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Remembering Civil War's dead, and wounded

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Posted: Saturday, May 26, 2012 8:58 pm | Updated: 11:17 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

A crowd of history buffs gathered in the University of Virginia’s Confederate Cemetery Saturday morning to celebrate Memorial Day weekend and listen to the history of the Charlottesville General Hospital as told by the facility’s superintendent, James Lawrence Cabell.

Cabell, who passed away in 1889, was portrayed by local historian Rob Craighurst. Dressed in Confederate garb despite the heat, Craighurst described the 500-bed makeshift hospital, which was located near the present-day intersection of Main Street and Jefferson Park Avenue, in detail.

“All in all, we have about 300 people working at the Charlottesville General Hospital — about 10 percent of our population,” Craighurst — as Cabell — told the audience.

Cabell said that the Charlottesville General Hospital treated more than 22,000 soldiers from its opening in July 1861 until the Civil War’s end in 1865.

Cabell said that about 95 percent of the hospital’s patients survived.

“I have to ask myself … ‘Why did we do this?’” he said. “I’m sorry, this is not about state’s rights, it’s about slavery.”

Cabell said that only about 6 percent of Southern whites owned slaves, and even less owned plantations.

“It was for that 1 percent that we fought this war,” he said before acknowledging the sacrifice of the soldiers who lost their lives.

“Let us remember them,” he said.

Just one week after the hospital’s opening about 1,200 wounded soldiers arrived by train after the First Battle of Manassas, Cabell said. He told the audience that wounded soldiers were housed in the Rotunda, tents on the Lawn and student rooms.

“The good people of Charlottesville opened up their homes. We put some there too,” Cabell said. He added that he had considered using Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello — which was vacant at the time — as a smallpox hospital, but ultimately decided against it because the property was too far from the hospital.

“I’ve got too much to do. I’ve got 300 patients a day sometimes,” he said. Cabell noted that there were only two or three surgeons on staff, and that the hospital relied heavily on volunteers.

In addition to smallpox, the Charlottesville General Hospital treated dysentery, blood poisoning and, of course, bullet wounds.

Cabell said that as the war progressed, medicines like opium or morphine were increasingly expensive and hard to come find. Instead, many amputees were given wine, whiskey, or in some cases just food and water to dull the pain. The hospital came to rely on herbal remedies as well, he said.

“We didn’t wash our hands, by the way. Right now we don’t know about germs,” Cabell said, adding that he was an early advocate for sterilized surgery.

Besides Cabell, several prominent members of historical groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy spoke at Saturday’s ceremony.

“Today we stand on hollowed ground,” said Amanda Kutch, president of Albemarle Chapter 154 of the UDC. She reminded the audience of the 1,097 soldiers buried in the Confederate Cemetery. She noted that 206 of those graves belong to soldiers from Virginia.

Kutch said Albemarle Chapter 154 is working to replace the deteriorated wooden markers noting the names of each grave with marble grave markers, she said. This year, the organization ordered 57 new markers, which were not delivered in time for Saturday’s event.

Saturday’s ceremony was one of the first events in the Virginia Festival of History, a weeklong celebration of state and local history. Upcoming events include tours of such historic locations as Court Square and the Maplewood Cemetery, as well as a number of panel discussions and presentations.

Members of the Celebrate 250 Steering Committee will unearth the 1962 time capsule at the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse today at 2 p.m. 

A full schedule of events can be found at www.celebrate250.com.