pens, and smells the same."

    By early May 1864, Sprague was working in the field, having asked for the position over working in a hospital. In an undated May 1864 (possibly May 6) letter, Sprague wrote of being stationed at a secessionist house that had been seized by the Union forces and converted into a hospital (possibly Ellwood Manor). Staying in the house he wrote, "From this house we could have a view of the fields for 3 miles. Here the battle was raging. There was one continual volley of musketry from 4 in the morning until about 1. It commenced again at 4 and kept up until 9 in the evening. There has been terrible slaughter on both sides, and not much ground gained...I expect we shall have hot work before tonight. I have no instruments with me not even an ambulance. As I sit here by the road, the ambulances are coming in loaded with the wounded. The poor fellows are groaning terribly...We marched to Chancellorsville and halted. On the field we picked up skulls & arms. Trees could be seen cut off by the shell. It was a hard battle ground fought during the retreat of McClellan from Richmond."

    Two months later, Sprague had joined the medical division at City Point, Virginia. Along with the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission, the surgeons worked tirelessly against the summer heat to save lives. Sprague feared the heat and lack of water to be detrimental to the army, writing on July 3, "...the weather is extremely hot. It is difficult for man & beast to endure. The Army is suffering for it, and if we do not have rain soon, a terrible depletion in the ranks will occur. Hundreds are taken sick every day, and it is a fact, that we are receiving twice as many sick men, as we are wounded, and all the sick are of one class, Typhoid fever. The poor fellows are suffering extremely, but the Sanitary & Christian Commission are doing all they can here."

    By the end of the month, Sprague was overwhelmed by patients. He wrote on July 24 that, "I have had on an average 500 patients in my Division, which is more than all the other Divisions in the Corps put together." And just over one week later, on August 1, the young surgeon wasn't just frustrated with the workload, but with what he believed to be incompetence of the generals in the Union army: "By the appearance of things now, nothing of any consequence will be done for some time to come, at least in front of Petersburg. That last affair was a disgraceful failure, owing to want of supports. Meade is blamed severely, and I think with cause. When petty jealousies between commanders will cause the death of thousands of brave soldiers, I think that the torture is none too good for them. They say that Meade & Burnside have nothing to say to each other now."

    However, Sprague's discontent was not to be soon abetted. The end of 1864 saw him transferred to Fort Sedgwick just outside of Petersburg. The fort had been constructed as part of the Union's siege line, and was the closest in range to the Confederate artillery, which earned it the nickname "Fort Hell". The sentiment was clearly shared by Sprague, who wrote on December 14, "Here am I in hell...Opposite lay Forts Damnation and the Seven Sister. We are all underground, protected by Bomb-proofs, but occasionally a shell drops in, and scatters things in general. One of these mortar shells that go up in the air and come straight down generally go through anything that they come in contact with." Continuing the description of the dreadful conditions of the fort, he wrote one week later, "The grounds & quarters of the men in the fort are in a miserable condition. They are merely holes dug out of the side of the bank, and covered over the top with logs and about 3 to 6 feet of earth over that. When a rain storm comes on, it makes everything leaky, and the clay becomes absorbed which renders everything damp within the quarters. It is a wonder to me that they are not all sick."

    Luckily for Sprague, he was moved back to City Point's hospital complex by January of 1865. Moreover, by February, it looked like the war was finally coming to a close. His February 23 letter discussed the evacuations of major Confederate cities and of Sherman's successes: "We had the cheering news yesterday that Charleston was evacuated. What the Rebels will do now remains to be seen. They will probably go to Wilmington, and if driven from there, they will come to Richmond, which will be the last place that they can go to. Probably Lee will evacuate before then, for his supplies are getting cut off, and he cannot subsist an Army on nothing. It is his only chance for if Sherman gets up here, so as to complete our line we shall have him completely hemmed in. I should not be surprised to hear that they evacuated both Petersburg and Richmond soon. Sherman is having it all his own way down South, and I ache to be with him, for they are having a bully time, and seeing the country."

    This archive of letters gives an excellent perspective of a surgeon who experienced both field and hospital work. The advancements in medicine during the Civil War were substantial, and readers of this archive can see the ways in which doctors were struggling to properly care for their patients under stressful and unsanitary conditions. A great look at this viewpoint during the final years of the Civil War.

    Condition: Letters range from fine to good, with usual wear and mail folds, and varying degrees of toning. Some letters have spots of soiling and some small tears, but all are clear and legible.


    More Information: Additional excerpts from the archive as follows:

    Eight pages, 7.75" x 9.75", City Point, Virginia; August 28 & 29, 1864: "I would never enter the service again if I could get out of it once, but that is the worst of it a poor Devil cannot get out until his term of service expires, unless he is nearly dead. I never saw so many officers desirous of getting out of the Army before. Many of them are Court-Martialed and [illegible] for tendering their resignations in the face of the enemy, and yet they continue to resign, knowing the penalty. To tell the truth, a great portion of the Army would be glad to see this war settled almost any way, for we do not receive much encouragement at home, and people begin to consider it a disgrace to be in the service. I fear that there will be a Revolution in the North & West before the election, or else Abe Lincoln will be defeated, and then comes the Copperheads into power, who will submit to almost everything dishonorable, in order to obtain peace."

    Four pages, 7.75" x 9.75", City Point, Virginia; March 3, 1865: "Tomorrow the 4th day of March is to be a great day in Washington. Inauguration of Abe Lincoln and a Grand Ball, and of which I would not give two cents to see. I presume you would give almost anything to go to the Ball."




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    October, 2018
    25th Thursday
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