Chattanooga had been part of the Confederacy since June of 1861, but had been little touched by the war in its opening months. However, as February 1862 neared its end, that was about to change; Fort Donelson had fallen and as a result, Nashville was being abandoned.
The civilian telegraph operator in Chattanooga stared at the message in disbelief: "Prepare as best you can for some 1,000 or 1,200 sick and convalescent from this army and the hospitals at Nashville. They will be sent forward as fast as cars can be supplied."
The telegrapher was not even sure who to give this message to; there was very little Confederate military presence in the city and no preparations to treat sick and wounded had been made. It would fall to the citizens of Chattanooga to improvise a treatment facility for the new arrivals.
"When the first train arrived with some 300 on board, they were in a most pitiable condition. ... Tears filled the eyes of many at the depot when these poor fellows were taken from the cars ... a majority of them were helpless. Two other trains came in the following day with men in the same condition. Three soldiers were found dead in the cars, one died in the depot before removal and another died on the way to the hospital."
Led by their mayor, Milo B. Smith, a physician, the citizens would lose another six men in their makeshift hospital before Confederate authorities arrived within a couple of weeks and established a medical presence.
For the next 18 months, until the city was evacuated in early September 1863, Chattanooga would be the hospital and medical center for the Confederacy's western army, the Army of Tennessee. This humanitarian effort was led by surgeon Samuel H. Stout, an efficient organizer and medical innovator. Over time, Stout would set up at least nine hospitals in Chattanooga and more in the surrounding cities served by rail; Cleveland, Ringgold, and Dalton.
Typically, a wounded or sick Confederate soldier arrived at the railroad depot, was unloaded and taken across the street (today's MLK Boulevard) to the Crutchfield House Hotel (site of today's Read House) which served as a "receiving and distributing" hospital; a clearing house in which the patient was temporarily treated before being sent to another Chattanooga area hospital. He might be taken to the Academy Hospital on nearby Academy or College Hill, a southern spur of Cameron Hill.
Located in the old Masonic Lodge or Chattanooga Female Institute, it initially had 64 beds. It would be expanded through the use of tents and specially designed pavilion wards to hold 500 beds. Other hospitals would be built using the innovative pavilion style wards (which allowed for better ventilation) including the Newsom and Gilmer Hospitals probably located on a southern spur of Cameron Hill.
Stout's efficiency is evident when one considers upon his arrival in March 1862, there were 64 beds available in one hospital and a dozen patients, but by the fall of that year there were roughly 3,500 beds available in the Chattanooga area and over 14,000 patients had been treated.
Stout had some temporary hospitals in the Chattanooga area as well: the Whiteside Hotel complex at Summertown on Lookout Mountain; the Waverly House hotel on Market between Fourth and Fifth streets; the Methodist Church in downtown; a Smallpox Hospital, location unknown; and the Withers Division Hospital at Tyner's Station.
Surgeon Stout had seen the chaos in the military medical system when Nashville was evacuated and he was determined to prevent a re-occurrence. He designed a system to be used when Chattanooga was abandoned that had each hospital retreat as a unit, keeping its personnel, equipment, supplies, and other necessities together as a unit when the hospital relocated.
One can see in this new idea, the seeds of the "MASH" hospital concept perfected in the Korean War era. By late summer of 1863, it was obvious that the Federal forces were winning the war of maneuver, and using Stout's plan, the Confederate hospitals of Chattanooga evacuated into Georgia. Chattanooga's "Confederate Hour" was over.
The Civil War was the first U. S. military and medical experience that involved tens of thousands of casualties. The development of an organized and orderly system that allowed for the treatment, transportation, and hospitalization of mass casualties was perhaps the greatest medical legacy of that war and the lessons learned would save lives in later conflicts. Chattanooga's Confederate hospital complex developed by surgeon Stout was an important part of that legacy.
For information on this article, call Chattanooga Area Historical Association editor L. C. Jolley at 423-886-2090.