Lovell General Hospital


Although no Civil War battles took place in Rhode Island, a hospital in Portsmouth, Rhode Island played a large role in caring for wounded on both sides of the conflict. In an area now known as the Melville Marina District, this hospital sat on ground that has seen numerous significant events in the last three centuries. 

During the Revolutionary War, the British scuttled numerous vessels in Rhode Island waters on 7 August 1778, and one of them, the HMS Orpheus ended up in this history rich neighborhood. No one could have imagined that less than 100 years after that war the United States would be torn apart and almost destroyed as a nation. The estimate of deaths for combatants ranges up to 620,000 for both sides and up to 50,000 for civilians. 

Early in the war there were only about 150 hospitals in the country and no formal nursing education. Once the battlefield carnage began, civilians and their organizations fortunately responded quickly and effectively, saving countless lives on both sides. Although the first field hospitals were in the Washington, D.C. area, the number of wounded made the need for more such facilities obvious. In May 1862, the surgeon general of the U.S. Army, William A. Hammond, authorized R.I. governor William Sprague to accommodate wounded and ill soldiers. 

Portsmouth Grove, Photo Credit: the Library of Congress
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Sprague and Hammond agreed on a site in Portsmouth as a good spot for a hospital in an area called Portsmouth Grove. Prior to the Civil War, it served as an amusement park and general place of entertainment such as clambakes and the hotel Portsmouth Grove House. Guests could arrive by steamship or railroad or by horse drawn carriage. The Grove House became the administration building for the Lovell General Hospital named after the U.S. Army surgeon general from 1818-1836, Joseph Lovell.

This hospital received its first influx of patients on July 6, 1862, mostly from the Battle of Mechanicsville in Virginia, which ended on June 27. These ill and wounded, both Union and Confederate, numbered 1,724 and were joined by nine surgeons and 108 male nurses. All were transported to Portsmouth on the steamers Atlantic and America while the hospital was still under construction. Prior to late summer of 1862 most patients were housed in tents, only possible in summer and fall in Rhode Island. 

By the end of the Civil War, this hospital treated 10,593 patients with jut 308 dying on site. They were buried in a cemetery nearby but starting in May 1868 their remains were disinterred then reburied at Cypress Hill National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Most patients were treated for typhoid fever and gunshot wounds, with most amputations being done closer to the battlefield. 

This hospital was a microcosm of medical care common during this period and despite the archaic methods employed by today's standards, many important advances took place. These included: use of quinine to prevent malaria; use of quarantine which nearly eliminated yellow fever, treatment of gangrene with bromine and isolation; development of an ambulance system to evacuate wounded; use of boats and trains to move patients and the creation of large and specialty hospitals. On the surgical end of the equation: performance of the first plastic surgery; development of arterial ligation; rudimentary neurosurgery and safe use of anesthetics.

These advancements were accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of doctors: at the start of the war there were 113 in the entire Army, 23 joined the confederate side and 3 were dismissed for disloyalty. By the end of the war in 1865, the Union Army had over 12,000 doctors and the Confederate Army had 3,000.

Katherine Wormeley, Photo Credit: the Library of Congress
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Despite the rapid increase in the number of doctors, the women nurses also made a huge contribution to patient care on both sides of the conflict. In Rhode Island, the torch was carried by Katherine Prescott Wormeley, born in England in 1830 to a Royal Navy officer and her mother was from Boston. When her father passed away, Katherine and her mother moved to Newport, R.I.

Despite her frail health, she threw herself into the Union cause in 1861. She joined the Newport Ladies Aid Society and secured a contract to sew shirts for Union soldiers. She then hired local women to assist with this important task and produced close to 50,000 shirts early in the war. The quality of this work was lauded by the Army, but she wanted to do more so she volunteered at the front in Virginia and later aboard a hospital ship bringing wounded north for better care than possible at tent facilities. 

Katherine and many other women joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861. It raised millions of dollars throughout the war from fund raisers and donations, money which went to support hospitals and rest houses for traveling and disabled Union soldiers. 

The U.S. Surgeon General William Hammond took notice of Katherine's efforts and offered her the position of Lady Director of the Portsmouth Grove facility in August of 1862, in essence becoming the superintendent. She took to the challenge with her typical zeal and immediately recruited some of her friends for assistance as the hospital itself was rapidly expanding. 

Her first accomplishment was developing a ward-based system staffed by dozens of nurses as well as a residence building for those nurses. She even managed to institute a system of meals based on each patient's particular requirements and records for each one of them, noting their medications and details of the care received. 

Her involvement with the Sanitary Commission gave Katherine a large organization to draw funding and standards from. This relationship enabled the hospital to achieve  relatively high standards of cleanliness compared to field hospitals. Despite this, medical supplies remained scarce and nurses there were known to tear their petticoats and use the scraps as bandages. Local towns made donations of clothing and food, yet the washing and reuse of bandages contributed to infections although monetary donations greatly helped keep the hospital active and improving throughout the war. 

Hand drawn site map for Lovell Hospital, Photo credit: the Portsmouth Historical Society
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By war's end, Lovell Hospital occupied a 12-acre site with 28,260 foot by 25-foot buildings, each with separate wards for 59 patients, all staffed by nurses and aides. In addition, there was a mess hall and a barracks for Union soldiers who served as hospital guards, a necessity considering that there were Confederate soldiers treated there also. The complex also included a chapel, bakery, and industrial scale laundry, blacksmith, and carpenter shops, stables, and even a hospital PX. 


Katherine's health deteriorated to the point where she was forced to resign her position in September of 1863, but she continued to provide guidance for the hospital via her association with the Sanitary Commission. She also served as associate manager of the New England Women's Auxiliary Commission and was responsible for assisting the returning Rhode Island veterans. 

After the war ended, she lived in Newport for a while before moving to Jackson, New Hampshire where she passed away at the age of 78. Her legacy of professionalism in the nursing field along with many other similarly motivated women on both sides of the conflict planted the seed for that discipline as we know it today. 

Flyer for auction shortly after closing of hospital, Photo credit: the R.I. State Archives
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After the Civil War ended, the hospital and its assets were auctioned off in September of 1865. In its final configuration it had 1,464 beds, giving it the distinction of being one of the largest hospitals in the country at that time. 

Melville Marina today, Photo credit: New England Boatworks
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Today all traces of it are gone and a large marina now serves pleasure boaters where steamers once discharged the wounded and sick. In 1901 the Bradford coaling station was established in the vicinity to serve the many Navy vessels plying Narragansett Bay, it later served up oil as the transition away from coal took hold. 

During WWII, the marina area served as the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center (MTBSTC) where almost 14,000 P.T. boat crew members were trained including John F. Kennedy.

by Bob Cembrola, Exhibits Manager, Naval War College Museum

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