150 years ago, just east of Byrd Park, sat the Confederacy’s largest hospital: Camp Winder.
While Chimborazo is the best-remembered Civil War hospital in Richmond, it certainly wasn’t the only one. In fact, several dozen hospitals existed in the city at various points during the war, ranging from full-blown camps to the converted homes of private citizens. Winder Hospital was in many ways the “sister hospital” to Chimborazo, the only other camp of comparable size in Richmond. With over 98 buildings, it sat on 125 acres of farmland and accommodated nearly 5,000 patients. The camp was situated on what was then the western edge of town in an area just east of what is now Byrd Park. Supposedly some of the former ward buildings of the hospital were converted into homes and can be found still standing in the area, particularly along Powhatan Street.
Back in 1863, the hospital was in full swing. The Battle of Chancellorsville had inundated the city with wounded and the hospital was running at an unusually high capacity. Since it opened in April 1862, Winder had struggled with staffing shortages and a reputation for unsanitary conditions. After a stay at Winder Hospital in May of 1862, Confederate soldier John Tucker from the 5th Alabama wrote that it was “the nastiest place I ever saw in my life.” The Summer of 1863 was probably a difficult time for hospital staff as they struggled to handle the additional numbers. Rumors of the mistreatment of patients began circulating, leading to a back-and-forth debate on the editorial pages of the city’s newspapers.
In late May, the Richmond Whig published a letter from a recovering soldier to the Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, accusing those running the hospital of selling rations:
Dear Sir: – I am detailed for light hospital duty by Gen. Lee, on account of disability for field service, but on coming to this Camp was put on the guard. I have been here since the 1st of March, and on all occasions have confined myself to the rules and regulations of the place. But there is one thing I cannot conform to, I cannot be content with short rations, when full allowances are drawn from the commissary for me. You do not allow it and I think, in justice to myself and comrades you should know something about it. This is an imposition, not only on the soldier, but on the government. I hope you will be pleased to enquire why our rations are SOLD by this gentleman in gold lace, when at no time since I have been here have I had enough to eat.
Very respectfully, your obedient serv’t
JAMES WADE, Co. G, 14th La. Vol.
This letter sparked a number of other responses from soldiers coming to the defense of the hospital staff. From the Richmond Sentinel:
In the army much has been said of the ill treatment at this hospital, but if you are ever sent here for the recovery of your health, you may rest assured that you will be well cared for, as the kind hearted ladies at this division (No. 4) are very attentive to their respective duties; and as long as they are able to attend to the sick, and visit their wards with nourishment suitable for your diet, you may rest assured that you will be speedily restored to health, and again ready for duty.
Co. A, 24th Va. Vols.
All of which prompted an official response from the Richmond Sentinel:
WINDER HOSPITAL. – There seems to prevail a general impression, not only among citizens, but also among the soldiers that Camp Winder is a very uncomfortable and gloomy place. This is a very great mistake, which we, as visitors, wish to correct. The wards we visited principally were those under the charge of Mrs. Irving, and not only are things neat and comfortable, but there is also much kindness and tenderness towards the sick and wounded. She always has a pleasant word for each one, and is known to many by the endearing title of “Mother.” Anything that can be had to tempt the delicate appetites of those who do not relish ordinary food is procured. Nor can we speak too highly of the surgeons and others connected with this Hospital, who are faithfully performing their duties, and thereby nobly serving their country.
While opinions clearly differed as to the care provided at Winder, no one can deny the important role it played, especially in June of 1863 with battles near the capital city. The size of the hospital would only continue to grow as the war raged on, eventually growing larger than Chimborazo, earning it the designation of the largest hospital in the Confederacy. More wounded would arrive after the nearby Battle of Brandy Station, which we talked about in my last column.