Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pain to portraits: U.S. Patent Office hospital in Washington

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in Washington are housed
 in what during the Civil War was the U.S. Patent Office building.
A 19th-century view of the U.S. Patent Office building, which was used as a hospital for
 soldiers during  the Civil War. (Library of Congress collection)

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In the mid-20th century, the colossal building at the corner of F and 8th streets in Washington that once housed the U.S. Patent Office barely survived the wrecking ball, finally earning a reprieve when President Eisenhower ordered that it be preserved. Today, the Greek Revival structure houses the fabulous Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, a collection of three centuries of America's artistic achievement. It's difficult to imagine strolling down its pristine corridors today that the building was the scene of immense suffering more than 150 years ago.

Walt Whitman served as a nurse
 during the Civil War.
In 1857, the U.S. Patent Office building, which housed displays of  models that inventors submitted with their patent applications, was a major tourist destination, drawing more than 100,000 visitors. Clara Barton, who would gain fame during the Civil War as a nurse, worked as a clerk there -- the first female government employee to receive the same salary as a man.

Soon after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the building served as a temporary barracks for Union soldiers and later as a hospital and morgue as casualties poured into Washington from nearby battlefields. Wounded lay in cots on the second floor, jammed among glass cases that contained the latest inventions and historical treasures. Among those who tended to the wounded there was Walt Whitman, the famed journalist and poet, whose brother served as a lieutenant in 51st New York.

A frequent visitor during the Civil War to what he called "that noblest of Washington buildings," Whitman later wrote about the sick and mangled men he saw there:
It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot -- the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees --occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d -- sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative -- such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office."
 On March 6, 1865, President Lincoln held his second inaugural ball  on the third floor
 of the U.S. Patent Office  building. Here's the third floor of the building today,
 greatly changed since Lincoln's day.  

Maria Hall, the beautiful daughter of a Washington lawyer, was among the nurses who served at the U.S. Patent Office hospital. She was initially rejected to serve as a nurse by U.S. Army Superintendent of Nurses Dorothea "Dragon" Dix, who preferred nurses to be older than 35 and more matronly than the 25-year-old Hall. Failing to discourage her, the wife of a prominent U.S. Patent Office employee finally agreed to let Hall and her sister tend to wounded soldiers there in August 1861. "Well, girls, here they are," Almira Fales said, "with everything to be done for them. You will find work enough."

Nurse Maria Hall. (Photo courtesy Barbara Powers)
Soldiers at the hospital were "very dirty, the 'sacred soil' of Virginia clinging to their clothing and persons in plenty," according an account written shortly after the war. "Their hair was matted and tangled, and often, not free from vermin, and they were as Mrs. Fales had said, a rough set."

Hall, beloved by soldiers for her work after the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862, tended to the wounded at at the U.S. Patent Office hospital for nearly a year and under "her gentle ministrations cleanliness took the place of filth, order of disorder, and profanity was banished."

On March 6, 1865, the third floor of the building was used for President Lincoln's second inaugural ball -- one of the grandest events of the president's tenure in the White House. A ticket for the event cost the princely sum $10, and the menu included oyster stew, pheasant and six flavors of ice cream. For Whitman, it was a stark contrast to the scenes of horror he saw in the building earlier in the war:

I have been up to look at the dance and supper rooms, for the inauguration ball, at the Patent office; and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view since, fill’d with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburgh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended.
Few direct connections to the Civil War and the hospital exist today. In a gallery of modern art on the third floor, the carving "C.H.F," presumably by a Civil War soldier, and the date Aug. 8, 1864 are preserved under Plexiglas near a window ledge.


Brockett, Linus Pierpont and Vaughn, Mary C., Woman's Work in the Civil War, A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience, Philadelphia, Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., 1867.

Whitman, Walt, Specimens Days & Collect, Philadelphia, Rees Welsh & Co., 1882

The initials "C.H.F," perhaps carved by a Civil War soldier, and Aug. 8, 1864 are preserved
 near a  window ledge on the third floor of the National Portrait Gallery. 

1 comment:

  1. You might mention that the Patent Office during the Civil War was also home to the Washington relics collected in 1861-62 from Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee and his family, and transported to the Patent Office for safekeeping by General Irvin McDowell. Some of the relics would be returned to the Lee Family many years later, and many are owned and on display at Mount Vernon today with the permission of the Lees.