By Patrick Farris
Front Royal hosted a hospital during the Civil War, a sometimes overlooked fact concerning local history during that conflict.
At the height of its half-year in Front Royal, the hospital and its staff were described as accommodating the following: 500 patients in two new buildings, 200 patients in the courthouse, and additional numbers in the Baptist church, Episcopal church and the Academy (Simpson's place).
Dr. Benjamin Blackford certainly did not find these conditions upon arrival in September of 1861. Having enlisted as an assistant surgeon on April 26 earlier the same year, Blackford joined up with other volunteering units from the Lynchburg area. These units rode by rail in April from Lynchburg to Richmond, where Jubal Early - hailing from the same region of Virginia as these volunteers - swore the units into service with the Confederate Army.
On May 6, Robert E. Lee orders the 11th Virginia, as the Lynchburg Area units are by this point collectively grouped, to Manassas Gap Junction, and it is from there in the following month that the 11th receives its baptism of fire at First Manassas. Three months later, Blackford is ordered to Front Royal to take command of the hospital to be constructed there, partly out of the impending and expected need of such a facility, and partly as a result of the many camp casualties already building in number as poor living conditions gave rise to communicable diseases.
Front Royal is a logical location for a hospital in the autumn of 1861, as it is not perceived at the time that the Federals can or will push this far south in the Shenandoah Valley, and the railroad to Front Royal comes directly from Manassas and other northern Virginia front line locations certain to generate future casualties.
We are fortunate in that Blackford kept a record of his correspondence with the medical headquarters in Manassas, and it is from that source that most of the following information about the Front Royal Hospital was gleaned. The following tidbits from his journal show the hospital's interaction with the local population:
- Colonel commanding the 11th Regiment North Carolina reprimanded for the impropriety of sending men to convalesce in private homes (Oct. 1, 1861).
- Patients may not be housed in churches without the consent of the trustees (Oct. 6, 1861).
- (From Blackford to headquarters) "Dear Sir, I have the honor to report that P.S. Gregory and E.D. Wright of the Jeff Davis Artillery, patients in this hospital, purchased from Pomeroy, a distiller in this neighborhood, about forty or fifty gallons of whisky - and had it put up in large boxes marked "Soldiers Supplies" - and ready at the depot to be transported to Manassas for the use of their company. I reported the fact to Captain Brinkel, the commander of the post, and requested him to seize it.
These men stated that their company was an independent Corps, and they had a right to take anything into their company they pleased. Being aware that it was contrary to the orders of General Johnson not to permit liquors to be admitted into the lines of the Army of the Potomac, I deemed it necessary to take possession of the liquor. I respectfully ask instructions in regard to the disposition. I shall confiscate it for the use of the hospital, or allow it to remain subject to the orders of the Inspector General. I informed Privates Wright and Gregory that the liquor would not be disposed of until instructions came from the proper authorities. I also respectfully call your attention to the fact that there is a large quantity of the liquor sent from this depot to Manassas, and respectfully suggest that some steps be taken to prevent this traffic in liquor.
There are several distillers in operation in this vicinity and I am credibly informed that it is sold not only to soldiers on furlough but to patients in this hospital. I have adopted every measure I possibly could to prevent its sale to patients in the hospital, but of course my authority does not extend to others."
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.