Rainsford Island Hospital and Marginalized Veterans

Main building, Rainsford Island Hospital, Boston Harbor, after it fell out of use. The soldiers’ hospital was located in separate barracks.

My dissertation focuses on the improvised, decentralized network of relief organizations and programs that formed to aid the Civil War veteran during and in the years immediately after the war. I argue that these forms of support were, contrary to some interpretations, generally successful. However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the failures. And so I explore the sad case of the state soldiers’ hospital on Rainsford Island in Boston harbor. It serves as an important reminder that even as civilians and veterans labored together to aid returning soldiers in need, not all of those discharged soldiers received fair treatment or the attention they deserved. Certain populations, as the story of Rainsford Island demonstrates, were marginalized based on ethnicity, race, or perceived immorality. The numbers here were not large—about 200 soldiers—but their backgrounds were telling. My research on Rainsford Island Hospital shows that it held a disproportionate amount of immigrants and African-Americans under less-than-ideal circumstances.[1] Here’s some background on just one of them:

James Brown signed up as a private with the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry on December 30, 1864. He was born in Gloucester County, Virginia—whether free or enslaved is not clear. At the time of his enlistment in Concord, Massachusetts, he was 19 and working as a farmer. One can only speculate as to how he came to be so far from his birthplace.[2]

The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry served dismounted (essentially as infantry) in the fighting before and during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. During this campaign, Private Brown was only about 50 miles from his birthplace of Gloucester County and we can only wonder what he thought of that. When Richmond fell, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was one of the first federal units to enter the city. After the war’s end, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, like many African-American units, remained in service. They were shipped to Texas where the federal government massed troops due to the unrest caused by Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. The regiment’s service in Texas was uneventful and they were mustered out in Clarksville, Texas on October 31, 1865. They were shipped back to Boston where the regiment was paid and discharged at the end of November.

A little over a month later, Private Brown was admitted to the hospital on Rainsford Island, suffering from phthisis (or tuberculosis) on January 3, 1866. He died there on January 4. His body was not claimed and was buried in the island’s cemetery which, by the turn of the 20th century, was utterly neglected and partially reclaimed by tide and shifting sand. An effort was at least begun on paper by the city of Boston to move the bodies of U.S. veterans to the cemetery on Long Island. However, according to a recent investigation, and despite a plaque at Long Island indicating the reinternment there of 79 soldiers, there is no evidence that the removals ever actually took place. Private Brown’s remains lie beneath the sands of Rainsford Island, unmarked, with approximately 1,700 others, mostly civilians, who died at Rainsford Island Hospital.[3]

[1] Based on my tabulation of the admissions register, Rainsford Island Hospital Records, Massachusetts Adjutant General’s records, unprocessed collection, Massachusetts Archives.

[2] Rainsford Island Hospital register; U.S. Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865, via ancestry.com in association with the National Archives and Records Administration.

[3] William A. McEvoy, Jr. and Robin Hazard Ray, Rainsford Island: A Boston Harbor Case Study in Public Neglect and Private Activism. Online book through the blog of Mount Auburn Cemetery, June 2, 2020. mountauburn.org, 107-109.

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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