Monday, April 16, 2012

Charles Beneulyn Johnson- Hospital Steward

In the Spring of 1861, Charles Beneulyn Johnson was a young man of 17 years, just completing his primary education at Pocahontas, Bond County, Illinois. Fort Sumter had been fired upon, war had come, and many of the young men 'round about would enlist in 90 day regiments then forming after Lincolns call for 75,000 volunteers. Johnson would not be among them. His plan was to further his education and he, at least for now, saw no point in joining up. He was the only male of his household and for the time being he would follow the plow, dream of the halls of learning, and follow the war news from the safety of home. He was not caught up in the patriotic fervor that would grip so many young men of the time, nor was he inclined to seek glory. Besides, the war would be over soon and the other young men would return with their stories and life would be resumed as before. 1861.

He would continue his tilling, planting, and harvesting throughout the next 15 months, following the news, counting the casualties, and the days until he would resume his education. The 90 Days men returned on furlough, then returned to the war only now as 3 Years men. The sight of their uniforms and smart discipline nearly enticed the young farmer to follow, but only nearly as his heart and mind were still set on school, not soldiering. Bull Run was fought, as were Wilsons Creek, Belmont, Shiloh, the Seven Days fighting around Richmond, and countless other battles and skirmishes while the young scholar remained at home.

By mid Summer of 1862 the news of the war had lost its appeal to Johnson. He still followed it but not with the same zeal as before. Finally, after another call for volunteers in July, a war meeting was held at Pocahontas in early August. A similar meeting had been earlier held at Greenville, the county seat, and a friend informed him that many of their friends had enlisted.

Johnson writes:

Joining the army is not unlike measles, whooping cough, or even smallpox, for it is catching.” [1]


I let go the handles of the plow and left it sticking in the furrow.” [2]

That day at Pocahontas he found himself enlisted in one of two companies Bond county would send to the war to satisfy this latest call for volunteers. They, along with men from Mercer county, would form companies E and F, 130th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. They would muster into Federal service October 25, 1862 at Camp Butler, near Springfield.

Although he was an infantryman, Johnson seemed from the first to be destined for something else. He would drill and march with his company and regiment, but it would not last long.

In mid January 1863, the 130th regiment was battling disease and the elements more than the Confederates. They were occupying Fort Pickering, below Memphis, Tennessee, when one of Johnsons closest friends, Corporal Harlow M. Street fell ill with typhoid. Johnson escorted the stricken man to the regimental hospital in Memphis and remained there, nursing and making him as comfortable as possible for several weeks. As Johnson was in and about the hospital for this length of time he became acquainted with the surgeons and and they liked him. They persuaded to stay and he was soon transferred from the line to be an attache, or hospital orderly. This would set the path the young farmer would travel for the rest of his life. Sadly his friend, Street, died at Memphis February 8, 1863.
Johnson immediately fell into the routine of hospital life, which suited him better than the “irregular and mixed duties of a soldier left about the city.” [3] He would devote any free time he could have in the study of medicine, reading the slim library the hospital staff had and his thirst for learning was being quenched even among the wreckage of war. He would be promoted to Hospital Steward in December 1863 and serve in that capacity until February 1865 when the 130th was consolidated with the 77th Illinois and he was again assigned to the ranks. Rules did not allow for officers or NCO's commissioned after the start of the war to remain in their positions if the elder regiment had a man serving in that capacity. Once again however that did not last long and he was re-instated in July when the remaining men of the 77th mustered out, including their Hospital Steward, and the 130th was revived as the 130th Illinois Infantry Battalion (130th Illinois Infantry, Revived). The 130th mustered out in September 1865.
During his time as Hospital Steward for his regiment, Johnson says:

I saw about every form of wound shot, shell, or bullet could inflict on a man.” [4]

He would return to the plow for a short time, work in a pharmacy at Flora, Illinois, and enter medical school in the Summer of 1866 at the University of Michigan, where he studied for 6 months. He would have a long road to travel before he was a credentialed MD. Unable to return to school in the Autumn of 1867 due to a lack of money, he occupied his time as a teacher and following a practicing physician, building on his knowledge of medicine. He would practice medicine without the diploma until finally, in 1871 he returned to his studies at The Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. There he graduated in the Spring of 1872.

Much later he would turn to writing, leaving future generations a glimpse into the life of a country doctor. Mostly written from a more enlightened perspective afforded by age, wisdom, and medical advancement, he looks with amazement upon the years when anyone regardless of aptitude could become a doctor, and that the simple things such as hand washing and instrument sterilization were little practiced if indeed thought about. Had they been it is doubtless the final tally of the dead would have been far smaller.
One of his books, Muskets and Medicine, or Army Life in the Sixties, will be of particular interest to those wishing to delve into first hand accounts of the Medical Service. In it Johnson provides an appendix enumerating casualty numbers of varying causes from battle wounds to disease, including the type of disease. His figures indicate that 109,065 Union men died in battle or later died of their wounds. For the Confederates he lists an estimate of 92,000. For the toll that disease took, he only lists numbers for the Federal side, giving a total of 201,769 deaths, with another 285,545 discharged from service as a result of disease. He acknowledges that accident claimed the lives of many soldiers but gives no definitive figure for this cause of death. He does say however that given the number of men handling loaded guns at times of relative calm it was a wonder there were not more deaths. The totals are not referenced to a source, so one must assume they are inaccurate to some degree, but they do give some insight into the causes that made up the final death toll.
Charles Beneulyn Johnson would practice medicine well into the 20th century, and it all began when he first nursed his dying friend back in Memphis, in the early days of 1863. A young man bent on gaining an education found his place during this country's fieriest ordeal. He died May 31, 1928 and is buried in Champaign, Illinois.
1- Muskets and Medicine, Johnson, Charles B., 1917, page 30. Retrieved from Googlebooks
2- Ibid, page 35
3- Ibid, page 58
4- Sixty Years in Medical Harness, Johnson, Charles B., 1926, page 5. Retrieved from Hathi Trust,
Information on the 130th and 77th Illinois Infantry from The Illinois USGenWeb Project,
Photo retrieved from from Muskets and Medicine page 129

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