History Behind the Story #2: The Roper Hospital in Charleston
THE HISTORY: It all started with a bequest. Colonel Thomas Roper, a former mayor of Charleston, left the Medical Society of South Carolina $30,000, which, along with other donations and city funds, was ultimately used in 1852 to build the Roper Hospital. The building was located on the corner of Queen and Logan Streets. It proclaimed the following mission: “to treat all sick and injured people ‘without regard to complexion, religion, or nation.’” I probably don’t have to tell you that this mission was pretty progressive for its time. The Roper Hospital was intended to be charitable from its foundation. In fact, it was specifically intended to benefit “paupers,” the word in that day for financially disadvantaged people.
Hospitals were a little different from today. In the Victorian Era, those who could afford it were traditionally treated at home. Therefore, any hospital was first and foremost a chartable institution, whatever else they might also do. And the Roper Hospital did a lot!
There was a Medical College in Charleston, and Roper served as the teaching hospital for the new doctors/trainees. The hospital was adjacent to the College, so that made it easy for students to go back and forth. This is quite a modern system, kind of like the university hospitals we see today.
The hospital didn’t start out soft—its beginning constituted more of a baptism by fire. Roper was forced to contend fairly quickly with various epidemics, including Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and Typhoid. There was also the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, which was covered in the last History Behind the Story article. The Charleston fire doesn’t seem to have touched the hospital building, but it seems almost certain that the injured and burned were brought to the hospital.
And of course, there was the Civil War. Trustees are required to try to carry out the purposes for which the organization they serve (in this case, the hospital) was founded. Therefore, when he Civil War started, the Roper Hospital trustees were concerned about there not being enough room for its mentally ill and poor patients if thousands of Confederate wounded were allowed to be treated at the hospital.
You see, the Confederacy had a hospital problem. While the Union was able to form a very cohesive medical system with hospitals specifically designated as military hospitals, the Confederacy had nothing really of the sort. It had a system cobbled together from private donors and hospitals that were willing to open their doors. I won’t say there was no effort to create a medical system that functioned cohesively, but there were never enough funds.
Therefore, it was really up to the Roper Hospital as to whether they would open their doors to wounded and sick soldiers. But Roper did become an unofficial military treating hospital. I can find no documentation as to why this happened over the objection of the trustees, but if I was guessing, I would say it was probably the pressure of public opinion.
Let me place the Roper Hospital in its place in history at the outbreak of the Civil War. I tend to think of the leaders in the American medical field being located in Philadelphia or New York during the Victorian Era. But Charleston was the largest and wealthiest city south of Philadelphia, so it was able to compete in the profession.
Roper Hospital was a teaching hospital, which means it was on the cusp of the latest innovations in medicine. It also was only five years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, which means it was well-equipped and state-of-the art. One source says, “Very modern for its day, it contained a library, a large amphitheater for clinical lectures, and living quarters for physicians.” So this was a pretty large operation.
There is not a lot in the way of comprehensive online records for Roper Hospital, so I had to be a bit of a sleuth, scrapping together mentions here and there of the hospital’s war years. For Northern Fire, I had to base Shannon’s experience as a nurse largely off of the experience of other Civil War nurses, both Union and Confederate because I could find nothing on the actual experience of nurses for Roper specifically.
But here were a few things I was able to find about the war years. One article says that “the hospital…served as a Confederate Hospital and prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War.”  I did a double take when I saw the word “prison.” But I’m assuming that what is meant is that is, if there were wounded Union soldiers who fell into Confederate hands, they were treated at the hospital under a technical status of prisoner. After they recovered, they would have been dealt with as would any other prisoner, which means they would have been paroled or sent to a Confederate prison.
We do know that women were instrumental in keeping the hospitals supplied. The Soldiers’ Relief Association distributed supplies to the various hospitals in Charleston, including Roper. There seem to have been at least nine hospitals in Charleston during the Civil War, and the Association provided supplies to them all. Supplies would have included food, wine, clothing, bedding, and the all-important mosquito nets. The number of hospitals would have caused, I imagine, competition for supplies as the blockade tightened over the war years.
Since my main character, Shannon, would have been of high social standing, let’s focus on the history of women in her position. It has long been known that ladies provided help to hospitals in the form of letter writing and bringing baskets of food and the like to the soldiers. However, necessity meant that their work was actually a little grittier than that. They often became full-fledged nurses, which meant they had to contend with gangrene, lice, body lice, various contagious diseases, gruesome surgeries, and any other issue a patient might be facing. In other words, they got their hands dirty, too.
It was fairly common for a female relative of an injured soldier to go and act as nurse to their family member, so I think it is likely that the Roper Hospital had family members in and out all the time, likely even staying on its premises wherever they could fit.
I won’t go into detail about all that women did as nurses and hospital staff during the war because that could take up several books. But I will add that often it was enslaved or Free Black women who kept the hospitals running by cooking, cleaning, and providing support staff. I can find no evidence in the Roper Hospital records available of who provided such services, but I think it is likely that Roper was no different from the norm.
When Charleston fell, Roper Hospital was taken over by Union forces. Later, it was able to continue its operations. The original Roper Hospital was damaged in a tornado in 1885 and destroyed in an earthquake in 1886 (geez, so many disasters in Charleston!). But the hospital was rebuilt and is still in operation today.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Since records were a little difficult to find on Roper Hospital, I thought we would do the Personal Spotlight on my fictional character, Phoebe. If you’ve read the Series so far, you know that Phoebe was enslaved by the Ravenel family at one time. However, Shannon’s husband insisted that she be freed if she went to the North with them as Shannon’s servant. Therefore, Shannon’s father freed Phoebe around the time of Shannon’s marriage.
As a condition of allowing Shannon to work at the hospital as a nurse, Shannon’s father insists that Phoebe accompany her. Phoebe does so, where she works and encounters several instances of discrimination. Phoebe was in a bit of an interesting role as a “Free Black” in Charleston during the war. However, there had always been a fairly significant Free Black population in Charleston, and I don’t think it is stretching reality at all to think that women like Phoebe would have played a significant role in hospitals in the Confederacy during the war.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Have you ever imagined yourself as a nurse during the Civil War? What must it have been like for elegant ladies to have to make that transition? We tend to think favorably of those who acted as nurses and scoff at those who hesitated. But have you pictured yourself, if you are like me and are not trained in medicine, leaving your parlor, assisting in multiple amputations per day, tending gangrenous wounds, and dealing with the lice and smells? It had to have been a difficult adjustment!
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Look at this beauty!
Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Archives
Italianate architecture was very much in vogue in the 1850’s. You see it all over the South. Notice how piazzas grace all three of its stories. There are also six towers, one at every corner and two at the main entrance. I could definitely see Shannon (if forced to work) gracing such an establishment.
Stop by next time for some neat history on Naval Quarantines – something to which we can all, unfortunately, now relate!
Brown, Jane McCutchen, “Roper Hospital,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/roper-hospital/, June 20, 2016.
Daughters of the Confederacy, “South Carolina Women in the Confederacy,” Big Byte Books, 2016.
“Online Exhibits, Civil War Photographs by George Barnard,” http://archives.nd.edu/research/exhibits/barnard/39.html.
“Records of the Commissioners of the City Hospital, 1879-1907,” Charleston County Public Library.
“Roper Hospital,” Waring Historical Library, http://waring.library.musc.edu/exhibits/earthquake/Roper.php.
“Roper Hospital Records,” MSS 300, Waring Historical Library, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, http://waring.library.musc.edu/finding-aids/pdf/mss-0300.pdf.
Photo Credit for Feature Photo: South Carolina Encyclopedia
 The Medical Society of South Carolina was the trustee, which makes sense since the Society was initially left the bequest.
 “Roper Hospital.”