Culpeper Currents: Culpeper was a hospital town during the Civil War


In the spring of 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the town of Culpeper was the headquarters for the Confederate Provisional Army.  Under Colonel Philip St. George Cocke, a camp was established north of town on the land of Rev. Cumberland George.  The camp was named “Camp Henry” for former governor Patrick Henry.  Here the units that had been organized in the county, as well as some from more distant areas, gathered to train.  As more and more soldiers came and went from the camps, illnesses began to spread, including an outbreak of measles.

The focus turned to care of the sick, and a hospital was established at Camp Henry.  The town, then commonly known as “Culpeper Courthouse,” also began to receive, via train, the ill from the camps located near Manassas.  Soon every available building in Culpeper was housing sick soldiers.

On July 21 the Battle of Manassas occurred, and the army doctors and their local civilian help began treating all manner of wounded soldiers.  The injured and ill continued to arrive throughout the summer.  To make room in the hospitals for new cases, those soldiers considered to be on the road to recovery were hosted at homes throughout the county.

On September 8, 1861, a correspondent for the South Carolina newspaper The Charleston Courier toured Culpeper’s Confederate hospitals.  Later that month his anonymous article was published containing descriptions of the hospital sites.  Some excerpts:

Culpeper has been used as a hospital town for the Army of the Potomac, since about the middle of April.  Within these four months and a half, there have been received and treated about five thousand patients, of whom the total number of deaths has been only one hundred and ninety-two.


The first arrivals from Manassas were so comparatively few, that the sick could be easily accommodated in the large public buildings and private residences of the citizens; but as the summer wore on bringing its train of disorder, and the prospects of a battle increased, it became necessary to erect other structures, where the sufferers could be accommodated in greater numbers, and yet enjoy the comforts of a hospital existence.  This was accordingly done, and today I had the satisfaction of walking through a file, or rather files of scores of men confined from various causes, in these quarters.  That you may not think the buildings have been carelessly thrown together, or that they are mere barns or sheds, put up for the moment as if for the reception of so many cattle, follow me in a brief tour through one department.  We leave, say, either of the principal hotels, of which there are two.  A walk of five minutes brings us to what is known as the Smith’s Institute, a large old fashioned family mansion, which of late years has been used as a Seminary.


Reserving our visit inside for a few moments we pass on to various wards a dozen rods beyond.  Your first impression is that you are approaching a series of huge ten pin alleys, the structures being some two hundred and fifty feet in length and twenty-five or thirty in breadth.  I am bound to say, however, that these are mere eye measurements, and may be far from the fact.  The exterior is neatly white washed, and at intervals of every ten or fifteen feet, instead of a window of glass, you see a portion of the clapboarding, the size of an ordinary window, swinging on its axis, thus admitting at will both light and air.  At stated distances along the roof are further chimney-like openings for affording still more perfect ventilation.  Even before you enter, you are struck with the air of neatness, which pervades the neighborhood.  The ground has been swept as clean as a floor.  Not a particle of garbage, or waste of any kind, is in sight; but there is strewn a handful of chloride of lime.  Entering the long avenue like apartment, these agreeable sensations are reproduced and strengthened.  The atmosphere is as pure and sweet as if not one of fifteen or twenty suppurating wounds, to say nothing of fever sores and diseases were giving forth a horrible odor.  The floor is almost as clean as the top of a dining table, except where, here and there, by some bedside is sprinkled the usual disinfectant or laid the inevitable spit box.  In most instances this has been unsuccessfully shot at by the feeble patient.  I may remark that many of the convalescents are by no means as good markers with their tobacco juice as with their muskets.


The interior exhibits the plain rafters which constitute the roof and the uprights which form the sides of the house, but the deficiency, if such it can be called, is rather pleasing to the eye than otherwise, for it conveys an idea of airiness, lightness and summer comfort which would not be experienced with plastered walls and ceilings.


The Smith’s Institute to which we have now retraced our steps, is for the most part occupied by the nurses, attendants and convalescents.  Some of the rooms are likewise used to store the sheets, under-clothing, medicines and delicacies which are received from various sources.

Smith’s Institute, more formally known as the Piedmont Academy, was a boy’s school operated by Edward Smith and Magill Smith.  It was situated in two connected houses located along current day Wine Street .  The two hotels mentioned by the writer were the Waverley Hotel beyond the railroad tracks at the end of Davis Street, and the Virginia Hotel on Main Street.

The correspondent continued his tour with the other hospital complex in Culpeper, this one on the south end of town and known as the “Barrack’s Hospital”:

Compared with what we have just visited, this is purgatory to a Paradise.  The buildings are nineteen in number, and previous to their present use were occupied as barracks by the soldiers.  I said “buildings”.  They are really mere sheds, enclosed on all sides, it is true, but with the exception of ventilation are almost entirely destitute of anything that should constitute a hospital.  The roof descends nearly to the heads of the beds, of which there are twenty in each shed, and there is no floor but the hard, well swept earth, except under the bunks, where a few dirty planks are loosely laid, upon which the patients may step.  There are no tables except those used by the nurses and attendants, and few of those luxuries are to be seen, which invest a sick chamber with an air of cheerfulness and comfort.


A few hundred yards from the barrack hospital is the soldier’s grave yard – a pretty tract of ground which has been purchased and neatly fenced in under the auspices of Col. Taylor, for the exclusive occupation of the dead volunteers.  There are now three rows extending from end to end of the lot in mathematical order, the graves being about three feet apart.  To facilitate recognition, so that the bodies may be removed at any time, a neat wooden head board is placed at the head of each grave with the name of the deceased, his regiment and date of death, painted thereon. This is the only institution of the kind which exists in the State as far as I have been informed and thanks are due to the commandant of the post for the care he has thus taken to mark and preserve the temporary resting places of the brave dead.

This cemetery sat on the western side of current South Blue Ridge Avenue.  The bodies were removed from this site and reinterred under the Confederate Monument at Citizen’s Cemetery (later renamed Fairview Cemetery) in 1881.

Julie Bushong is the historian at the Culpeper County Library.