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Joseph K. Barnes

Photo Joseph Barnes

Surgeons General

JOSEPH K. BARNES (July 21,1817 - April 5,1883), Surgeon General, August 22, 1864 - June 30, 1882, was born in Philadelphia, Pa., the son of Judge Joseph Barnes, a native of New England, who served for many years as Judge of the district court of that city.  He received in academic education at Round Hill School at Northampton, Mass., and entered upon a collegiate course at Harvard University.  Compelled by ill health to leave college before graduation he began the study of medicine with Surgeon (later Surgeon General) Thomas Harris of the navy, and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1838.  After graduation he served a year as resident physician at Blockley Hospital and for another year as visiting physician for the northwestern district of Philadelphia.  He then appeared before an army examining board which was meeting at the time in Philadelphia and pursuant to its recommendation he was commissioned an assistant surgeon on June 15, 1840, and was assigned for his first duty to the West Point Military Academy.  After only a few months of this duty he was ordered, Nov. 19, 1840, to accompany a detachment of recruits to Florida, where hostilities were in progress against the Seminole Indians.  For the two following years he served successively at eight posts in that state, much of the time giving professional service to two or more posts at the same time, owing to the shortage of medical officers.  Notable in his field service of this period was that involved while accompanying General Harney's expedition through the Everglades.  In 1842 he was assigned to Fort Jesup, La., where he remained until 1846, when with the beginning of the Mexican War he joined the 2d Dragoons en route to Corpus Christi to join the army being mobilized for the invasion of Mexico from the north. He served with the cavalry column of General Taylor's army during its advance to Monterey.  Later transferred to General Scott's forces before Vera Cruz he served with General Worth's division during the siege and capture of that city.  During the advance upon Mexico City he was chief surgeon of the cavalry brigade and participated in the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Cherubusco, and Molina del Rey, in the storming of Chapultepec and the capture of the capital.  From Mexico City he was ordered to duty at Baton Rouge, La., in 1848.  During the thirteen years that intervened between this time and the Civil War, Barnes saw a service which took him to widely separated parts of the country.  In the south he served at Fort Croghan and other posts in Texas, in the plains country at Fort Scott, Fort Leavenworth, and Camp Center (now Fort Riley), on the Pacific coast at San Francisco, Fort Vancouver and the Cascades, while between times he saw tours of duty at Baltimore, Fort McHenry, Philadelphia, and West Point.  In the meantime be had been promoted to major and surgeon on August 29, 1856.

The shelling of Fort Sumter found him at Fort Vancouver.  He was immediately ordered east and served successively as medical director of the forces under General David Hunter, medical director of the Western Department, and medical director of the Department of Kansas, all of these assignments pertaining to the troops operating in Missouri.  On May 2, 1862, he was ordered to report to the Surgeon General in Washington and upon reporting was assigned to duty as attending surgeon for the city.  While on this duty he formed the acquaintance of Secretary of War Stanton who quickly gained a highly favorable impression of him.  The friendship which ensued lasted throughout their careers and had profound effects, not only upon the future activities of Barnes, but upon the fortunes of the medical service.

On February 9, 1863, Barnes was appointed a medical inspector with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and with station in Washington.  On August 10, 1863, he was further advanced to the position of medical inspector general with the grade of colonel.  It was but a few weeks after this advancement that the difficulties between Stanton and Surgeon General Hammond culminated in the detachment of the latter from his office.  On September 3, 1863, Barnes was by a special order of the War Department "empowered to take charge of the bureau of the Medical Department of the army and to perform the duties of Surgeon General during the absence of that officer." He assumed the office of acting Surgeon General the following day thus beginning one of the longest and most eventful administrations in the history of the office.  On August 22, 1864, he was advanced to the position of Surgeon General, with the grade of brigadier general and on March 13, 1865, he received the brevet of major general for faithful and meritorious service during the war.

Secretary Stanton, now having a Surgeon General of his own choice and one personally acceptable to him, became as solicitous for the medical service as he had hitherto been inimical.  For the remainder of his term of office he exhibited the greatest interest in the health and hygienic conditions of the army, in the comfort and welfare of the sick and wounded, and in efforts to extend the facilities and opportunities of the medical officers.  Such a situation tended to make easy the problems of the new Surgeon General.  As principal assistant, Barnes brought to his office Major Charles Henry Crane, who continued in the capacity throughout the eighteen years of his term and succeeded to the office upon the retirement of his chief.

The work of collecting material for the Medical Museum and for the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion was pushed vigorously during the years 1863 and 1864.  The question of the military control of general hospitals was a vexing one from the beginning of the war. A War Department order of April 7, 1862, placed them under the supervision of the Surgeon General, but was not sufficiently explicit in its provisions regarding the right of command of the medical officers in charge of these hospitals.  It was not until December 27, 1864, that the question was finally settled by General Order No. 306, confirming the medical officer's right to command in his own sphere of action.

The good will of Secretary Stanton was again shown by an order of February 8, 1865, giving to the medical department entire control of hospital transports and hospital boats.  The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion was first suggested by Surgeon General Hammond in a circular to medical officers inviting cooperation in the collection of material.  In 1865 there was issued by the Surgeon General a report upon the extent and nature of the material available for its preparation.  Since 1862 Major Joseph J. Woodward had been in charge of the Army Medical Museum and of the material for the history.  In 1866 Major George A. Otis was brought into the office and he and Major Woodward were charged with the preparation of this great work.

Four of the six monumental volumes were completed under General Barnes' administration and the other two were far advanced at the time of his retirement.  His regime was further notable for the interest he took in the development of the Army Medical Library.  During his term of office, the library, under the supervision of Major John S. Billings, was expanded from a small collection of text-books to first rank among medical libraries of the country.

An epoch making event was the appearance in 1880 of the first volume of the Index Catalogue, edited by Billings, the continuance of which has brought world wide fame and acclaim to the library and to the medical department.  In the reorganization of the army following the Civil War, General Barnes was successful in retaining for the medical department the same proportion of the several grades of officers as existed during the conflict.  This was not accomplished without a protracted struggle against various proposals which would have seriously crippled the department.

General Barnes was a handsome man of fine physique and  attractive personality. Gifted with tact and diplomacy he possessed to a high degree the quality of inspiring confidence and friendship. These qualities stood him in good stead during the early years of his administration and were fruitful in benefits for the medical department.  It fell to his lot to share in the professional care of two murdered presidents.  At the time of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Secretary Seward he attended the death bed of the one and ministered to the successful restoration of the other.  During the long illness of President Garfield he was one of the surgeons who for weeks served in the chamber of the dying president.  The protracted service and anxiety incident to the care of the latter took heavy toll on Barnes' health.  An Act of Congress passed June 30, 1882 (22 Stat. 118),  providing for compulsory retirement for age, found Barnes nearly a year past the statutory age and he was retired on June 30, 1882.  A chronic nephritis of which he was a subject for some time caused his death at his home in Washington on April 5, 1883.  His remains lie in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D. C.  His wife, who was Mary Fauntleroy, daughter of Judge Fauntleroy, of Winchester, Va., survived him.

Sources:  H. E. Brown, Medical Department of the U S. Army from 1775 to 1873 (1873);  P. M. Ashburn, History of the Medical Department of the U. S. Army  (1929);  J. E. Pilcher, Surgeon Generals of the Army (1905);  Kelly and Burrage, American Medical Biographies (1920);  Dictionary of  American Biography, Vol. I (1928);  G. V. Henry,  Military Records of  of Civilian Appointments (1873).

[Extracted from "Chiefs of the Medical Department, U.S. Army 1775-1940, Biographical Sketches,"  Army Medical Bulletin, no. 52, April 1940, pp. 47-51, compiled by James M. Phalen, Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Army retired]