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Charles H. Crane

Photo Charles Crane

Surgeons General

CHARLES HENRY CRANE (July 19,1825 - Oct. 10, 1883), Surgeon General, July 3, 1882 - October 10, 1883, was born at Newport, R. I., the son of Captain (later Colonel) Ichabod Bennett Crane of the Artillery Corps.  His childhood was spent in army posts until he was sent to the Maple Grove Academy in Middletown, Conn., to prepare for entrance to Yale where he later received the degree of  B. A. in 1844.

In 1847 he had completed his medical course at Harvard and was given the degree of M. D., at the same time receiving the degree of M. A. from Yale.  His heart for a long time set upon a military career, he lost no time in presenting himself before an army examining board and in November 1847 be was appointed an acting assistant surgeon to await a vacancy to which he might be appointed.  In this capacity be was sent to Vera Cruz with a detachment of recruits, arriving February 20, 1848.  In the meantime, on February 14 he was given a permanent commission as assistant surgeon.  After six months' service with an artillery regiment in Mexico he was ordered to New York and shortly thereafter to Fort Pickens in Florida.  In 1849 he was at Key West, Florida, and for the next three years participated in campaigns against the Seminole Indians.  In 1852 he went by boat to San Francisco accompanying a shipment of recruits.  For four years he served on the west coast in California and Oregon. Much of this duty was in the field, first against hostile Indians in the Sacramento and Merced valleys  in 1852 and against the Indians of Rogue River in Oregon in 1856.  For his services in the latter campaign lie was highly commended by his commanding officer. Returning to New York in December 1856 he was detailed assistant to the medical purveyor in that city, with additional duties of attending surgeon and examiner of recruits.  He was on this duty until January 1862.  In the meantime, in September 1859, he accompanied General Winfield Scott on a trip to the Pacific coast. On May 21, 1861, he was promoted to the grade of major and surgeon.

In February 1862 he was detailed as medical director of the Department of Key West and in June of that year he became medical director of the Department of the South.  In July 1863 he was ordered to Washington for duty in connection with prisoners of war and in September, when Colonel Barnes was made acting Surgeon General, Crane was appointed executive officer and principal assistant in his office.  From that time, for eighteen years until he became Surgeon General himself in 1882, he was the wheelhorse of the office to whom duties of all kinds and in all amounts could confidently be given.  Though relieved from the office, Colonel R. C. Wood retained the rank and title of assistant Surgeon General until the end of the war and it was not until the reorganization act of July 28, 1866 (14 Stat. 334), that Crane could be appointed assistant Surgeon General with the rank of colonel, though for three years he bad been performing the duties of that office.  Crane was of the greatest assistance to Surgeon General Barnes, relieving him of the routine of the office and giving to him the opportunity to exercise the tact and diplomacy of which be was master and of which there was so much need in dealings with Secretary Stanton, Congress, and the Sanitary Commission.  In connection with the arduous and exacting work incident to the war, Crane combined remarkable executive ability with sound judgment and a delicate sense of justice and right.  He was without doubt a considerable factor in the degree of discipline and efficiency displayed by the medical department in the later years of the war.   On January 1, 1865, he was given brevets of lieutenant colonel and colonel, and on March 13 the brevet of brigadier general "for faithful and meritorious service during the War of the Rebellion."

With the retirement for age of General Barnes in 1882, there was a general movement toward the succession among the senior officers of the corps.  Colonel J. H. Baxter was a conspicuous candidate, but on July 3, 1882, Crane was given the much sought place. The new honor brought little change in his duties.  As chief he showed the same patient, earnest, and punctilious attention to the business of the office which for years he had shown as assistant.  He had the gratification of seeing finished the surgical part of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and of getting well under way the final medical volume.  Owing the death of Major Otis in 1881, Major D. L. Huntington prepared the final surgical volume and, following the death of Major Woodward in 1884, the completion of the last medical volume was assigned to Major Charles Smart.  His term of chief of the service was destined to be a short one.  He developed a malignant ulcer at the base of his tongue, the outlook for which was hopeless; but he died unexpectedly from a hemorrhage at his home in Washington on October 10, 1883, at the age of fifty-eight years.  His body was taken to Shelter Island, Long Island, N.Y., for burial.

General Crane was a man of an unusually kind and generous spirit, combined with a quiet and dignified manner.  His portrait shows a fine high forehead, clear wide set eyes, a large aquiline nose, and a patriarchal beard which could have few equals.

At the time of his death he was a commissioner of the United States Soldiers' Home and on the visiting staff of the Government
Hospital for the Insane and of the Columbia Hospital.

He was a primary member of the Aztec Club of 1847, an hereditary society of officers of the United States Army, formed in the City of Mexico in that year, and which still exists.  He is wearing the insignia of this society in his portrait in the Army Medical Library.

He had been married on July 18, 1861, at Shelter Island, N. Y., to Sarah Payne Nicoll, of that place, who survived him for nearly thirty years.  One son also survived him.

Sources:  J. E. Pilcher,  Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905);  P.M. Ashburn, History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army (1929); Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. II (1887);  G. V. Henry, Military Records of Civilian Appointments (1873);. Kelly and Burrage,  American Medical Biographies (1920).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, No. 52, April 1940, pp. 52-54, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]