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Moments in History

HISTORY OF NAVAL MEDICAL CENTER

Submitted by the Portsmouth History Commission

 

HISTORY OF NAVAL MEDICAL CENTER, Portsmouth

October 11, 2002, marks history in the making with the official re-dedication of Building Number One, at the Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth. That’s when it became administrative space rather than treatment space for our nation’s military and their dependents. 

The official re-dedication ceremonies included remarks by Rear Admiral Clinton E. Adams and retired Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carl Brashear, MDV. Reenactors were also present to represent the various eras during which the hospital operated.

Building Number One, the nation’s oldest naval hospital, has been a significant place for the treatment of the nation’s military and their dependents since the early 1800’s. The cornerstone of Building Number One at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital was laid on April 2, 1827. It began treating patients three years later in April of 1830 or just as soon as the north wing was finished. John Haviland, an architect from Philadelphia, designed the hospital and directly oversaw construction, which was not finished until 1833. Half a million bricks from the Revolutionary era Fort Nelson, which had been at the location since the Revolution, were incorporated into the hospital.

During its first decade, the facility saw relatively few patients. But in 1847 the hospital treated its first war casualties during the Mexican American War. In 1855 the hospital performed its first humanitarian mission when it opened its halls to serve Portsmouth residents who had become ill during the city’s worst outbreak of Yellow Fever. Approximately ten percent of Portsmouth’s population died of the illness.

During the Civil War, the hospital was in Confederate hands from the spring of 1861 to the spring of 1862. During the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862, Confederate forces brought in for treatment some of the survivors of the USS Congress and USS Cumberland. Both ships had been sunk by the CSS Virginia (Merrimac). Franklin Buchanan, the commanding officer of the CSS Virginia (Merrimac), was also wounded and was brought in for treatment. 

In 1898 during the Spanish American War when American forces destroyed the Spanish fleet at Santiago, several Spanish prisoners were sent to the Naval Hospital for medical attention. Captain Concas, the Commander of the Infanta Maria Theresa, wrote a letter praising the hospital staff for the care and attentions they provided him and his men.

In 1906 during his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, visited the hospital’s historic cemetery where he unveiled a monument for the members of the Army Navy Union who were veterans of the Spanish American War. Other significant visitors over the years have included Jimmy Carter during World War II (approximately thirty years before his election), and Lenah Higbee, the second superintendent of navy nurses in the early 1900s.

The building’s interior was thoroughly gutted and renovated between the years 1907 to 1910. The historic parts now remaining include outer walls, some mantels, some trim work and some fireplaces as well as the alcove inside the front door. During that renovation, two wings of the building and the dome for operating under skylight were added.

The hospital was significant also in subsequent wars. But the need for new facilities was soon recognized. In 1960 Building Number 215 was added to the grounds and then in 1999 the Charette Health Care Center, the navy’s most modern facility for medical treatment of the military and their dependents.

The hospital hosts a National Cemetery. Its oldest grave dates from 1838 but there are also stones for the dead of numerous nations and a monument to 337 crewmembers of the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. 

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