Civil War: Hospital rats

Here’s a story from 150 years ago about hospital rats. Happy Holidays!

It’s been a little over a year since we last checked in on Camp Winder, the hospital camp for Confederate soldiers located near modern-day Byrd Park. When I first wrote about it, the initial reviews during its first year of operation were decidedly poor. Reports of unsanitary conditions and mistreatment of patients plagued the hospital. But, as time passed and resources were better allocated, things steadily started to improve at Camp Winder. In the summer of 1864, the Richmond Enquirer wrote articles praising the conditions at the camp:

The hospital has been recently re-modeled and repaired. The improvements add greatly to its convenience. It is healthily located, and supplied by wells with clear, cold, pleasant water. – Has a register, bath house, library, and a bakery at which the whole of the bread for the hospital is baked. Richmond Enquirer, June 16th, 1864

Despite all these improvements, the hospital had a rat problem. Not actual rats, but what the local newspapers referred to as “Hospital Rats”–men of low character, trouble-makers, using their convalescence at Camp Winder as an opportunity to commit crimes and cause disorder in Richmond. They’re the kind of people for whom the modern phrase “this is why we can’t have nice things” was probably invented. In September, a handful of them staged a robbery on Main Street:

GARROTTING CASE. – On Sunday night, between eight and nine o’clock, as Mr. Thos. H. Hewett, orderly sergeant of the Blues, was coming into the city from Mr. Thos. Ruskell’s, he was attacked near the Old Fair Grounds, at the head of Main street, by three soldiers, and robbed of what money they had, badly beaten and shot through the arm. It is feared that he will loose his arm from the wound, the bone being badly shattered. When the robbers first attacked him one of them threw a blanket over his head and pulled it tight around his neck. Mr. Hewett being an athletic man and one not inclined to submit kindly to this sort of treatment, made desperate fight and the robbers found it necessary to their safety to disable him. The robbers are believed to be “hospital rats” from Camp Winder, fellows who have been malingering and lying up snugly since the war. Richmond Sentinel, September 27th, 1864

In November of 1864, an effort was made to remove the hospital rats altogether. Rumors had circulated that patients had formed a gambling ring on the hospital property, playing various dice and card games. Detectives were brought in to root them out:

HOSPITAL RATS. – It having been communicated to Major Carrington that a number of the patients of Camp Winder Hospital daily spent a great part of their time in the old field, near the Reservoir, gambling, the Major, on yesterday, sent out detectives Fitchett and Woodward to look after the parties. The detectives caught and arrested fourteen men gambling in the old field, some having sweat cloths, chuck-a-luck cloths, and faro cloths spread upon the sward, and the others betting at them. Considerable amounts of money were staked. The parties were taken into custody and brought into the city, and by the Provost Marshal were sent to the Castle Thunder Hospital.11/29/1864

When the Richmond Sentinel covered the same story, they described the scene, saying “when caught, they were in full blast, gambling in the old field near the reservoir. It is said they are in the habit of staying out there four, five, and six hours together, on the coldest days.” That is some serious gambling commitment, guys.

I wasn’t able to find any more articles about ne’er-do-wells at Camp Winder after those arrests in late November, but who knows if Camp Winder ever fully got rid of its rat problem. For anyone familiar with the notorious Castle Thunder, it’s a guarantee that those who were transferred faced much less promising prospects there.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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