April 28, 2012

Army Surgeon John F. Huber's Civil War

Location: Falls Church, VA, USA
Dr. John F. Huber, U.S. Army Surgeon
CDV taken in Lancaster c. 1863
(Sold by Alex Peck Medical Antiques)
As I gather my notes for a presentation on Sunday, May 13, at Trinity Lutheran Church, I thought I would take a break from the 150th anniversary sequence to post a Civil War letter written by one of Trinity Church's members, Dr. John F. Huber. With responsibilities as assistant surgeon or surgeon of the 49th Pennsylvania, 131st Pennsylvania, 50th Pennsylvania, and the US Military Hospital at Hilton Head, South Carolina, Huber's medical service began in 1861 and lasted a whole year past the war's end.

Various updates throughout the war by or about Huber in the Lancaster newspapers--primarily the Inquirer--reveal that his time as an army surgeon exacted a high physical toll from which he never really recovered.  Less than two years after his discharge, Huber died in Lancaster of "pulmonary disease" on February 15, 1868.  He was buried at Woodward Hill Cemetery, and his tombstone is positioned prominently along the road at the top of the hill near the chapel.

Verso of CDV
"Your affectionate father,
J. F. Huber"
Although Huber was born to an Old Mennonite family, he left the family farm in Willow Street for a more mainstream lifestyle in Lancaster.  After attending Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, he became a physician.  My encounters with Dr. Huber have been through the a couple mentions in official records of Trinity Lutheran Church, where he apparently was a member by 1861.  Specifically, he was on the committee to procure a lithograph of the church for the 1861 "Centenary Jubilee" commemorative book.  I don't know how he ended up at Trinity, but marriage is a good guess--more genealogical research is needed.

John Huber's first letter with the 49th Pennsylvania, transcribed below, appeared in the October 19, 1861, Weekly Inquirer, and describes a train accident near Baltimore and the regiment's stormy first night in Virginia.  Five or six more letters from Huber appeared in the Inquirer between December 1862 and March 1863. 

He also received mention in a January 17, 1863, letter from George McElroy of the Pennsylvania Reserves, who was recuperating at the York Hospital and wrote regularly to the Inquirer as "McE."  McElroy testifies to Huber's esteem in the community, as well as the efforts of Huber's wife, Louise, who I believe also was affiliated with the Patriot Daughters of Lancaster (although it's somewhat unclear as there was another John F. Huber in Lancaster.)  From the January 19, 1862, Inquirer:
We still remember the kind greetings and interesting companionship of Dr. J. F. Huber.  Worn out by his hard services on the Peninsula, and wasted by disease, he returned for a brief period to his family; but has again offered his life and his labors to his suffering country.  Promoted to a high position which he fills with honor to himself and credit to the Government, he still adds his quota to that fund of professional efficiency, which distinguishes the army of the Potomac.  His amiable and accomplished lady was the first to call on us, when smitten with disease and wasted by the disasters of war, we found a shelter and a home in the York Hospital.  One of the few who spoke to us words of encouragement and revived the recollections of sympathy, which time cannot impair and death no more than obliterate.  While those who fawned upon us in our sunny days and were participants in our prodigal liberality, remained far away, she came, uncalled and unsolicited, a ministering angel at our bedside. 


From the October 19, 1861, Lancaster Weekly Inquirer:


Camp Advance,
Near Falls Church, Va.

Mr. Editor: I presume an occasional letter of the wandering, loiterings and adventures of a Lancaster county follower of Esculapius, would be very acceptable.  While at Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, my duties were so numerous and onerous, that I could scarcely find sufficient time to write to those whose relations to me demanded my first attention during moments of relaxation.

Two weeks ago, we were held in suspense all the time by daily notification of orders to prepare for transportation to Washington; until finally we paid but little attention to them, regarding them as mere rumor.  But at least the 49th prepared to move, and on Saturday morning, we took the cars, and commenced our journey towards the National Capitol.  Slowly proceeded the train onward, occasionally stopping for an hour--no one knew why.  Night came and found us at Cockeysville--a memorable spot to many of my friends in Lancaster, who will long remember hard biscuit and the Monumental mob.

The detention was so long, that we had concluded we were to remain there; but finally the shrill signal "All Aboard!" was given and on we went at a furious speed.  The regiment was divided into two batalions, in separate trains.  The first batalion proceeded some distance in advance of the second--both engineers having orders to make the next stopping place in ten minutes, in order to switch off, and let the passenger train pass, as there is but one track; and in order to arrive at the proper time, we had to run at the rate of forty miles an hour.  I was seated in the rear car with the staff officers.  When near Washington station, about six miles north of Baltimore, a sudden and tremendous crash was heard, accompanied with a frightful jolt of the cars, stopping the cars with a shock.  There was a general picking up of one's self, followed by a stampede for the door.  Immediately after I had stepped from the car, there was a general cry for a surgeon, and hastening forward to the engine, I found two men most shockingly mangled and torn to pieces.  One was already dead, and the other was just expiring.  The engineer had his ankle joint badly injured, and a soldier had his thigh bone fractured.  A car was immediately fitted up for hospital purposes, and the reflector from the passenger engine procured for lighting the car.  The engineer had leaped from the car when he saw a collision was inevitable, and without attempting to stop the engine or signalling for down breaks.  His foot was so badly crushed that immediate amputation became necessary.

After various delays in clearing away the wreck, we arrived in Washington on the following Sunday afternoon; and were marched two miles east of the city on the Bladensburg road, where we encamped.  There we were comfortably situated under the circumstances.  The nights were clear and cold, and especially from three o'clock till sunrise.  There were heavy frosts every morning; and the tents gleamed and sparkled in the first rays of the rising sun like thousands of diamonds, radiating their scintillating sparks and hues in the most brilliant beauty.

The 61st Regiment, P. V., under Colonel Hayes, was encamped near us.  We heard but little of what is transpiring in military circles.  It is utterly impossible to approximate the number of troops in the vicinity of the Capital.  The whole region of country around is thickly studded with the tents peopled by the soldiers.

Traveling through Washington in military dress is attended with many inconveniences unless the traveller has the proper passports, the Provost Marshall is anxiously solicitous to know the business of every man in military attire when absent from camp.  I have not as yet come in collision with his excellency, Provost Marshall, Gen'l Porter, as I have not yet been outside the line of our camping ground since we pitched our tents.  The soldiers here are very much chagrinned at the strictness of the military regulations.  Many desire to visit the city, but their desires are generally frustrated.  This is undoubtedly beneficial to them, as it prevents them from idling away their time in profligacy and drunkenness.  In consequence we have generally an empty guard house, which was quite the reverse when at Camp Curtin.  But I must cease, and pack for a march, as a messenger has just arrived with orders.


Well, after a dreary march here we are, and I must resume anew.  On the 25th ult., with wind blowing fiercely and rain pelting pitilessly we marched to a point about one mile and half from the Chain Bridge on the sacred soil of the Old Dominion.  It was 9 o'clock in the evening, after we reached the point assigned for our encampment.  After the Regiment had descended a steep hill the baggage train followed.  The night was as dark as Pluto's regions, and very stormy.   In descending a steep hill, several of the front wagons capsized directly in the deep cut road, so that the rest could not advance.  So the regiment, having crossed a noisy, deep brook, and ascended a steep hill, was compelled to quarter on the soaking bosom of Old Mother Earth all night.  Our clothes were saturated with rain, stockings wet from fording the stream; and as we were the advance regiment, and near the enemy's pickets to crown our uncomfortable positions, we were not permitted to have camp fires to dry our clothes.  I tied my horse to a tree, and laid all night on the ground.  Contrary to expectation, I arose next morning, without feeling any inconvenience from the exposure.  We succeeded in getting our camp equipage, and put up our tents.

On Saturday, we were ordered to take the field to relieve the pickets, who reported a difficulty with the enemy; but when we arrived, the rebels had retired.  We then returned, and striking tents, marched several miles, near Bailey's Cross Roads and Falls Church, where we are now encamped, in a young orchard belonging to an officer now in the secesh army.  His residence is the head quarters of General Hancock, formerly from Penna., to whose brigade we are attached.

The whole appearance of Virginia is most deplorable.  Desolation, ruin and devastation of the worst description have made the whole county barren.  With her children arrayed against each other, with her wealth scattered, her resources beggared, her future will be most terrible.  Notwithstanding the thorough discipline of the army, and the stern, rigid rules enforced, wherever it goes, the footsteps of dreaded war leave their imprint.  Half a century will not efface the landmarks made here.

But I must conclude.  I will write to you again, upon the first favorable opportunity.

Your friend,
J. F. Huber
Ass't Surgeon, 49th Regt., P. V. R. C.


1 comment:

  1. I have to give a lot of credit to surgeons - or any doctor for that matter - who practiced during those times. Having to treat as many as they did amidst the chaos and with the limited equipment available is no easy task.