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Published on June 06, 2016

A medical curiosity

A medical curiosity

It was in our Harwich Port garage, I suspect, for close to a hundred years.

Screwed to the wall of what was once a carriage house, it was put there, I assume, by my grandfather. We used it to store jars of nails and dried-out tubes of caulk. It had certainly been there since I was a child. I remember rummaging through it as I puttered on the workbench below.

It was a box, with a lock, about 20 inches square, made of heavy wood, with compartments inside. On the door, old fashioned letters spelled E. B. Dalton Surgeon, USV.I never paid much attention to it.

“Surgeon”…and “US” indicated to me that it may have belonged to a colleague of my grandfather’s. He was a surgeon with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I. He worked in a field hospital and was, himself, wounded. Or perhaps it was from his adventures on the Mexican border, where he served with the Massachusetts National Guard following the mischief caused by Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa.

We have a photo of my grandfather’s medical unit, dated 1914. The ambulances are all horse-drawn carriages. And the box looked like it might have fit aboard one of those wagons… perhaps the “V” stood for veterinarian (what with all those horses), I thought.

But whatever it was, it didn’t belong to my grandfather, it belonged to someone named Dalton.

In an effort to simplify and de-clutter, my mother wanted to sell it at auction. That inspired me, after all these years, to turn to Google.

E.B. Dalton

E.B. Dalton, U.S.V.

I typed in the letters: E. B. Dalton, U.S.V.

A cascade of search results spilled down the computer screen.

E. B. Dalton was Edward Barry Dalton, born in Lowell in 1834. And U.S.V. stands for U.S. Volunteers. Turns out Dalton was a very senior medical officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. A graduate of Harvard (his portrait hangs in Memorial Hall), he did his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, residency at St. Luke’s and enlisted as surgeon of the 36th New York Infantry in 1861. He served in the Peninsular Campaign, where he contracted malaria, and at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania.

I kept Googling. Seems Dr. Dalton rose to serve as medical inspector of the 9th Corps, and medical director of the Department of Virginia. With Grant’s push south in the final year of the war, he was responsible for establishing field hospitals and evacuating tens of thousand of casualties. According to my research, he also developed the design of an ambulance with suspension to help in the transportation of wounded.  His wartime record is well detailed in his memorial.

(His brother, John Call Dalton, I learned, was also a very prominent Massachusetts and Civil War doctor, with many scientific accomplishments… but that’s another thread.)

I was stunned to discover that while serving on the general medical staff during Grant’s final offensive, E. B. Dalton cared for one of the the most famous soldiers of the Civil War, Joshua Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, of course, was colonel of the 20th Maine (in peacetime he was a professor of rhetoric) and hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the Civil War, and the high water mark of the Confederacy. There, Chamberlain successfully defended the Union’s left flank with a bold counter-attack, bayonets fixed, and so prevented disaster.

Wounded six times and the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Chamberlain was promoted to brigadier general and was given the honor of commanding the troops who received Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

But, at Petersburg, Chamberlain received a horrific wound, thought to be mortal, described in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion” as “a shot wound involving both buttocks and the urethra.”

Chamberlain was placed under the care of Dr. Dalton, who ordered his evacuation north.

Who knows, perhaps those orders were drafted at our desk?

Chamberlain went on to become president of Bowdoin College and governor of Maine. He died in 1914 of the wound received at Petersburg, and is said to be the last Civil War veteran to die of his wounds.

After the war, Dr. Dalton practiced medicine in New York City, and was chair of the Metropolitan Board of Health. Suffering from pleurisy, he moved to the South of France, then returned to Boston to practice at Massachusetts General, and to teach at Massachusetts Medical College. Illness caused him to retire to the Santa Barbara, California, where he died in 1872.

So why do I refer to the desk as a medical curiosity? Because I don’t know how it came into my grandfather’s possession. It’s a mystery. Since they were both Army doctors from Massachusetts, my best guess is my grandfather picked it up at a U.S. Army medical supply depot somewhere, but I don’t know.

What’s most important is not the desk itself, but the unexpected and fascinating portal into the past, and to Civil War medical history.  It’s a very real connection – a random chance to revisit and explore our past, and consider the achievements and service of those who came before us, who constructed the foundation on which modern medicine rests.

[Featured Image: Doug Karlson’s gradfather, Norman McLean Scott (second from right), commanding a medical unit of the Massachusetts National Guard, El Paso, TX, 1914]