Chenango in the Civil War: Guilford’s Civil War Surgeon – Dr. Rufus H. Gilbert

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with the Chenango County Civil War Commemoration Project Team, The Evening Sun will present a monthly series chronicling items of local interest during the war between the states, compiled and written by a number of local history enthusiasts.

By Thomas Gray

Guilford Town Historian

Abner Gilbert (1786-1862) and his wife Betsy (1794-1870) came from Harrington, CT. to Guilford in 1812. The family settled on a piece of land where they farmed on the west side of the North Road (Rt. 36) near the Old Four Corners in North Guilford. They were both members of the Congregational Church of North Guilford. Abner Gilbert is listed on the 1855 map and the census listed him as sixty-nine years old. On the 1863 map the property is listed as H & D. Gilbert. They were his two sons, Horace and Delos Gilbert who inherited the farm after the death of their father. It remained in the Gilbert family until about 1875 when it was sold to G. Wood. Another son of Abner and Betsy was William D. Gilbert who married Almira Rhodes, the daughter of Capt. Joseph Rhodes.

From 1832 to 1844 William Gilbert and his family moved and owned one of the first plaster mills in the hamlet of Guilford on the corner of Furnace Hill Road (later the Anthony residence) and also a small general store on the east corner of the intersection with Main Street. After Almira died, he decided to move in 1844 with his children to Canton, Steuben County, NY where he became a postmaster and then an Associate Judge.

The story of one of William and Almira’s sons is a fascinating piece of American history. His son was Rufus Gilbert (1832-1885). His lengthy obituary in the New York Times (July 11, 1885) recalled his life. He lived in Guilford until he was twelve years old when his father moved to Canton, NY. When a young man, Rufus moved to Corning, NY where he worked as an apprentice to a manufacturing firm. His interest in medicine led him to New York City where he studied medicine under Dr. William Parker and later graduated from the New York City College of Physicians and Surgeons. He returned to Corning, NY where he married the daughter of Chief Justice Maynard.

When the Civil War began, Dr. Gilbert enlisted at the age of twenty-nine on April 25, 1861 in New York City. In May 14, 1861 he was commissioned an officer with Company S - New York State 5th Infantry Regiment known as the Duryee’s Zouaves. On Aug. 3, 1861 he was promoted to Major in the US Volunteer Medical Staff and transferred to the regular service where he continued until the end of the war. In the battle of Big Bethel he performed the first surgical operation made under fire during the Civil War. He was promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on June 1, 1865.

We read of the horrors of battle in the Civil War and recall that many of the soldiers wounded did not die immediately. Many suffered and died in the Civil War prisons. Many others died in the surgical tent of the Civil War doctors. Only a small percentage of doctors in that time period were trained in surgical procedures. Dr. Rufus Gilbert was one to the doctors who had that surgical training. He was promoted and began training a number of doctors in surgical amputation procedures.

The age of anesthesia had arrived with the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in 1844 followed by ether in 1846. The use of chloroform for surgical operations began in 1847. All three were available at the time of the Civil War. Anesthesia saved countless patients from the terrible pain of surgery. In the surgical tents during the Civil War chloroform was the choice anesthesia since it was not flammable and easy to administer. What was not discovered at this time was antiseptic surgery to prevent infection. It was common for surgeons to amputate a body part due to the spread of infection. It would not be until 1879 when the medical profession would accept Dr. Joseph Lister’s research in England on antiseptic surgery but it was developed too late for the Civil War wounded. Surgical tents were filled with soldiers suffering deadly fevers after surgery that resulted from unclean instruments and bloody or soiled bandages that were reused.

During the Crimean War, the 58 caliber Mine bullet and firearm was invented to increase the muzzle velocity and enabled a soldier to reload faster and fire more accurately. It became the most common firearm in the Civil War. Bullet wounds were severe causing large gaping holes in the wounded soldier. Of the wounded soldiers, 70% of the wounds were to the extremities. Due to the size of the wound, doctors could not successfully treat patients due to the threat of infection. The common operation was then amputation under chloroform using bone saws. Doctors became known as “sawbones.” It was Dr. Gilbert who trained other doctors in surgical techniques of amputation but the danger of infection continued with surgical fevers from infection. These fevers were deadly pyemia or gangrene. Of the 620,000 soldiers who died, it is estimated that one third of them died from wounds and amputations. In Dr. Gilbert’s Duryee’s Zouaves Regiment, 211 died out of 1,508 soldiers. Before Dr. Rufus Gilbert was mustered out on July 3, 1865, he was promoted to the Medical Director and Superintendent of US Army Hospitals continuing to train doctors in surgical procedures.

In 1867 following the death of his first wife and intestinal problems from the war, he left the medical profession and traveled to London and then to Paris observing how the underground transit lines using pneumatic tubes would allow the workers to live further from their work. He believed that a similar system of rapid transit in the United States would result in the migration of the poor workers from the crowded city slums that bred disease and infection. The workers could then commute to the nearby suburbs that would result in better health conditions for workers.

He returned to the United States and took a position as Assistant Superintendent of the Central Railroad of NJ where he worked on plans for an elevated railroad in New York City. His first plans that were patterned in 1872 were for elevated pneumatic tubes to transport workers in railroad cars. An experimental line was constructed after Albany approved the charter for funding. The plans were discarded for an elevated railroad using stream traction but the financial crisis and litigation from property owners and horse cart owners postponed the construction until 1877. Rufus formed a company and completed a line in New York City from the Battery to Central Park running on Sixth Avenue in 1878. It was known as the Gilbert Elevated Railroad. Anyone that has traveled the subways and elevated subway lines in New York City or the “EL” recognize his invention.

Dr. Rufus Gilbert continued to suffer from intestinal problems from his time in the Civil War and was an invalid in his later years living alone in a house on West 73rd St in New York City. His second wife and his two children lived apart from him in the last two years of his life. His pain became severe from inflammation of his bowels. He was also depressed from further litigation that he was forced to start when the Metropolitan Railroad Company took over his company and he lost his stock holdings. He died in his NYC home on July 11, 1885 with only a railroad friend by his side (NY Times obit.). His grandfather, grandmother, mother, father and many of his brothers and sisters are buried in North Guilford Cemetery but the cemetery where he is buried is most likely in New York City. As sad as his ending was, he is recognized today as another of our Guilford residents who became part of the history of our country.

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