U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History
Skip Navigation, go to content







AMEDD MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS External Link, Opens in New Window






Chapter 2

Books and Documents > Table of Contents


The Nineteenth Century: Precedents

Most eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americans, awed by the destructive power of natural disasters for which there were no scientific explanations, judged them to be signs from God, mighty manifestations of divine displeasure over the sins of the world. Consequently, when disaster struck, governments issued proclamations of prayer and fasting, and many individuals made, or renewed religious commitments. Although their religious response in no way precluded more practical measures, in the early years of the American republic, communities rarely had the knowledge or the means to tender effective relief- and no outside agency rushed assistance to them.1

Two similar calamities sixty years apart demonstrated the persistence of patterns of public ineptitude and citizen self-help. During the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, one of the more devastating disasters of the nation's early history, most public officials fled to safer areas, and national, state, and local government in the city disintegrated. Local physicians who remained, the famous Dr. Benjamin Rush among them, had little knowledge of how to treat the sick and less of how to stop the spread of the fever. They sometimes did as much harm as good, and frequently quarreled among themselves over proper medical procedures. Other citizens volunteered to help and three weeks into the crisis formed a relief committee under the direction of the mayor. Financed for the most part by private funds, the committee and its assistants directed relief efforts until a fall cold spell finally ended the epidemic.2

Two generations later, New Orleans responded in similar fashion to a yellow fever epidemic. The same confusion over tactics and treatment

    lJohn B. Blake, Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630-1822 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp, 24-26, 50-51, Charles E, Rosenberg, The Cholera Years, The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago, Press,, 1962); Marshall Scott Legan "Popular Reactions to the New Madrid Earthquake, l811-1812," Filson Club Historical Quarterly 50 (1976): 69; James Penick, Jr., The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812 (Columbia University of Missouri Press, 1976), pp. 117-21; Walter B, Posey, "The Earthquake of 1811 and Its Influence on Evangelistic Methods in the Churches of the Old South," Tennessee Historical Magazine, 2d ser., 1 (1931): 107-14.
    2J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever at Philadelphia in 1793 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949).


developed, with the city trying everything from a quarantine to cannon firings intended to clear the atmosphere- the latter abandoned because they literally frightened some victims to death. Local government, particularly a board of health strengthened during the calamity, exercised greater authority than in Philadelphia's crisis, but private sources again provided most relief. The Howard Association, a voluntary association of young businessmen in the city, mobilized to care for the sick and impoverished. As in Philadelphia, however, only the arrival of cold weather rescued the city from its distress.3

In their lack of medical knowledge and reliance on local and often private aid, Philadelphia and New Orleans were not unusual. During the recurrent cholera epidemics that afflicted parts of America during the antebellum years, other cities responded in much the same fashion. As the century progressed, unaffected cities did begin to send money or supplies to suffering communities, and a Howard Association in one town sometimes aided victims in another. Nevertheless, disaster relief in the last years of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century remained primarily local, voluntary, and ineffective.4

In those early years of the nation, the extrernely small size of the federal establishment, the concentration of its manpower in the capital, and, above all, the lack of the means to send relief discouraged federal disaster assistance. The Army, the most obvious agency to render such aid, possessed insufficient resources to meet its normal defense mission, much less to assume additional duties in disasters. Deployed in widely scattered posts often consisting of only a hundred soldiers, the Army could spare few men, if any, for disaster work without endangering the safety of its forts. Furthermore, with posts located in remote frontier areas and transportation far from rapid, the dispatch of troops to the scene of a calamity in time to be of any real help was usually impossible.5

Philosophical as well as practical considerations discouraged the commitment of federal resources. In the first half of the nineteenth

    3John Duffy, Sword of Pestilence: The New Orleans Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966).
    4Rosenberg, Cholera Years, passim. See also Douglas F, Stickle, "Death and Class in Baltimore: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1800," Maryland Historical Magazine 74 (1979): 282,-99, Jacqueline Karnenell Corn, "Community Responsibility for Public Health: The Impact of Epidemic Disease and Urban Growth on Pittsburg," Western Pennsylvania Historical Quarterly 59 (1976): 319-39.
    5On the size of the federal establishment, see James Sterling Young, The Washington Community,1800-1828 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Harbinger Book, 1966), pp. 13-37. For the Army's difficulties in meeting its commitments, see, Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783-1846 (New York: Macmillan Co., 1969), p,320; and Robett M, Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue, The United States Army and the Indian, 1845-1865 (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), pp, 10-17. For the Army's dispersion, see Francis Paul Prucha, "Distribution of Regular Army Troops before the Civil War," Military Affairs 16 (1952): 169-73.


century, most Americans considered health care, social welfare, and other aspects of disaster relief to be tasks best left to the individual or to private charity. If a calamity necessitated additional aid, only local, or possibly state, government had the authority to assist. The Constitution included no clause providing for federal disaster assistance, and a pervasive parsimony in Congress reinforced constitutional scruples. Disaster assistance, as one congressman typically reminded his colleagues in 1847, was a "dangerous exercise of power" best left "to the liberality and generosity and better judgment of their constituents."6

The Emergence of Federal Disaster Assistance

That the, federal government began to provide relief in a few disasters despite practical and philosophical impediments testified to the power of calamity to disrupt established patterns of thought and behavior. Congress approved aid, however, only when constitutional authority to, act could be easily derived from traditional federal powers. Even then it carefully evaluated each proposed relief measure and usually approved aid only when compassion and national interest coincided. Though the bills Congress passed in the nineteenth century were taken up one by one, they can be grouped into three categories: aid to the Indians, foreign assistance, and domestic relief.

The federal government clearly had constitutional authority over Indian affairs and undertook its first disaster relief mission under that power. In 1792 a severe drought ruined the crops of the Creek Indians, and famine threatened to destroy a large part of the tribe. On 31 October, the Secretary of War, who directed Indian affairs at, that time, informed his agent among the Creeks that the government had made available more than $13,000 for the tribe's relief. The Agent, James Seagrove, then distributed both cash and coin. The United States fed the tribe not only for humanitarian reasons but also because it wished to supersede Spain as the Creeks' friend and to acquire thereby a ready market for American goods. The Secretary of War instructed Seagrove to make the American desire for recompense clear to the Creeks: "You may intimate to them that the President of the United States, actuated by his humanity and regard for

    6Duffy, Sword of Pestilence, p. 43, Morris Kagan, "Federal Public Health: A Reflection of a Changing Constitution," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 16 (1961):256-79; Walter I Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America (New York: Free Press, 1974), especially pp, 57-59. For an exception, see Walter I, Tratnner, "The Federal Government and Social Welfare in Early Nineteenth-Century America," Social Service Review 50 (1976):243-55. Quote from U.S. Congress, Senate, Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 2d sess., 1847, p. 513.

them, will order a further quantity, provided they exhibit, on their parts, similar dispositions of kindness and attachment to the United States."7

If the white man granted relief to glean certain advantages, he just as easily withheld it to gain others. In the early 1830's the whites' rapid encroachment on the Creeks' land in Alabama and their depletion of local game again placed the tribe in danger of starvation. Many of the men began to beg or steal, and women and children pleaded for permission to scour the whites' fields for the small potatoes and roots that remained after the harvest. On this occasion no aid came from the government because it wished to remove the Indians to the west to free land for white settlement. As one historian explained, assistance to the Creeks would have been "unpolitic" because it "would have delayed their enrollment for emigration."8

In the same decade, Congress did approve a different type of assistance to tribes in another area of the country. With smallpox threatening the western Indian nations, Congress in 1832 passed a bill to provide for their vaccination. The act authorized Indian agents to employ local civilian doctors to perform the vaccinations but proposed that, where practical, military surgeons be used too. The Surgeon General procured the vaccine, and Army surgeons in several areas, notably Illinois and Michigan, vaccinated Indians who came to their forts. In most localities, though, Indian agents apparently relied on civilian physicians. Unfortunately, the nomadic life-style of the Indians undermined the government's attempt to control smallpox, and in 1837 an epidemic may have halved the population of the western nations.9

As with aid to the Indians, foreign relief could easily be justified on the basis of recognized constitutional powers. At any rate, Congress early rationalized such measures as legitimate when it considered them to be in the national interest. In 1812 the nation's first foreign disaster assistance mission followed an earthquake in Venezuela that killed 10,000 people in Caracas alone. American newspapers carried accounts of bodies littering

    7On constitutional authority, see Francis Paul Purcha, American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian, Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1794 1834 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 41. On the aid, see George D. Harmon, Sixty Years of Indian Affairs: Political, Economic, and Diplomatic, 1789-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941), pp. 97-98. Quote from Ltr, Secretary of' War to James Seagrove, 31 Oct 1792, in American State. Papers: Indian Affairs, 3:259 60.
    8Harmon, Sixty Years, pp. 212-13.
    9U.S. Congress, House, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Relation to the Act Extending the Benefit of Vaccination to the Indian Tribes, H. Doc. 82, 22d Cong., 2d sess., 1833; Ltrs, T. Hastley Crawford to Joel R. Poinsett, 11 Dec 1838 and 25 Nov 1838. Both in Report Books of the Office of Indian Affairs, 1838-85, M348, reel 1, NA. See also Richard White, "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of American History 65 (1978): 328-29.


the debris and orphaned children wailing for lost parents. Prompted by these reports, Alexander Scott, an American diplomatic representative to Caracas who had not yet departed for his post, urged Congress to send food to the victims. The Venezuelans also requested assistance. Congress responded by appropriating $50,000 for relief supplies to be administered by Scott upon his arrival in the country. Unfortunately, the donation arrived in May but Scott did not land until June. In the meantime, the royalists, then battling revolutionaries for control, seized many of the supplies and did not distribute them. They also impounded the vessels and crews that had brought the supplies and released both only after extended negotiations. But despite all the problems, food reached some of the people and saved them from starvation.

In sending aid, Congress obviously acted from more than purely humanitarian motives. With the outbreak of revolutions in Latin America during the early years of the nineteenth century, American, interest in the region intensified. Many people in the United States believed the times auspicious for establishing closer ties with their neighbors to the south, and many merchants envisioned Latin America as a potentially lucrative market. Scott's instructions left little doubt that, Congress intended the aid as a spur to closer trading ties, for he was directed to let the people of Venezuela know that the relief presented "Strong proof of the friendship and interest which the United States . . . [took] in their welfare . . . [and] to explain the mutual advantages of commerce with the United States."10

The refusal of Congress to send aid to the locust-plagued Canary Islands at the same time it approved relief for Venezuela lent further credence to the view that in such matters Congress acted as much from national and mercantile interest as from humanitarian concern. Initially, a single resolution approved aid for both Venezuela and the Canary Islands, but some congressmen insisted upon separate consideration of the two measures. They convinced the House to instruct a committee to explore further the extent of the locust plague and famine in the Canaries. Although the committee reported additional evidence of suffering, the House still balked at sending assistance. Some of the victorious opponents continued to question the severity of the famine, but others doubted whether the relief would contribute to America's national interest. John Rhea, a representative from Tennessee, expressed the feelings of the second group. He opposed aid to the Canary Islands but said he favored an appropriation for Venezuela, with "a regard to the interests of the

    10Quote from Merle Curti, American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963), pp 10-12, see also E. Taylor Parks, "Foreign Aid-150 Years Ago," Foreign Service Journal 39 (Jul 1962):36-39.


United States, which peculiarly required them to cultivate amity with and conciliate the South American provinces." The Canary Islands, he implied, did not offer the United States enough to merit assistance.11

On two other occasions during the antebellum period, Congress considered proposals to provide disaster assistance to foreign nations. In 1847, after rejecting an appropriation for sufferers in the Irish potato famine, Congress approved the loan of United States naval vessels to transport privately raised supplies. With civilian captains and crews, the United States ships Macedonian and Jamestown ferried 8,000 barrels of grain, meal, clothing, and other essentials to Ireland. Nine years later, however, Congress refused to allow the detail of twenty-five sailors to a private group that needed a crew to sail a relief ship to the drought-stricken Cape Verde Islands. The House voted in favor of the measure, but it died in the Senate; exactly why remained unclear. After the Civil War, Congress still developed no consistent policy; lawmakers approved the use of United States strips in two instances but denied it in a third.12

While the approach of Congress to foreign relief was practical, limited, and ad hoc, broader justifications were, occasionally heard. During the debate over an appropriation for aid to Ireland in 1847, Senator John M. Clayton of Delaware proclaimed American abundance to be a sure sign of God's favor and aid an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to the world that "the genius and essential character of our institutions lead us to the indulgence, as a nation, of the best feelings of the human heart, and the noblest impulses which govern and direct the energies of man." Clayton convinced few of his fellow legislators, but a, similar argument in more secular form, that such aid served to advertise the American way of life, would foster increased relief activity abroad during the next century.13

For domestic disaster assistance, the third type of congressionally approved aid, the nineteenth century was an era of slow but steady expansion of government involvement. Initially, Congress was more hesitant to provide relief in this category than in the others, since the

    11U.S. Congress, Annals of Congress, 12th Cong., 1st sess., 1812, pp. 1351, 1348--50, 1429, 1435, quote on p. 1350; Curti, American Philanthropy, p. 13.
    12Curti, American Philanthropy, pp. 41-2, 94-5, 103-7; Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 2d sess., 1847, pp. 503, 572--75; U.S., Statutes at Large, 9:207, no. 10 Robert B. Forbes, An Interesting Memoir of the Jamestown Voyage to Ireland (Boston: J. B. Cullen &Co., 1890), p. 5 and passim. See also 34th Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 1st sess., 1856, pp, 1254-,55, 1257-58, 1262; U.S. Congress, Senate, Relief to the People of Foreign Nations on Account of Earthquakes, Etc., S. Doc. 629, 60th Cong., 2d sess., 1908; U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 81st Cong. 2d sess., 1950, pp. 11900-902; E.M. Halliday, "Bread upon the Waters," American Heritage 11 (Aug 1960): 62-69, 104-5.
    13Quote from Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 2d sess., 1847, p. 513.


constitutional authority to contribute money, supplies, or personnel in domestic disasters seemed problematical. Whenever Congress entertained a bill authorizing domestic relief', the chambers rang with denunciations of its patent unconstitutionality. Only in a few instances before the Civil War were critics overcome and relief bills enacted.

The earliest case of congressionally approved domestic assistance followed a devastating fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Here in 1803 the burning of a large section of the commercial district threatened the financial stability of many merchants. To ease their burdens, Congress granted them an extra year to pay off bonds owed, at the local customhouse. Congress later passed similar measures for the relief of merchants in other ports ravaged by fire: in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1804; in Portsmouth again in 1807; and in New York, in 1836.14

After an earthquake in the Mississippi Valley, Congress passed a measure, that provided a more clearly defined precedent far future, disaster relief. Between 16 December 1811 and 7 February 1812, powerful tremors struck the Missouri Territory, completely destroying Cathersville and severely damaging New Madrid, the second largest town in the territory. In January 1814, the territorial assembly petitioned Congress for aid and cited that sent to victims of the Venezuelan earthquake as precedent. A year later, Congress passed a law granting landholders with property damaged by the quake the right to relocate on other public lands in the territory. The act allowed residents to claim 160 acres if they held present claims smaller than that or a plot equivalent to their present holdings if they held no more than 640 acres. Once they had secured new claims, their land in New Madrid reverted to the government. A seemingly innocuous act of compassion, the law allowed a great deal of corruption and generated an almost endless debate over land titles.15

Another early disaster assistance act followed a February 1827 fire in the town of Alexandria, then still a part of the District of Columbia.

    14Congressional Record, 81st Cong., 2d sess., 1950, p. 11900 Mention was made during the debates of 1836 of a similar relief bill for Savannah in 1820, but I can find no record of it nor was it included in the compilation above. See U.S. Congress, Register of Debates in Congress, 24th Cong., lst sess., 1836, p. 120.
    15On the earthquakes, see Penick, New Madrid Earthquake; Legan, "Popular Reactions"; Wayne Vitanen, "The Winter the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Early Kentuckians Report the New Madrid, Missouri, Earthquake of 1811-1812," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 71 (1973): 51-68; Francis A. Sampson, "The New Madrid and Other Earthquakes in Missouri" Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association 6 (1913): 218-38. For a copy of the act, see Statutes at Large, 3:1211-12, ch. 45. On corruption, see Penick, New Madrid Earthquake, pp 49-50, Malcolm J, Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 106-7; Benjamin H. Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policy (New York: Macmillan Co., 1924), p. 264.


Moved by the proximity as well as the severity of the damage and satisfied that congressional responsibility for the District rendered aid constitutional, proponents pushed for a direct appropriation. Despite strong opposition, they secured a grant of $20,000 for the relief of "the indigent sufferers" of the fire and delegated the distribution of the fund to the mayor and city council of, Alexandria.16

Clearly some Americans already considered the federal government a source of disaster assistance. The Missouri assembly had turned to Congress for aid, And after an 1836 fire in New York City, a public meeting appointed a committee of 125 distinguished citizens to petition Congress for help. When Congress received the committee's memorial, Daniel Webster warned his fellow lawmakers that "a strong expectation prevailed out of doors that Congress would do something for the relief of the sufferers." But despite growing public demand, Congress did not approve any other domestic disaster assistance bills before the Civil War, And all the acts that it had passed provided for long-term financial aid rather than immediate relief.17

By contrast, in the years after the Civil War, Congress frequently passed disaster relief bills that sought to render immediate aid to the suffering. The creation of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen's Bureau, contributed to this transformation of congressional policy. In 1865, the lawmakers established the bureau to help ease the slaves' transition to freedom, a task that entailed social welfare work, including direct relief unprecedented oil the federal level. Consequently, the Freedmen's Bureau itself became a powerful argument for future disaster relief. If Congress could act to reduce black suffering in the South, congressmen could and did ask, why could it not also help its citizens everywhere when afflicted by a natural disaster?18

Furthermore, during its brief existence, the bureau undertook disaster relief efforts essentially unrelated to its responsibility for the freedmen.

    16Register of the Debates in Congress, 19th Cong., 2d sess., 1827, pp. 752-77; Statutes at Large, 6:356-57, ch. 3.
    17Register of the Debates in Congress, 24th Cong 1st sess., 1836, pp, 13, 46-47.
    18The standard history of the bureau is George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (New York: Octagon Books, 1970), but for emphasis on its welfare function see Victoria M, Olds, "The Freedmen's Bureau as a Social Agency" (Ph.D, diss., Columbia University, 1966); Louis Henry Bronson, "The, Freedmen's Bureau: A Public Policy Analysis" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1970): and Trattner, Poor Law to Welfare State, p. 78. See also John Cox and Lawanda Cox, "General O.O. Howard and the 'Misrepresented Bureau,'" Journal of Southern History 19 (1953): 427-57; Harold M. Hyman, A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution (Boston Houghton Mifflin Co., Sentry Ed, 1975). especially pp, 285-91. For an argument for relief based on the bureau, see Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 1st sess., 1867, p. 47.


Throughout the life of the bureau, its medical officers furnished aid and advice to civilians of both races during local outbreaks of smallpox or cholera, and its agents sometimes supplied bedding and tents to stricken communities. But it was bureau flood and famine relief, rather than aid during epidemics, that led the way to an increasing federal and eventually Army involvement in civilian disasters.19

In 1867 an unusually severe winter followed by a very dry spring caused many fields of food crops in the South to yield only a quarter of their normal production. In the midst of the incipient famine, the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers flooded. Concerned bureau agents wrote their headquarters in Washington relaying the dire plight of the doubly distressed South and asking permission to aid white as well as black sufferers. Though he wanted to grant their requests, bureau director O.O. Howard, a general detailed from the Army, doubted his authority to do so and therefore lobbied in Congress for authorization to provide emergency relief for all Southerners who needed it. After the predictable debate over constitutionality- on this occasion spiced by sectional animosity- Congress on 30 March 1867 granted the Freedmen's Bureau authority to supply rations for all classes of people in the South as long as the expense did not exceed already appropriated funds. Constitutional scruples, it seemed, gave way more readily than congressional niggardliness.20

Under the act, Howard allocated $50,000 from the bureau's budget to finance emergency relief in the south and designated General Eliphalet Whittlesey, already serving with the bureau, to administer the program. Whittlesey in turn directed the purchase of corn and wheat in northern and midwestern markets and supervised their shipment to southern ports. Together with corn bought in the South, the grain went to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. In each state a bureau officer accepted supplies in bulk and oversaw their delivery to local agents. The local agents, usually operating at the county level, consulted with civil officials to determine who needed aid, negotiated contracts for transporting the rations, and established distribution centers. Distribution, begun in a few areas in April, continued during May in many and until August in most. Except for the slight

    19Ltr, L.A. Edwards to E.V. Duvall, 22 Apr 1867, and Circular Letter No. 1, 21 May 1867, both in Letters Sent, Chief Medical officer, entry 98, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, NA; Rpt, A.W. Shaffer, 25 Jun 1867, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of North Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-70, M843, reel 24, NA; Ltr, A. C. Smartzmelder to J.R. Lewis, 31 Oct 1866, Letters Sent, Chief Medical Officer, Tennessee, entry 3436, Record Group 105, NA.
    20Ltr, W.P. Carlin to O.O. Howard, 13 Mar 1867, Letters Received, entry 198, Record Group 105, NA; Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 1st sess., 1867, pp 39-40, 46-47, 83-91, 233-47, 281


delay in beginning the program and a few complaints about the quality of the corn, the ad hoc relief system functioned well.21

The bureau's famine relief operation supplemented rather than replaced traditional voluntary and local efforts. In fact, private aid dwarfed that of the government as northern charity organizations contributed an estimated $5 million worth of food to the South.22 The bureau's program also respected the heritage of local control by shipping supplies in bulk and, leaving the determination of individual need and most of the distribution to resident civilian officials. Nevertheless, the bureau's operation involved more government employees and generated greater national interest than any of the antebellum measures. The resulting display of the potential for federal assistance helped inspire local authorities and the American public to turn increasingly to the national government for supplementary relief.23

In the 1870's, Congress often granted such requests, then gradually began to anticipate them. Opponents still challenged the constitutionality of relief appropriations but swayed fewer of their colleagues, who now justified assistance under the general welfare clause or boldly declared that "necessity knows neither law nor constitution, and never did in this country." To support that contention, proponents of relief cited a continually growing list of precedents. Opponents, on the other hand, lost an effective argument in the 1880's when the nation developed an embarrassingly large budget surplus. In the face of this unaccustomed plenty, even hardened dissenters realized the futility of their opposition. Lamented one: "I know from my experience here that I might just as well seek to dam up this flood in Mississippi with a paper dam as to keep members out of an overflowing Treasury when they want to get there." Increasingly, Congress became a willing though not always generous patron of relief.24

To administer the appropriations it voted, Congress depended on the Army, primarily because it had no other organization capable of rendering rapid relief. The postwar Army remained small, underpaid, poorly

    21Account based on Records of Special Offices, Letters Received, March 1867-July 1868, entry 198, and Copies of Congressional Resolutions, War Department lssuances and Letters, to and from Commissioner Howard Relating to Relief of the Destitute, entry 200. Both in record Group 105, NA.
    22Southern Famine Relief Commission, Final Proceedings and General Report of the Southern Famine Relief Commission (New York: William H. Arthur & Co. 1867).
    23New York Times, 10 Jul 1874, 12 Feb 1884, 4 Apr 1897; Mabel A. Elliot, American National Red Cross Disaster Services, 1881-1918 (Washington American National Red Cross, 1950), p, 17; R.P.M. Ames, Official Report of the Relief Furnished to the Ohio River Flood Sufferers . . . February and March 1884 (Evansville, Ind.: Journal Publ. Co., 1884), p. 25.
    24First quote from Congressional Record, 48th Cong., 1st sess., 1884, p, 1033, Second quote from Congressional Record, 48th Cong., 1st sess., 1884, p. 2296. On the budget surplus, see Robert H, Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967), p. 31.


equipped, widely dispersed, and generally neglected, but it still maintained more of a presence throughout the nation than did any other federal agency. In, addition, it held stockpiles of rations, clothing, and tentage- the staples of government grants to victims of disasters. Even when it did not have stores on hand, the Army- again more than any other government agency- had an established purchasing and transportation system. Finally, the military chain of command facilitated quick response. Once the Army bad undertaken the task of relief in a few instances, its role became so fixed that Congress rarely questioned its use during the remainder of the century. In 1897, when a member introduced a resolution authorizing the United States Marine Hospital Service, an organization already involved in epidemic control, to direct a relief mission, a colleague responded that "distinctively, this duty belongs to the War Department," and Congress agreed.25

Between 1868 and 1898, sometimes on its own initiative but more often at the lawmakers' behest, the Army rendered some form of relief in seventeen or more disasters. Included were the Chicago fire (1871); yellow fever epidemics in Memphis and, Shreveport (1873); Mississippi River flooding (1874); a locust plague in the Southwest (1874-75); another yellow fever epidemic in the South (1878); storms in Braskett, Texas, and Macon, Mississippi (1880); flooding in the Missouri River Valley (1881), the Mississippi River Valley (1882), and the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys (1884); the Johnstown flood and Seattle fire (1889); flooding of the Mississippi (1890); drought in Oklahoma (1890); forest fires in Hinkley, Minnesota (1894); tornadoes in St. Loins (1896); and Mississippi and Rio Grande flooding (1897).26 Though the Army's function expanded to include law enforcement during the Chicago fire and engineer support on several occasions after the Charleston earthquake, in most of these disasters Army assistance followed the pattern of the southern famine relief operation of 1867. Soldiers served primarily as administrators: they estimated needs, purchased supplies, delivered them in bulk, and left to local authorities the actual distribution to the needy.27

    25For lack of organizational structure in government, see Wiebe, Search for Order, pp. 3-32. Quote from Congressional Record, 55th Cong 1st sess., 1897, p. 639.
    26This list was compiled from the following sources: Reports of the Secretary of War, 1865 a search of military records on disasters by the Adjutant General's Office in 1915 (see Ltr, H.P. McCain to James Hay, 11 Jan 1915, file, 1459754, Records of The Adjutant General's Office, General Correspondence, 1890-1917, Record Group 94, NA); and a list of disaster legislation Compiled by the Congressional Research Service (see Congressional Record, 81st Cong., 2d sess., 1950, pp. 11900). Unfortunately, such lists do not always account for aid rendered by local units when not specifically directed by Washington. Officer instances may, therefore, remain to be discovered.
    27On police work at the Chicago fire, see The Adjutant General's office file on the fire on reel 33, Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General (Main Series), 1871-80, M666, NA; and Robert Cromie, The Great Chicago Fire (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1958). On increasing engineer support, see, Leland R. Johnson, "Emergency Response: A History of the Army Engineer Disaster Relief Mission, 1794-1950" (unpublished manuscript, Engineer Historical Division, Washington, D.C., 1978).


Sometimes, before voting an appropriation, Congress directed the War Department to determine the extent of destitution. The Secretary of War then sent one or more Army officers to the scene to evaluate the needs of the victims and report them by telegraph to the secretary, who in turn advised Congress. More often, Congress appropriated a lump slim without an investigation and charged the War Department with providing relief out of it. In that case, the secretary dispatched a commissary agent or instructed one stationed in the vicinity to purchase the requisite supplies, then detailed a few quartermaster or line officers to supervise delivery to local authorities. Relief items consisted primarily of rations but sometimes of clothing, bedding, and tentage as well. The original appropriation usually paid the cost of shipping or allowed use of government boats.

This system preserved the primacy both of local control and of voluntarism. Unfortunately, it thereby allowed competition by local officials who could easily sell supplies or hoard them for personal use. Charges of such abuses surfaced during the relief operation after the grasshopper plague in 1874-75.28 A more insidious form of corruption developed because the dominant group in any area could determine how much relief others received. Many disaster assistance missions took place in the Mississippi Valley, where whites misused supplies intended for black tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In the floods of 1874 and of 1882, whites allegedly used government supplies to coerce black votes or labor. During the floods of 1890, a group of fifty-nine black men in White, Station, Mississippi, petitioned the president for relief, claiming they were unable to "get anything from the white, people at all." They pleaded for the government to ship food and other supplies directly to their chairman because "if you all don't help us we will all be dead by July sure, without a doubt, and please for God's sace (sic) help us for we can not live this way and there is a great deal of our collur is dieing out on account of they can't get anything to eat." The War Department, however, appeared more sensitive to simple corruption than to that generated by race relations in the South, and the problem continued.29

    28Everett Dick, The Sod-House Frontier, 1854-1890: A Social History of the Northern Plains from the Creation of Kansas and Nebraska to the Admission of the Dakotas (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1937), pp. 208-9; see also Gilbert C Fite, "The United States Army and Relief to Pioneer Settlers, 1874-1875," Journal of the West 6 (Jan 1967): 99-107.
    29Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins, The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881 (University of Alabama Press, 1977), pp. 96-97; Ltr. James Lorrans to Benjamin H, Brewster, 21 Mar 1882, Letters Received by the Office of The Adjutant, General (Main Series), 1881-89, M689, reel 84, NA; Ltr, Organization of 59 Black Men In White Station, Mississippi, to the President of the United States, 26 May 1890, Letters Sent Concerning Relief of Flood Sufferers, Mississippi Floods, of 1890, entry 46, Records of the, Office of Commissary General of Subsistence, Record Group 192, Washington National Records Center (WNRC). Engineer officers tended to emphasize the fact that free rations discouraged laborers from helping in relief work, See Johnson, "Emergency Response."

The Role of the Medical Department

Despite failings of prejudice and parsimony, by the end of the nineteenth century the federal government- and the Soldiers, who were its agents- had become an important source of assistance for disaster victims. That aid provided a strong precedent when in the early twentieth century the federal government expanded its relief operations- an expansion that included greater participation by members of the Army Medical Department. Yet for reasons rooted both in the department and the medical profession at large, the Army doctor's role remained minimal throughout the nineteenth century. Occasionally a medical officer might participate in a, nonmedical relief mission, as when an assistant surgeon served as a distribution officer during the 1874 locust plague in the Southwest. Or a nonmedical officer might render medical assistance, as when Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff, an engineer officer who happened to be in Memphis when yellow fever struck in 1873, helped care for the sick. Acting on his own, Woodruff remained in the city, joined the Howard Association, and worked in a hospital where he contracted the disease and died. Such isolated occurrences, however, did not change the fact that the Army provided little medical assistance to civilians in disaster situations during the nineteenth century.30

Before the Civil War, medical professionals, both military and civilian, had only limited skills and knowledge to offer disaster casualties. Anesthesia, an American discovery, came into use in the 1840's, and surgeons possessed such basic skills as bone setting. But except for the use of quinine against malaria and vaccination for smallpox, the profession as yet could offer little to cure or prevent disease. The vast majority of American physicians still relied on the old practices of bleeding, purging, and blistering, which produced neither relief nor recovery. Consequently, antebellum Americans often placed little faith in physicians, and wisely so.31

Even if physicians had commanded more effective skills and greater

    30RSW, 1875, p. 68, New York Times, 24 Oct 1873; Johnson, "Emergency Response."
    31Rosenberg, Cholera Years, pp, 155-57; William G, Rothstein, American Physicians in the Nineteenth Centurly: From Sects to Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), especially pp. 41-62; Richard H. Shryock, Medicine in America: Historical Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966).


public support, the Army had too few to spare for disaster relief. The Army Medical Department was not permanently established until 1818 and for decades remained so chronically understaffed as to be unable to meet the Army's needs. In 1831, for example, the Secretary of War typically reported that the Army had sixty-four stations requiring doctors and fifty-three physicians with which to staff them. Moreover, the problems of dispersion and slow transportation that hindered all federal relief in the period were especially disadvantageous in the case of medical assistance. Scattered at distant outposts, Army physicians could hardly have reached many disaster victims in time to be of help.32

By increasing the awareness of sanitation, the Civil War raised the possibility of greater medical involvement in disaster relief. Although a, few people had agitated for public health reform in the antebellum years, only during the war did sanitarians, begin to gain popular support. Civilians eager to help the boys in the camps rallied to the cause of the soldiers' aid commissions which sponsored workers among the armies. Some commission agents were more concerned for the soldiers' spiritual well-being than for their physical health, if indeed they would or could have made the distinction. But others- particularly those of the Sanitary Commission- sought to prevent illness among the troops, agitated for improved treatment by an Army Medical Department ill-prepared for war, and often supplemented the military's own health care. Since the etiology of disease was still not understood, their most important contribution lay in mobilizing public opinion. The Union army's own widely publicized efforts to control yellow fever, particularly in New Orleans, also contributed to a new sense of' the potential value of public health in preventing epidemics.33

Despite the increased public concern and awareness of the war years, participation in disaster assistance by the Army Medical Department remained minimal. Medical and public health, capabilities advanced slowly, and traditions of localism and voluntarism remained strong in disaster situations. The newly formed American Red Cross incorporated both traditions and increasingly rendered medical and other direct relief.34

    32Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 1775-1818 (Washington: GPO, 1981); RSW, 1831, p. 25.
    33Richard H. Shryock, "A Medical Perspective on the Civil War," in Medicine in America, pp. 90-108; Howard D. Kramer, "Effect of the Civil War on the Public Health Movement," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 35 (1948): 449-62; Robert H. Bremner, "The Impact of the Civil War on Philanthropy and Social Welfare," Civil War History 12 (1966): 293-303. For efforts in New Orleans, see Jo Ann Carrigan, "Yankee Versus Yellow Jack in New Orleans, 1862-1866," Civil War History 9 (1963): 248-60; and for an example of its influence, New York Times, 5 Oct 1873.
    34Foster Rhea Dulles, The American Red Cross: A History (New York; Harper & Bros., 1950); Elliot, Red Cross Disaster Services.

When the federal government proffered additional aid, it could turn to the United States Marine Hospital Service- predecessor of the Public Health Service- which was capable of furnishing some assistance. Its physicians aided civilian authorities in a Florida yellow fever epidemic, the floods of 1884, and the Johnstown flood, to cite only a few examples.35 Finally, despite the war, the Army Medical Department remained poorly staffed and organized, with civilian contract physicians still caring for many soldiers.

Nevertheless, the Army medical personnel did provide some medical care to civilian communities, creating a legacy from which twentieth century disaster relief activity grew. Throughout the nineteenth century, sometimes but not always at the direction of Washington, Army surgeons worked to control or prevent epidemics. And on the frontier, military doctors found themselves ministering to the needs of civilians in medical emergencies of all types.

On a few occasions, the Army loaned its facilities to a community suffering from an epidemic. An early instance of such aid, though not one directly involving the Medical Department, occurred during the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Military authorities there allowed the city's board of health to establish quarantine stations in Forts Jackson and Phillips, inactive posts situated on opposite sides of the Mississippi River several miles below New Orleans. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in June 1877, assistant surgeon Joseph Y. Potter in Key West, Florida, permitted the local board of health to care for epidemic victims in his post hospital.36

More typical of Army medical aid were the efforts of individual Army surgeons who cared for victims of epidemics. For example, in the antebellum period, Nathan S. Jarvis, a military doctor at Fort Brown, ministered to the mechanics and laborers of nearby Brownsville, Texas, during an outbreak of cholera. Civilian assistance became more common during Reconstruction, when many small units were stationed throughout the South. In 1869 a detachment commander in Warsaw, Kentucky, heard of a case, of smallpox, removed the stricken family to the outskirts of town, and then directed his surgeon to vaccinate, most of Warsaw's population. In another instance, Army surgeon George Taylor cared for both soldiers and civilians during a yellow fever epidemic in Galveston, Texas. Taken

    35Elihu Burritt, Jacksonville, Florida: Experiences in a Stricken City (Jacksonville: Riverside Art and Publ. Co., 1888), p. 3; Ames, Official Report, passim; New York Times, 11 Jun 1889. For the Marine Hospital Service's limitations in disaster assistance, see Congressional Record, 55th Cong., 1st sess., 1897, p. 639.
    36Duffy, Sword of Pestilence, pp. 100-2; Continuation of Brief, 20 Aug 1877, M689, reel 541, NA.


ill himself, Taylor died when he left his sickbed to serve as a guide for a delegation of doctors studying the outbreak.37

The routine relationship of frontier military physician to neighboring settlers, however, did more to create a nineteenth century legacy of aid to civilian populations than did sporadic aid during epidemics. In some sparsely settled areas, Army surgeons were the first, and for many years the only, medical men. Consequently, they treated a variety of patients: soldiers, local settlers, lumbermen, hunters, Indians. In the Old Northwest, the nation's first frontier, Army doctors prescribed for whooping cough, vaccinated for smallpox, pulled teeth, and generally provided medical service for all comers- red or white, military or civilian.38

The best known example of such aid was rendered by Dr. William Beaumont in 1822. A military surgeon stationed at Fort Mackinac, Beaumont was the only doctor on the island in Lake Huron and received permission from the Medical Department to maintain a civilian practice. The hard-drinking, ready-fighting voyageurs and trappers who frequented the island insured him a thriving practice. When one such character, Alexis St. Martin, was wounded in the abdomen by a shotgun blast at close range during a barroom brawl, his friends sent for the Army doctor. Beaumont arrived quickly, and through his ministrations and a near miracle, Martin survived despite the fact that the opening in his stomach never completely closed. In a long series of experiments, the Army surgeon used the civilian's stomach to enlarge the world's understanding of the digestive process- the first major American contribution to medical knowledge. Of course, most military medical contacts with civilians were considerably less dramatic and celebrated- more on the level of assistant surgeon John S. Griffin's action during the 1840' s in treating an old man in Los Angeles for a dog bite.39

Aid to civilians continued as the frontier shifted westward after the Civil War. On the advancing frontier, a generation of Army medical men who would win renown in the twentieth century cared for civilians in

    37N.S. Jarvis, "Report on the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Epidemic Cholera in the Valley of the Rio Grande," Southern Medical Reports 1 (1849): 436, Ltr, C. A. Bell to R, Rinble, 25 Jun 1868, Letters Sent, Chief Medical Officer of Kentucky, entry 1091, Record Group 105, NA; Unlabeled newspaper clipping, in Medical Officers of the Civil War, p. 116, entry 86, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General, Record Group 112, NA.
    38Francis Paul Prucha, Broadax and, Bayonet: The Role of the United States Army in the Development of the Northwest, 1815-1860 (Madison State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1953), pp. 212-13; N.S. Jarvis, "An Army Surgeon's Notes on Frontier Service, 1833-48," Journal of the Military Service Institute 38 (1906): 132; Gillett, Medical Department, pp. 139-40.
    39Jesse S. Myer, Life and Letters of Dr. William. Beaumont (St. Louis: C.V. Mosby Co., 1912), p. 95 and passim; John S, Griffin, A Doctor Comes to California: The Diary of John S. Griffin, Assistant Surgeon with Kearny's Dragoons, 1846-1847, California Historical Society Publications No. 18 (San Francisco California Historical Society, 1943), pp. 84-85.


emergencies. Walter Reed once walked through a snowstorm to deliver a baby, and on two occasions William Gorgas nearly perished in a blizzard while trying to reach suffering civilians in isolated Dakota cabins. And George Sternberg had an active practice among settlers around his stations, among them a trapper whose life, he saved by an emergency amputation.40

Throughout the nineteenth century, whether aiding a community threatened by an epidemic or answering an emergency call, Army doctors established a tradition of helping civilians in need. Such work anticipated the time when the Medical Department would have greater resources and the medical profession greater skills. Then, Army medical personnel would play an important role in disaster relief.

In the meantime the involvement of both the federal government and the Army in disaster relief had changed. Where early in the century the federal government only hesitatingly approved minor rehabilitation programs, in later decades it undertook substantial relief missions on a routine, if still ad hoc, basis. Where before the Civil War, the Army had rarely been considered for such operations, it later served as the federal government's primary agent for disaster relief. Army assistance abroad lagged behind that at home, but even so the United States had begun to render aid in foreign countries and to contemplate the military as an agency for doing so.

    40Laura N. Wood, Walter Reed: Doctor in Uniform (New York: Julian Messner, 1943), pp.132-33; Marie D, Gorgas, and Burton J. Hendrick, William Crawford Gorgas: His Life and Work (Garden City, N.J. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1924), pp. 58-61; John M. Gibson, Soldier in White: The Life of General George Miller Sternberg (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1958), pp. 64, 85-86. For other examples, see Percy M. Ashburn, A History of the Medical Department of the United States Army (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1929), p. 116; Maria Brace Kimball, A Soldier-Doctor of Our Army (Boston Houghton Mifflin Co., 1917), pp. 53-54.