One hundred fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg, little evidence remains of the important role Philadelphia played in helping to heal its wounded. As the architect for the Quartermaster General’s Department in Philadelphia in the early 1860s, it was the duty of John McArthur, Jr.—who after the War would design City Hall—to draft twenty-four military hospitals where many patients came straight from the battlefield. One such ward, Mower U.S. Army General Hospital, stationed itself along the Chestnut Hill Railroad Company’s tracks, where the Market Square shopping center currently stands.
Recognizing the importance of keeping surgical hospitals in close proximity to the battlefield, the Union built several hospitals in the Philadelphia region due to the fact that many railroad lines transverse the city. Mower General, named in honor of Army surgeon Thomas Mower, was unique in its wheel-spoke construction when it opened in January 1863. The wagonwheel design allowed fresh air to flow through each radial hall of the sprawling 27 acre property; at the time, air circulation was considered crucial in battling disease. Fresh water from the nearby Chestnut Hill Water Company’s tower, built just four years prior, was used to flush toilets—into a nearby creek. (One man’s sanitation is another man’s pollution.)
Wounded soldiers from up and down the east coast were simply unloaded at the Chestnut Hill Railroad Station and transported right into the hospital, wasting little time toward their treatment and recovery. Under the watch of surgeon general Andrew Hopkins, Mower Hospital treated some 20,000 injured patients, returning 9,799 of them to active duty, and losing a mere 257.
After hostilities ended in 1865, the hospital was demolished and the site gave way to an 85 acre estate purchased that year by Chestnut Hill Water Company president Charles Heebner, a major land owner and developer in Chestnut Hill. Heebner then sold it in 1900 to Randal Morgan, vice president of United Gas Improvement Company. Temple University acquired the (by then overgrown) parcel of land in the 1950s and threatened to move the school there until the city agreed to federal funding and eminent domain, to both keep and grow the school in North Philadelphia. Development of the property ultimately saw a large commercial space and 3,000 residential units. (For a more detailed account of the sales and subsequent development of this tract, see Lou Mancinelli’s June 2011 story for the Chestnut Hill Local, archived online HERE.)
As the Birthplace of America, Philadelphia’s Revolutionary War history tends to outshine the lesser known but still important roles the city has played, even in the War Between the States. Mower General Hospital tends to exemplify this, with nothing remaining but a memory and a plaque.
Private William Ulsh, a soldier wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania, spent time recuperating at Mower and wrote a poem recounting his experience there, leaving a lasting positive impression:
Seven miles north on the railway cars
From Philadelphia City the remnant of wars
There’s a place where wounded men stop
There’s a nice Hospital in a nice spot.
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The author would like to thank Civil War historian Paula Gidjunis and historian of Civil War medicine and medical practices, Herb Kaufman, for their gracious assistance.