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Richard Sherwood Satterlee: The man who should have been Union Surgeon General

Posted on Friday, April 14, 2017 at 8:20 am

Richard Sherwood Satterlee (December 6, 1796-November 10, 1880), Brevet Brigadier General, U. S. Army, was born in Fairfield, Herkimer County, N. Y., the son of Major William Satterlee, an officer of Connecticut troops in the Revolutionary War, and Hannah Sherwood, of English Puritan descent. His native town was the seat of Fairfield Academy, with a medical school and faculty, which in Satterlee’s youth, ranked with the best in the country. Many of its medical instructors also taught at the nearby Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. The Fairfield Medical College closed in 1840 due to competition from other medical colleges opening in New York and surrounding states. Over the life of the school it granted over 600 M.D. degrees including Dr. Satterlee’s.  It is probable that he obtained his education in this institution though the list of graduates of the medical school does not carry his name.

He was licensed to practice in 1818 and located in a rural neighborhood in Seneca County. He moved on shortly to Detroit, Michigan, where he practiced medicine and was employed at times as attendant upon the garrison of Detroit Barracks. His association with the military gave him a wish for the army medical service. In furtherance of this idea he accompanied Governor Lewis Cass to Washington, and through his influence, obtained appointment as an assistant surgeon, from February 20, 1822. He was stationed successively at Fort Niagara, N. Y., Detroit Barracks, Mich., and Fort Howard, Wis., until June, 1825. At that time he was transferred to Fort Mackinac, Mich., where he served until November, 1831.

While at this station he went to Detroit in June 1827 and married Mary S. Hunt, sister of the Hon. John Hunt, one of the judges of the state supreme court. With Indian difficulties increasing in Wisconsin, he was transferred from Fort Mackinac to Fort Winnebago in that state in November, 1831, and with the troops from that post, participated in the pursuit of the Sac and Fox band in the summer of 1832, which ended on the second of August in the fight where Bad Axe Creek enters the Mississippi River. The Black Hawk War, thus ended, entailed relatively few battle casualties, but was notable for the prevalence of disease, particularly cholera, among the troops.

Satterlee served at Fort Winnebago until September, 1833 when he was transferred again to Fort Howard at Green Bay, Wisconsin. In the meantime he had been promoted to the grade of surgeon on July 13, 1832. In October, 1837 he left Fort Howard for duty in Florida, where he was assigned as chief medical officer of the brigade, commanded by Colonel (future US President) Zachary Taylor, engaged in a campaign against the Seminole Indians. On December 25 he served his command at the battle of Okeechobee, and was given an official commendation by Colonel Taylor for his care of the wounded. His report upon this engagement stresses the difficulties encountered in the transportation of a large number of wounded to a distant base. After a trip with troops to the Indian Territory with captured Seminoles in September, 1838, Satterlee was transferred to Plattsburg Barracks, N. Y., but after two years in this station he was again sent to field duty in Florida, where he remained until the end of the Seminole disturbances in 1842.

The next four years of duty were at Fort Adams, Rhode Island, and then in the Mexican War. Satterlee accompanied troops to the rendezvous of General Scott’s army at Lobos Island and here, in the reorganization of the army, he was assigned to the post of medical director of General Worth’s division of regular troops. In this capacity he took part in the siege and capture of Vera Cruz and in the advance upon Mexico City. In this campaign he directed the medical service of the division at the battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molina del Rey, and Chapultepec. On July 5, 1847, he sent from Puebla a detailed report upon the health of the army. After the occupation of Mexico City he was advanced to the position of medical director upon the staff of General Scott, in which capacity his great responsibility was the organization of general hospitals to take over the functions of the division hospitals which had been operating during the advance. The details of organization of these hospitals which occupied a large group of public buildings were assigned to Surgeon Charles S. Tripler, who had been medical director of General Sykes’ division. With the signing of the treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo and the departure of General Scott, Satterlee remained on the staff of General William O. Butler until, with the evacuation of the troops, he was returned to Fort Adams in June, 1848.

Here he served until, pursuant to orders, he embarked on December 21, 1853, on the steamship San Francisco, which was carrying the Third Regiment of Artillery to San Francisco, California, by way of Cape Horn. On the evening of the twenty-third, the ship ran into a tropical hurricane and the following forenoon a gigantic wave carried away the entire superstructure of the boat, and with it four officers and about one hundred and thirty enlisted men of the regiment. The boat, entirely disabled and leaking badly, drifted for four days when the ship Kilby took off something over a hundred passengers including most of the officers and the families. The storm increased through the following night when the two boats lost contact, and again, the San Francisco drifted for another nine days before the remainders were taken off by the steamers Three Bells and Antarctic. In the meantime, suffering upon the wrecked boat was intense, with numerous deaths from disease and exposure. The San Francisco sank soon after the last rescues. With some of the regimental officers, Surgeon Satterlee and Assistant Surgeon Horace R. Wirtz, also aboard, were subjected to criticism for having left the boat and left the bulk of the enlisted men aboard. In their behalf it must be remembered that there was every expectation that all on board would be taken off by the first rescuing boat and that only the recurrence of the storm prevented that.

Landing in New York with the other survivors, Satterlee’s orders were changed and he was assigned to duty in that city as attending surgeon and medical purveyor. He continued at this post of duty up to and through the Civil War. The amount of his purchases and issues ran into many millions of dollars and so satisfactory was this service that he was given in turn the brevets of lieutenant colonel, colonel, and brigadier general, the latter in 1864. The accompanying citation commended him “for diligent care and attention in procuring proper medical supplies as medical purveyor and for economy and fidelity in the disbursement of large sums of money.”

When in 1862, Surgeon General Finley was removed from his office, Satterlee was left the senior officer of the Medical corps. His candidacy for the succession to Surgeon General received the active support of General Scott, but Surgeon William A. Hammond was appointed to the position. The Sanitary Commission, which was dissatisfied with the current medical administration, as well as several other advocates including Major General George B. McClellan, successfully lobbied to have William Hammond appointed as Surgeon General. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Hammond as Surgeon General of the United States Army with the rank of Brigadier General on April 25, 1862, less than one year after Hammond rejoined the Army.
Dr. Satterlee wrote Dr. Hammond in May of 1862 after Hammond was appointed Surgeon General by President Lincoln.

In that note he stated, “I desire to remind the Surgeon General, that while himself, many of the Medical Officers, all the people employed in and about office are much benefited by the new order of things, I am in comparison, with greatly increased labor and responsibility, where I was thirty years ago. Has any man been more faithful to the country; has any member of the medical profession done more to increase his usefulness, or to sustain its dignity and honor than myself? Is there anything in the medical service, or the duties of the Medical Purveyor, incomparable with reward for log and faithful service, or the benefit to be derived from the brevet rank and pay of a Brigadier General?”

It sounds like Dr. Satterlee felt that if he was not to have the position, at least he should be paid better for his long service to the U.S. Government.

During the Civil War, a hospital was opened in his name in Philadelphia. With 2860 beds, Satterlee Hospital opened on June 9, 1863, just in time to take the wounded transported from Gettysburg in July, 1863. The bed capacity was later increased to 3,124. One of the doctors assigned to this facility was Dr. Da Costa who did the first studies of “Soldier’s Heart” or PTSD during the Civil War. Before the hospital closed in August of 1865, over 60,000 soldiers had been treated in the facility. The only memory of this hospital is the plaque that was placed there in 1916 in what is now Clark Park.

A reorganization of the medical department of the army in 1866 resulted in his promotion as Chief Medical Purveyor with the pay grade of Lieutenant Colonel to date from July 28 of that year. He continued in charge of the supply depot in New York until he was retired by President Johnson on February 22, 1869. He continued his residence in that city until his death there on November 10, 1880, at eighty-four. His funeral was held at the Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue.

-By Trevor Steinbach