Rectangular wooden buildings with a field and trees in front during the Civil War.
Nelson US General Hospital wards at Camp Nelson.

National Archives and Records Administration

Medical Facilities

This establishment consists of ten large wards – Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant-Quartermaster, US Army

Among the hundreds of buildings at Camp Nelson during the Civil War were various hospital facilities. The main facility was the Nelson US General Hospital, but the base also included separate measles and smallpox hospitals, a convalescent hospital, a prison hospital, an employee hospital, and a hospital at the Home for Colored Refugees. With all of these different facilities, Camp Nelson contained one of the largest military medical complexes in Kentucky.

The General Hospital was substantial, comprising 10 wards (each with 70 beds), an office and dispensary, a commissary, eight nurses’ rooms, two dining rooms, two cook houses, and a steam laundry. This facility was staffed by a chief surgeon, four to seven assistant surgeons, and 50 attendants (nurses). The General Hospital served US Army soldiers, both white and Black, who suffered from illnesses and wounds in the Department of the Ohio.

Captain Theron E. Hall, the Assistant Quartermaster of Camp Nelson, provided an overview of the General Hospital:

These Hospitals are situated on a beautiful lawn near the center of Camp, on the side of a hill so as to be entirely protected from the fire of an assailing force. A grove of trees in front imparts to them a pleasant appearance and affords an agreeable retreat for the inmates who are convalescent enough to enjoy such advantages. They are filled up with hot and cold baths in each ward, also with water closets, etc.

An official inspection of Camp Nelson in May 1865 reported that the General Hospital was “a well conducted and highly creditable establishment.” The Nelson US General Hospital was located toward the southern end of Camp Nelson, while the various other medical facilities, which were designed to serve specific groups of people residing at the military base or treat certain diseases, were scattered throughout the camp.

Rows of tents in a field during the Civil War.
The Convalescent Camp at Camp Nelson.

National Archives and Records Administration

Convalescent Camp

One of the medical facilities at Camp Nelson other than the General Hospital was the 76-tent convalescent hospital. During the Civil War, convalescents were soldiers who were no longer suffering from the severe phases of illness or wounds but were still recovering. These troops needed little attention from medical personnel and only required time to rest to fully recover from their affliction and regain the strength to return to active duty. Capt. Hall described the convalescent camp at Camp Nelson: “This Camp received convalescents from the General Hospital previous to their transfer to different Regiments. The men are quartered in tents: the only buildings here being a Dining Room, a Kitchen and Commissary.”

Two wooden buildings surrounded by many trees during the Civil War.
The Measles Hospital at Camp Nelson. Measles was a highly infectious disease during the Civil War that caused the deaths of many US Army soldiers.

National Archives and Records Administration

Medical Treatment

Camp Nelson may have had a massive hospital complex, but that did not mean that patients received effective medical care. During the Civil War era, there was still little understanding of the real causes of most diseases, and consequently reliable treatment of many illnesses was not known. Germ theory had not yet been discovered, and the importance of hygiene was little understood. For patients in wartime hospitals, it is challenging to judge what was worse, the sickness afflicting them or the so-called treatment that they received for it. Common methods were bloodletting and the administration of drugs and potions such as whiskey, turpentine, opium, mercury, and strychnine, some of which are highly dangerous toxins.

It is not an understatement to say that at least two times as many soldiers died of sickness as died of battle wounds. Overcrowded conditions and poor sanitation, especially the contamination of water, were primary factors in causing high rates of disease and death in wartime encampments. Camp Nelson was no exception, with large numbers of soldiers, civilian employees, and refugees all falling victim to various diseases. The most prevalent killers were chronic diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, and pneumonia. Hospital records of the General Hospital at Camp Nelson demonstrate its high death rate. For example, 229 of 1,590 patients died between January and May 1865. This is a death rate of 14.4%.

With so many soldiers and other residents of Camp Nelson dying from different types of diseases during the Civil War, the military base needed places to bury them. During its three-year existence, the camp contained a total of four cemeteries. Graveyard No. 2 was the largest of the wartime cemeteries at Camp Nelson, and it was ultimately converted into Camp Nelson National Cemetery.

Last updated: August 4, 2023

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