The Chimborazo Hospital

Richmonders (and especially Church Hill residents) probably need no introduction to Chimborazo Park. The large grassy park overlooking the James River is a popular spot in the city–but it wasn’t always a park. During the Civil War, this same spot was home to the largest military hospital in the world.

Richmonders (and especially Church Hill residents) probably need no introduction to Chimborazo Park. The large grassy park overlooking the James River is a popular spot in the city–but it wasn’t always a park. During the Civil War, this same spot was home to the largest military hospital in the world.

It didn’t start out that way. Construction began on Chimborazo Hill shortly after the war broke out with the intent of building winter quarters for Confederate soldiers stationed near Richmond. However, as the size and scale of the war became apparent, the Confederate government had to scramble to accommodate the large numbers of wounded soldiers streaming into Richmond from the front lines. While wounded soldiers were coming into the city, many of the soldiers initially camped in and around Richmond were marched north to battle and no longer able to make use of the barracks on Chimborazo Hill. Dr. Samuel P. Moore, the Surgeon General of the Confederate States of America, saw an opportunity and converted the barracks to a hospital that winter.

The sheer size of the hospital (consisting of over 100 wooden buildings) and its placement on the hill attracted the attention of the city’s population. The Richmond Daily Whig reported on the new hospital in early November:

CHIMBORAZO HOSPITAL – The plateau overlooking Rocketts, known as Chimborazo Hill, has recently been covered with one-story wooden buildings, presenting the appearance of a large Danish village. These buildings were erected by direction of the Quartermaster General of the C.S.A., and were originally designed for winter quarters for a portion of the army, but the determination now is, we believe, to use them for hospital purposes. Two or three hundred sick soldiers are already quartered at the place. The location is said to be a healthy one, and affords an extended and picturesque view of river scenery and the adjacent low grounds. Daily Whig, 11/1/1861

The exact timing of when the conversion from winter barracks to the hospital seems to be a little bit unclear. A report from the Richmond Dispatch later in the same month describes the Chimborazo as winter barracks only:

Winter Quarters.–On the hill east of Richmond, known as Hospital Hill, or Chimborazo Heights, there has suddenly sprung up a city, which, while it does not rival the metropolis in architectural construction, makes a very formidable show in the number of its houses. These buildings have been put up for winter quarters, and will furnish accommodations for thousands of troops. It is worth any one’s trouble to go and see the new city of Chimborazo. Richmond Dispatch, 11/11/1861

Shortly after the decision was made to convert Chimborazo to a hospital, Moore assigned notable Richmond physician Dr. James B McCaw to the task of running the massive hospital. McCaw was already serving as a cavalryman in the war, but quickly took charge of the medical facility and organized it to serve the steadily increasing volume of sick and wounded soldiers in Richmond.

After the war, Chimborazo received significant praise for its efficient organization, sanitary practices, and relatively low death rate compared to other military hospitals at that time. Much of the credit was due to McCaw’s leadership and modern ideas of how to run a hospital. He would remain the surgeon-in-chief through the entire war–even continuing his duties on a voluntary basis after the city fell into Union hands in 1865.

So, next time you’re in Chimborazo Park walking your dog or just taking in the views of the James River, try to imagine the old hospital there. Much of Richmond’s Civil War past can be hard to visualize with all the newer buildings and changes over the years, but Chimborazo Park’s open landscape provides a blank slate to picture the buildings of a bustling Civil War hospital.

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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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