Charles L. Allen, MD: The making of a surgeon
Wilcox, Kean E
Vermont’s Charles Allen was better prepared than most period doctors to become a Union Army brigade surge on.
On of the many deficiencies facing the Union Army during the first year of the Civil War, one with a very high priority, was the need to increase the size of the Army’s Medical Department. Eventually the Regular Army’s Medical Department included a surgeon-general, an assistant surgeon-general; a medical inspectorgeneral, 16 medical inspectors, and 170 surgeons and assistant surgeons. In addition to those in the Regular Army, over 12,000 doctors would serve the Union’s huge volunteer army before the war’s end. Individual states once again were called on to supply medical personnel for military service.
Lincoln’s proclamation on May 3, 1861, and acts of Congress of July 22 and August 3 of that year called for the appointment of volunteer medical officers to positions of medical directors and brigade surgeons, the hiring of civilian doctors under contract to serve as assistant surgeons, and the establishment of a corps of medical cadets to serve in hospitals and in the field as ambulance attendants. In total there were 547 surgeons and assistant surgeons of volunteers appointed, as well as 5,991 regimental surgeons and regimental assistant surgeons mustered into service and another 5,617 doctors under contract to the military acting as staff surgeons and acting assistant surgeons.
The logistical and administrative problems involved in medical care were immense and were mainly handled by those commissioned as brigade surgeons of volunteers. These men held the rank of major with the same duties as those in the Regular Army.
Dr. Charles Linneaus Allen was one who served in that capacity. The son of Jonathan and Betsy Allen of Middlebury, Vermont, Charles was born in 1820. Johnathan Adams Allen was the principal consulting physician and surgeon in the area. Young Allen graduated from Middlebury College in 1842, then studied medicine under his father, graduating in medicine from Castleton Medical College in 1846. He entered into practice with his father and took over the practice entirely when Dr. Johnathan Adams died in 1848, continuing to provided medical care for what was a mostly farming community for some 20 miles around.
Like his father before him, Allen accepted an appointment as professor at Castleton in February 1855. He taught courses for a year before being forced to resign because of private practice conflicts. He was very active in his profession, however, being elected president of the Vermont State Medical Society in 1858 and serving as a delegate to the American Medical Association, attending AMA conventions in New York (1853), Detroit (1856), and New Haven, Connecticut (1860). He was also elected by the state society to head the committee to prepare Vermont’s annual report on births, deaths, and marriages. Three of the four reports he presented were published by order of the state legislature, so he was obviously competent to take on complicated and lengthy administrative tasks.
In 1860 Allen returned to Castleton as professor of medical theory and practice. He was also named dean of the faculty and, in the late spring of 1861, was named professor of surgery when his predecessor became regimental surgeon in the Ist Vermont Infantry. From then until 1865 the war would be the deciding factor in his career.
In the fall of 1861 Allen was appointed to the medical board to examine candidates for surgeon and assistant surgeon of Vermont’s volunteers, making frequent trips to Washington where the board met. Allen served briefly as professor of medicine at the University of Vermont, Burlington, in the spring of 1862, but when Vermont troops went into action at Yorktown, Allen received a letter from the governor telling him to “hold yourself in readiness.” As casualties returned to Vermont, Allen, helped by four medical students, found himself in charge of 50 wounded and 25 sick. These Allen and his assistants cared for during the four days while they were brought by steamboat up the Hudson River and then by train to Burlington. Thus Allen held the position of surgeon in the 9th Vermont for a short time.
By June Allen was being considered for commission to brigade surgeon of volunteers, which he was commissioned on June 25. This position was primarily an administrative one, and there was much work to be done as the war grew larger and more intense. Allen remained in Washington for the next year and a half, caring for sick and wounded officers and serving on the Army Medical Board selecting doctors for military service.
On February 14, 1864, Allen received orders to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he was put in charge of U.S. General Hospital No. 2, Beaufort. On June I Allen became the Medical Purveyor, Department of the South, at Hilton Head, a position that meant immense and endless responsibilities. He served as medical purveyor until August 5, 1864, at which time he resigned his commission and returned to Vermont.
His duties were not finished, as shown by this letter to the surgeon general dated January 18, 1865: “I have just received from the War Department a refusal of my request to employ a civilian clerk to make the returns of the Medical Purveying Department at Hilton Head, S.C. while I was in charge of the same. The general will recollect that …. at no time did I have clerks enough to do the job…. Thus, I had no means of making my returns.”
Allen then requested a hospital steward assigned him in Vermont to complete these returns.
It’s unknown if he received this help.
Allen and M. Gertrude Lyon were married at Middlesex, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1865. They returned to Rutland, Vermont, where he resumed a successful private practice. According to the 1880 Census, the Aliens lived at 76 Main St., Rutland; had three sons, a daughter, two female servants; and a young stableboy. Gertrude Allen died in 1889 and Allen died the following year of “apoplexy, duration of illness, 3 1/2 hours.”
Copyright Military Images Jul/Aug 2002
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