Greater Parkersburg

Civil War Cannon

Civil War in Greater Parkersburg

Civil War Trails Program
To promote its Civil War heritage, the Greater Parkersburg CVB has joined the Civil War Trails multi-state program that identifies, interprets and creates driving tours of Civil War campaigns and sites. Interpretive markers with maps, illustrations and text have been installed in six locations in the immediate area.

Click Here to download information and the locations of all six local markers

Interested in learning more about this region's Oil, Gas & Civil War Heritage District? 
 Here is a downloadable link containing our free brochure detailing a unique driving tour with special museums and site stops!

The Civil War In Greater Parkersburg

Written by Robert D. Crooks, M.D. 

While there were no significant battles fought in Wood County during the Civil War, the county was greatly changed by this greatest event in American history.

When the war started, Parkersburg was a sleepy southern town.  It lay at the junction of the Northwestern and Staunton turnpikes and also, the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers.  It was on the mainline of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

It is a little wonder that when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 that the western counties, wanting to stay in the Union, formed a new state.  Wood County provided more leaders for this cause than any other county and because of its strategic location became a dominant force in the establishment of West Virginia.

Union General George B. McClellan located his headquarters in Parkersburg on May 21, 1861, and Wood County remained under Union control throughout the war. It became a major troop transfer and supply center.  In recognition of its vital military importance the Federal government constructed a fort on Mount Logan overlooking Parkersburg and the two rivers, naming it Fort Boreman honoring West Virginia’s first governor.

The only military action in the county was at Belleville on July 19, 1863, when Confederate General John H. Morgan attempted to cross the Ohio River after his raid through southern Ohio.  Three hundred raiders successfully entered West Virginia while the remaining followed General Morgan into northern Ohio where they were captured.

The last Wood County Civil War veteran died in 1943.  Wood County had given 3,000 soldiers to the Union army and 500 to the Confederacy.  Out of this bloody conflict there emerged a new state - West Virginia.  Parkersburg arose to become a bustling urban area whose newfound importance was symbolized by its wealth, civic pride and expanding population.  Parkersburg had changed during the war from a sleepy, southern village to a prominent and progressive city.


Written by Robert D. Crooks, M.D.

My interest in the Civil War began when I was 10 years old.  I was fascinated by stories of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson and the Civil War in general.

When I was 13, my father, who was a physician, asked if I would like to meet a patient of his who had fought in the Civil War.  He took me to see William Satow, an 87-year old Civil War veteran who had fought for the Union.

Mr. Satow enlisted in the Union Army when he was only 16 years old.  He was born in Germany in 1848, and his family immigrated to America in 1851 after the German Revolution.  When the Civil War began in 1861, his oldest brother enlisted in the First West Virginia Cavalry.  Another brother joined him in 1863, and Billy Satow enlisted in 1864.  His first battle was at Cedar Creek in October 1864.  His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Shenandoah under General Sheridan.  In 1865 his regiment was transferred to Petersburg, Virginia where it fought in the Battles of Five Forks, Saylor’s Creek and Appomattox Courthouse.

At Saylor’s Creek he was wounded when struck in the chest with a Minnie ball.  He was taken to a field hospital where the surgeons said they could not effectively treat his wound.  He stayed the night in the hospital then was sent back to his regiment which was at Appomattox Courthouse.  Two days later General Lee surrendered, and the war was over.

Billie Satow carried that Minnie ball near his heart until his death at age 93 in 1941.  After his death, Billy Satow’s grandson donated the saber his grandfather had carried during the war to the Blennerhassett Museum in Parkersburg.    

Bill Satow was fortunate that the surgeons did not operate.  During the Civil War 62% of those with chest wounds died, but if the surgeons operated, the mortality rate approached 100%.

In the Civil War 600,000 men died.  This was a greater number than the deaths in both World War I and World War II combined.  The science of medicine had not advanced as had the science of warfare, and medical knowledge at the time of the Civil War was primitive.  Doctors did not understand infection, and germ theory had not yet been advanced.  There was no attempt at sterile technique, and antibiotics were unknown.

While the common soldier was at high risk of being shot and killed in combat, he had an even greater risk of dying of disease.  In the Civil War, twice as many died of disease as from gunshot wounds.  Dysentery, measles, smallpox, pneumonia and malaria were the greatest enemies.  Poor hygiene and lack of adequate sanitation along with the cold weather and the lack of shelter and proper clothing made the army corps a breeding ground of disease.

More men died in the Civil War than in all the previous American wars combined.  More men died at Antietam in 1862 than on any other day in American history, and there were more than twice as many casualties at Antietam as there were on D-Day.

The advance of military weapons had seen the flintlock replaced by the percussion cap rifle, and the smooth bore by the rifled barrel.  The breech loading rifle had been introduced early in the war, but it was not widely accepted until 1863.  After the repeating rifle’s acceptance, man’s ability to kill increased by seven times.  The increased power to kill and wound was not matched by any increase in the physician’s ability to heal.  The discovery of ether and chloroform had come before the war, but their availability was limited.

The lack of understanding of infection was a great deterrent to medical care.  The surgeons did not wash their hands before or between operations.  The surgeon often wiped his scalpel across his bloody apron, or even worse he would hone the blade across the sole of his shoe to sharpen it.  This even happened during the operation.             

When the Confederate surgeons ran out of thread, he used hair from a horse’s tail for sutures.  It was noted that wounds closed in this manner had less infection.  This was because the horse hair had to be boiled before its use.  This was not because of sanitation, of which the surgeon knew nothing, but because the heat made the horse hair more pliable so it could be used like thread. 

When a soldier had a gunshot wound, the surgeon probed it with his finger.  There were no gloves.  If the bullet was found, it was pried out.  Bullet wounds of the extremities often resulted in amputation of the limb to prevent infection and gangrene.  Records show that 75% of the soldiers who had a limb amputated lived. 

Bullets caused 94% of all wounds.  Artillery fire from cannon balls and shrapnel caused 5.5% of all wounds.  Sabers, swords and bayonets caused less that one-half of 1% of the wounds.

In July 1863, for three days the two armies mauled each other at Gettysburg.  There were 22,000 casualties jammed into the small town of 2,000 inhabitants.  The wounded were separated into two groups, one for those who had no hope of surviving, and the other for those who were thought to have a chance to survive.  Those who had no hope were laid in rows in the fields and woods where the men moaned and twitched in pain until death relieved them of their suffering. 

During the Civil War, the Union lost 360,000 men, 110,000 of these from battle wounds and 250,000 from disease.  The Confederates did not keep good records of battle deaths and many of those that were recorded were destroyed in the Richmond fire of 1865.  It was estimated that 258,000 Confederate soldiers died in the war.  Sixty percent of the Union deaths were from disease while 67% of Confederate deaths were caused by disease.

The comparison of Civil War deaths to the Mexican War deaths is revealing.  The Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 saw 90% of its deaths result from disease and only 10% due to battle wounds.  This had changed by the Civil War to 60% from disease and 40% from battle wounds.  These statistics reflect on the policies in place at the time.

During the Civil War, induction physical examinations were a sham.  One surgeon had recruits march before him, and all who did not fall down were accepted.  Another surgeon accepted anyone who had all his limbs and sensory organs.  Another doctor asked each recruit if they had ever been sick?  Had they ever had rheumatism?  Did they have varicose veins?  If the recruit answered any of these questions in the affirmative, the surgeon would give him a heavy thump on the chest, and if he did not fall down, he was accepted.

One medical doctor was so appalled by the quality of the recruits that he wrote, “the army has become the grand repository of the lame, the blind and the chronically ill, so that their townships may be relieved of the burden of their care.”

Some regiments lost 50% of their men before their first battle.  This alarming statistic was due to the soldier’s lack of immunity.  Most were from farms and had not been exposed to contagious diseases.  Measles, mumps, whooping cough and small pox were overwhelming to those with no immunity.  The most prevalent disease, however, was diarrhea.  It was commonly called “the runs,” the “Virginia quick step,” the “Tennessee trots,” or simply the “bowel complaint.”  It is reported that 75% of the soldiers suffered from this problem.

The Union Army had 11,000 surgeons, and the Confederate Army has 2,600.  Before the war, most physicians gained their medical training as apprentices to practicing doctors.  Normally they were trained one year and then went into practice on their own.  The better medical schools in the North were the University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and the Medical College in New York City.  In the South were the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Tulane in New Orleans and the Medical College of South Carolina at Charleston.

When John Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Dr. Hunter McGuire, a native of Winchester, Virginia, then at Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia sensed that a great conflict was at hand between the North and the South.  McGuire, who later became Stonewall Jackson’s surgeon, influenced 250 Southerners at Jefferson Medical School to transfer to the Medical College of Virginia to finish their training.  Most of these became regimental surgeons for the Confederacy.

When the Civil War began, the Union Army Medical Corps was under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Lawson, a veteran of the War of 1812.  He was an aged and ill man who died within a month.  He was replaced by Dr. C. A. Finley, another veteran of the War of 1812.  Dr. Finley cared more about the budget than the medical care of the soldiers. When asked to approve an Army hospital for South Carolina, he refused on the premise that the weather there was always mild, eliminating the need for a hospital.

The drugs most commonly used during the Civil Was were castor oil, calomel, quinine and a combination of mercury and chalk known as “Blue Mass.”  There was also a mixture of the bark of willow, poplar and dogwood suspended in whiskey and known as “Old Indigenous.”  This was used for almost any complaint a soldier might have.  Snake bites were treated with gunpowder suspended in whiskey. 

Not many advances in medicine came out of the Civil War.  Several notable exceptions were the women who served.  From Clara Barton came the American Red Cross.  From the Catholic sisters came their church’s interest in establishing hospitals across the country.  From Dorothea Dix came the re-organization of the nurses.

Because of the public outcry against the woeful management of medical care in regards to infection and injury, a sanitary commission composed of prominent citizens was formed.  This unique organization played an important role in improving medical care.  It was modeled after the British Commission, which investigated the care of the wounded in the Crimean War.  They investigated the appalling living conditions and medical care in the army, then pressured the army and the Congress to reform medical care and services.  Because of their persistence, sanitation improved, soldier’s rations were better and nursing by women was encouraged.  In major cities fairs were held, which raised $25,000,000 for the work of the commission.  This included the purchase of medical supplies and equipment and even the complete outfitting of a hospital ship.  The War Department commissioned Dorothea Dix as the first superintendent of Army nurses.  The women’s nurse corps was a great morale booster to the discouraged soldiers.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman devised a system of field evacuation what was a great improvement over the past and was in use through World War I.  A new surgeon general was appointed, as well as a corps of medical inspectors.  Dr. William Hammond, the new Surgeon General, established an extensive medical research museum and reorganized the training of doctors. 

The ambulance corps, which defected after the first Battle of Bull Run, was eliminated, and a competent and effective corps replaced it.  The little progress that came out of the war was terribly out of balance with the immense amount of death and suffering.

A better understanding of anesthesia was a result of the Civil War.  The doctors gained invaluable experience and went back to their towns and villages with a greater understanding of human suffering and death.  They became wiser and more compassionate physicians.  Even so, the lessons of war are never worth the horrendous cost in lives.

There is a footnote to the Billy Satow story.  Several years after the war, he went west to join General Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry which was fighting the Indians.  Because of their admiration of Custer, many veterans wanted to re-enlist in the cavalry.  Due to his limited service in the Union Army during the Civil War, Billy had little tenure and was turned down.  On his way back home on a steamboat, he was approached by two men who were organizing a new business venture and wanted him to join them.  By then he had had enough travel and just wanted to return to his farm above Belleville, West Virginia, so Billy Satow turned them down.  A week later he learned that the strangers were the two James brothers, Jesse and Frank.  Their new business venture was bank robbing.

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