June 21st, 2013: Member Submission: Joseph Hemphill Wilson

Posted on: 06/21/2013

Joseph Hemphill Wilson believed in the preservation of the Union and helped to organize troops within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to protect both his home state and the country.  He was also one of the many casualties of the war, but not of enemy lead.  He was felled by a far more elusive enemy – disease.

150 years ago, medical care was nothing like what we expect it to be today. According to one Union army surgeon, the American Civil War was fought “at the end of the medical Middle Ages.”  Fewer than 50 medical schools existed in 1860 throughout the country and, at the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Army medical staff consisted of approximately 87 people, not all of whom were trained in one of those institutions.  In the South, there were even less trained doctors, many of whom had served in the U.S. Army prior to the outbreak of the war.

Joseph Hemphill Wilson was born in North Sewickley, Beaver County Pennsylvania on May 16, 1820 to Thomas Wilson and Nancy Agnes Hemphill Wilson and was the ninth of 12 children. He graduated from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania and was admitted to the bar in 1850.  He served as the District Attorney of Beaver County for three years and was later elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives serving Beaver and Lawrence Counties from 1856 to 1861.

As he was an active participant in Pennsylvania before the war, Joseph H. Wilson was also very much involved with Pennsylvania’s preparations for the conflict and had served as Captain, Major, Colonel, and Major General of the militia. Wilson enlisted on September 17, 1861 in Pittsburgh as a Colonel and was put in command of seven companies which included men recruited from Allegheny, Beaver, and Lawrence counties.  An additional three companies from Adams, Bedford, and Tioga were added when they were moved to Camp Curtain near Harrisburg in October of 1861.  The units were organized as the 101st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, nicknamed the “Keystone Regiment”, for three year terms and left for Washington in late February 1862 after being presented their colors by Governor Curtain. The 101st was part of the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brigadier General W. H. Kiem, 3rd Division under General Silas Casey, 4th Army Corps under General Keyes. In early spring, they were involved in Peninsula battles including Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Fair Oaks.

According to Edward Boots, 101st PA Historian, “No regiment that served through the Civil War from the state of Pennsylvania was more representative of the entire citizenship of the State than was the 101st Regiment. Not only representing all sections of the State it also represented all classes such as professional men, the merchant, the mechanic, the farmer, and the common laborer.” 

The 101st PA arrived in Virginia at two locations on April 2, 1862: Fort Monroe and Newport.  Once assembled, and after all units received Austrian rifles, they marched to Yorktown on April 16.  Colonel Wilson commanded the regiment at the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of Williamsburg where the regiment was held in reserve.  They were, however, targets and endured heavy fire from the Confederates.

Shortly after the Battle of Williamsburg, many members of the regiment became ill with a fever and had to be left behind.  On May 5, Colonel Wilson was also stricken with a fever and was left to be cared for at Roper’s Church, Virginia.  Lieutenant Colonel Morris took over command. 

The 101st and the Army of the Potomac headed for Richmond on May 10.  They arrived at McClellan’s headquarters, the White House and former residence of Robert E. Lee, in mid-May. It was during this time that many of the troops saw McClellan for the first time.

After the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines the 101st learned that Colonel Wilson had succumbed to Typhoid Fever on May 30, 1862.  General Kiem was also stricken and passed away from the same illness.  Command of the brigade went to Colonel Howell, of the 85th Pennsylvania and eventually to General Wessells. As many as 281 enlisted men died from the dreaded disease and many of those who survived were not able to continue to serve.

Typhoid Fever, or Typhoid, is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi and is still common in the developing world today. Water used for drinking or washing food items that had been contaminated by the bacteria was the probable cause for the outbreak in 1862.  It might also have been spread by handling or eating food or drinking liquids contaminated by those who had been infected and were shedding the bacteria.  About 3% to 5% of people who have had the disease still carry it even without exhibiting symptoms and can unknowingly spread it.  It was possible, if the camp cook carried the disease, to pass it on to those in the ranks, however, contaminated streams were the main culprits in the spread of Typhoid.  It is estimated that up to 30,000 Union soldiers died from this disease alone.  It is thought that one quarter of Confederate non-combat deaths were the result of Typhoid. The virulent disease was part of what was referred to as Camp Fever, which also included malaria.

Since there was little understanding of the bacterial cause, preventative measures were not taken.  Doctors treated the sick with mercury, chalk, opium, morphine, and quinine.  In addition to the lack of understanding the cause, the sheer number of cases and the lack of trained medical professionals made it almost impossible to contain. 

Colonel Wilson’s body was recovered by his brother, John Hayes Wilson, and is buried in Zelienople, Pennsylvania.  He was posthumously promoted to Major General of the Militia by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although he only lived to the age of 42, his contributions to the Union and to Pennsylvania were great.  

Colonel Wilson is the ancestor of Friends of Gettysburg member Alan Wilson of Zelienople, PA.  Many thanks to Alan for submitting his ancestor to appear on Great Task.

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