Baptists and the American Civil War: September 7, 1861

Henry Palmer, Wisconsin Surgeon General

Henry Palmer, Wisconsin Surgeon General

Today a medical doctor, Henry Palmer, joins the newly-mustered 7th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. An active laymen in the Janesville Baptist Church, Palmer’s career to date has taken him to the top of the world – literally.

Born in New Hartford, New York, in 1827, Palmer as a youngster worked on his father’s farm. From his early years, however, the medical profession appealed to the young man. His calling to medicine soon led him to places unexpected:

When nineteen years of age, he became a student at the Whitestown and Cazenovia Seminaries, and subsequently entered upon a course of teaching by which occupation he earned money to defray the expenses of his early medical studies. On attaining his majority, he found his health seriously impaired, and with the hope of a recovery, took passage on a vessel which accompanied the Grinnell Artic expedition of 1849, spending six months in a cruise in the Artic regions, touching at various points in Greenland and on Hudson Bay. In 1851, having recovered his health, he engaged in the study of medicine under the preceptorship of Drs. MARSH & ARMSBY, at Albany, N. Y., who at that time were eminent physcians of that city and were professors in the Albany Medical College. In 1854, our subject graduated from that institution, and with such high standing that he was at once appointed resident surgeon of the Marshall Infirmary at Troy, N. Y., which position he filled with ability and fidelity for a period of two years.

The Grinnell Expedition of 1850 (not 1849) was the first American effort, named after financier by Henry Grinnell, to ascertain the fate of British Captain Sir John Franklin’s fateful 1845 polar expedition. Franklin with a large contingent of men had sought to become the first to complete navigation of the Northwest Passage, and all 128 men perished in the failed attempt. The Grinnell Expedition uncovered evidence of Franklin’s Expedition and, after surviving a harrowing winter at the North Pole, returned safely the following summer.

Shortly after moving to Troy, Palmer married Edna Hoyt, and the couple eventually became the parents of six children. The couple moved to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1856, where Palmer became “one of the most eminent and successful physicians and surgeons in the state.”

The war, however, interrupts Palmer’s civilian life. He joins the 7th Regiment as a commissioned surgeon, and with his unit is assigned to the Army of the Potomac. His medical skill and coolness in the field does not go unnoticed. On April 4, 1862 President Lincoln appoints Palmer to as brigade surgeon of the “Iron Brigade,” composed of regiments from (then) western states who earned a reputation for valor and perseverance on the battlefield. The Iron Brigade suffers the highest battlefield casualties of any brigade during the war.

Stationed at York, Pennsylvania, Palmer supervises the construction of and then superintends the largest hospital in the United States (and considered the best hospital facility by many medical professionals of the day).

The high point of the war for Palmer occurs during the summer of 1863, when on June 28 Confederate Gen. Jubal Early captures York. One of York’s goals is to take the hospital’s supplies and hold the convalescents as prisoners. Learning of the Confederate general’s intentions, Palmer arms his patients and, with their help in holding off the enemy, secures the supplies before the Confederates temporarily capture the institution. Although the doctor is taken captive, he manages to escape during the nearby Battle of Gettysburg that takes place the following week. Returning to his hospital post, Palmer is immediately tasked with caring for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. For his valor, Palmer earns the nickname “The Fighting Surgeon.”

The following year, the good doctor once again defends his town and hospital by going on the offensive to thwart a second Confederate raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1864, Palmer is appointed Medical Inspector of the 8th Army Corps headquartered in Baltimore, a position he maintains until June 1865, whereupon he is placed in charge of Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, for the purpose of closing the hospital. He musters out of Union service on October 7, 1865. For outstanding service to his country, Palmer on March 13, 1866 is appointed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by brevet by President Johnson.

Returning to Janesville, Palmer resumes civilian medical practice for another decade. Afterwards, the doctor, a Republican in politics, is twice elected mayor of Janesville and serves as a community and business leader. He also becomes a founder of the Oakwood Retreat Association of Geneva, Wisconsin, a private hospital for the insane, serving two years as the institution’s Association president. Among his other medical appointments and honors, Palmer becomes a founding professor of operative surgury, clinical surgury and surgical pathology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago, Illinois. He also serves as Surgeon General of the state of Wisconsin.

Palmer’s wartime service is part of a larger story of medical advancements that the war, of necessity, brought about. Achieving a remarkably low mortality rate of two percent for all patients admitted at his York hospital, Palmer played a significant role in pioneering and modeling a higher level of patient care in the United States.

The doctor and his wife remain faithful Baptists throughout their lives.

Sources: “The Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock County, Wis.” Chicago: Acme, 1889, pp. 364-366; Wisconsin Stories, including photo (link); Grinnell Expedition (link)