(Side wheel Steamer: tonnage 786; length 256’; draft 8’; speed 8 knots; complement 47; medical department 30+; armament 1 32-pounder)
Red Rover, the Navy's first hospital ship, was a side-wheel steamer built in 1859 at Cape Girardeau, Mo. Purchased by the Confederacy 7 November 1861, she served as CSS Red Rover (see II, 560), a barracks ship for the floating battery New Orleans. At Island No. 10, near New Madrid, Mo., from 15 March 1862, she was holed during a bombardment of that island sometime before 25 March and abandoned as a quarters ship.
When the island fell to Union forces on 7 April, Red Rover was seized by the Union gunboat Mound City, repaired, and taken to St. Louis. There she was fitted out as a summer hospital boat for the Army's Western Flotilla to augment limited Union medical facilities, to minimize the hazards to sick and wounded in fighting ships; and to ease the problems of transportation-delivery of medical supplies to and evacuation of personnel from forward areas.
Steamers, such as City of Memphis, were being used as hospital transports to carry casualties upriver, but they lacked necessary sanitary accommodations and medical staffs, and thus were unable to prevent the spread of disease.
Rapid mobilization at the start of the Civil War had vitiated efforts to prevent the outbreak and epidemic communication of disease on both sides of the conflict. Vaccination was slow; sanitation and hygiene were generally poor. Overworked military medical personnel were assisted by voluntary societies coordinated by the Sanitary Commission founded in June 1861. But by 1865 typhoid fever, typhus, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, smallpox, measles, and malaria would claim more lives than gunshot.
Red Rover, serving first with the Army, then with the Navy, drew on both military and voluntary medical personnel. Her conversion to a hospital boat, begun at St. Louis and completed at Cairo, Ill., was accomplished with both sanitation and comfort in mind. A separate operating room was installed and equipped. A galley was put below, providing separate kitchen facilities for the patients. The cabin aft was opened for better air circulation. A steam boiler was added for laundry purposes. An elevator, numerous bathrooms, nine water closets, and gauze window blinds "... to keep cinders and smoke from annoying the sick" were also included in the work.
Barges, housed over or covered with canvas, were ordered for the care of contagious diseases, primarily smallpox, and were moored in shady spots along the river.
On 10 June 1862, Red Rover was ready for service. Her commanding officer was Captain McDaniel of the Army's Gunboat Service. Assistant Surgeon George H. Bixby became Surgeon in Charge.
On 11 June, Red Rover received her first patient, a cholera victim. By the 14th she had 55 patients. On the 17th, Mound City exploded during an engagement with Confederate batteries at St. Charles, Ark. Casualties amounted to 135 out of a complement of 175. Red Rover, dispatched to assist in the emergency, took on board extreme burn and wound cases at Memphis and transported them to less crowded hospitals in Illinois.
From Mound City, III., the hospital boat moved down-stream again and joined the Western Flotilla above Vicksburg. Through the summer, she treated sick and wounded of the flotilla and the Ram Fleet engaged at Vicksburg and along the Mississippi to Helena, Ark. While off the latter point, she caught fire, but, with assistance from the gunboat Benton, extinguished the blaze and continued her work.
In September 1862, Red Rover, still legally under the jurisdiction of an Illinois prize court, was sent to Cairo, III., to be winterized. On the 30th, she was purchased by the Navy.
The next day, the vessels of the Western Flotilla, with their officers and men, were transferred to the Navy Department and became the Mississippi Squadron under acting Rear Adm. David D. Porter. The Navy Medical Department of Western Waters was organized at the same time under Fleet Surg. Edward Gilchrist.
In December Red Rover, used during the fall to alleviate crowded medical facilities ashore, was ready for service on the river. On the 26th, she was commissioned under the command of Acting Master William R. Wells, USN. Her complement was 47, while her medical department, remaining under Assistant Surgeon Bixby, was initially about 30. Of that number, three were Sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross. Later joined by a fourth member of their order and assisted by lay nurses' aides, they were the forerunners of the Navy Nurse Corps.
The work of these and other volunteers was coordinated by the Western Sanitation Commission, which also donated over $3,000 worth of equipment to the ship.
In December 1862 Fleet Surg. Ninian A. Pinckney relieved Fleet Surg. Edward Gilchrist. The administration and strict standards of day-to-day activities of the department were so well run under Pinckney from his headquarters in Red Rover, that by 1865 he was able to write "there is less ... sickness in the Fleet than in the healthiest portion of the globe."
On the 29th, Red Rover headed downstream. During January 1863, she served with the expedition up the White River. As the expedition took the Port of Arkansas (Fort Hindman), she remained at the mouth of the river to receive the wounded. On her departure, she was fired on and two shots penetrated into the hospital area, but no casualties resulted.
From February to the fall of Vicksburg early in July, she cared for the sick and wounded of that campaign and supplemented her medical support of Union forces by provisioning other ships of the Mississippi Squadron with ice and fresh meat. She also provided burial details and sent medical personnel ashore when and where needed.
Red Rover continued her service along the river, taking on sick and wounded and delivering medicine and supplies, until the fall of 1864. In October of that year, she began her last supply run; and, after delivering medical stores to ships at Helena and on the White, Red, and Yazoo Rivers, she transferred patients to Hospital Pinckney at Memphis and headed north. Arriving at Mound City on 11 December, she remained there, caring for Navy patients, until she was decommissioned on 17 November 1865. Having admitted over 2,400 patients during her career, she transferred her last 11 to Grampus on that date. On 29 November she was sold at public auction to A. M. Carpenter.
23 September 2005