MILITARY SURGEON, 1856 MODEL
(Lucile McDonald, "Century old records at Olympia tell story of colorful military surgeon, 1856 model," Seattle Times. January 15, 1956.)
"Military surgeon, 1856 model" should be the label on a packet of documents turned up by accident recently in the old adjutant general's file in the Washington State Library at Olympia.
No stranger character has stepped out of the dusty annals of Washington Territory than Matthew Patrick Burns, M.D. red-haired, choleric physician and surgeon.
Dr. Burns arrived in Steilacoom in January 1855, proclaiming himself not only a member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, but a distant relative of Robbie Burns, the poet. He cited 14 years experience in England, India and the United States before his arrival on Puget Sound.
The doctor had been in practice at Steilacoom less than a year when the Yakima Indian war broke out. A few days after the White River Massacre in October, 1855, Burns was on his way with a group of men from Steilacoom to join Captain Gilmore Hay's Company B, Washington Territorial Volunteers, encamped where Auburn now is, when they were ambushed by Indians and two of the party were killed.
After this induction into the service Burns completed a three month enlistment, then wrote to Governor Isaac I. Stevens offering to renew it if he were appointed regimental surgeon of the troops gathering at Camp Montgomery near Spanaway. He agreed to supply his own medicine and instruments.
The bundle of correspondence in the State Library contains Burns' letters to Adjutant General James Tilton's office beginning February 23, 1856, when he acknowledged the receipt of his commission and instructions to obtain materials for the care of two hundred fifty men. The letters are remarkable because of the picture they present of an eccentric personality and the light they cast on medical practice in the volunteer army.
Two days after resuming enlistment Burns indignantly penned the followed note from Camp Puyallup to Governor Stevens:
"Sir, when your general orders No.4 reached me this day on looking over it I find you have placed me in a second rate position and I think not what my commission reads to me (namely) surgeon of the Second Regiment of the Volunteer forces. If I am not the surgeon of the Second Regiment you will oblige me if you send my discharge and you will greatly oblige your humble servant. I remain with great respect, M. P. Burns."
The doctor's injured feelings were not salved and on February 29 he wrote a message complaining to the adjutant general," Any medical man you send in my place he can have my medicine and outfit as I do not understand the way my commission reads...In the general orders it places me a surgeon of the regiment and Dr. Willard placed over me which I do not think is fair play as I have been first with the volunteers and (this) has made a pecuniary loss by leaving my practice and if I am not the surgeon of the regiment of the regiment please send my discharge by the first express."
Someone placated Burns and he consented to stay a month longer in service.
By March Burns was in camp on Connell Prairie and had treated twenty one men in Companies B and C and the Pioneer Companies of Sappers and Miners for ailments which included "intermittent fever, bleeding from the lungs, gunshot wound in the hand, toothache (extracted) earache (well), cut hand (getting better), inflammation eyes (better), and gunshot wound in leg (severely).
The doctor then wrote to the acting quartermaster at Fort Montgomery.
"Sir, I made a question of General (Winlock) Miller for a cooking stove and a full set of furniture with nine feet of stove pipe and plates, knives and spoons for twelve men, also three wash pans to wash the wounds, and six towels, two bottles of sweet oil and a whole piece of bleached sheeting or cotton cloth to dress wounds and a keg of Sugar House syrup as the sick cannot eat meat. If it can be got, three or six pounds of patent yeast powder and two pounds of cream tarter.
"You can get the above in Steilacoom. Do not fail to send the above articles as there are eight men in Hospital, six wound and others sic. Send plenty of stray and grey cotton to make beds with thread and needles by the first teams from you place as the men in the hospital with wounds cannot lay on the boards without straw and beds."
The same week Burns added to the requisition "some whiskey, say thirty gallons," also tobacco for the men and pipes, a bottle of black pepper, "...and a light hat to keep the sun from my nose size 7 l/8."
A post script urged, "Send the whiskey by the first chance."
March 24 Burns was needling Tilton: "Be so kind as to define my duty, whether I am to remain in camp or go along with the volunteers on duty in the field as all my men in the battalion want me to go with them when they go to fight the Indians while the wounded in the hospital want me also to attend them. You wrote me in your last dispatch I would hear from Head Quarters and the oldest commission would take precedence as regard a regimental surgeon."
March 24 the doctor wanted to know where were the cooking stove and dried fruit. He wrote that he'd like some pork for the sick and wounded.
April 8 Burns reported administering medicine to thirty-eight patients who were well and on duty. He still had five in the hospital suffering from gun shot wounds and exposure. By that time the block house called Fort McAllister at South Prairie had been completed and the hospital was part of it.
Burns wrote: "Alex Hysen got shot in the hand from the accident discharge of his rifle on the way out form (Camp) Montgomery, with the teams, one finger shot away and the other broken. I amputated the finger at the third joint, the other one will get well soon. since I moved the hospital here I have no house and no accommodations. I have written Governor Stevens to send my resignation by next express as I am sick from cold and fatigue from walking and cold."
Burns told the governor: " I am unwell and not able to walk along with the volunteers as the Indians have stolen five horses from me this last month and left me without a single horse, therefore I am not able for duty on that account. So you will oblige me if you accept my resignation and relieve me from duty."
The doctor's relief came in a manner he had not anticipated.
After clearing up some of the Indian troubles west of the Cascades Governor Stevens sent a battalion of Washington Volunteers east of the mountains to reinforce the Oregon forces. They crossed by way of Naches Pass and marched to Walla Walla.
Burns went with the battalion and from camp on Mill Creek on July 12 he reported 45 patients treated in the Second Regiment, as follows: "Dysentery, 25; congestion of lungs, 2; venereal 12; inflammation of the eyes, 3; blown up by powder 2 (on the 4th of July W. Wright and John Hays, Co. K); inflammation of the lungs, 2."
He looked askance at the Oregon Volunteers and reported since their arrival intermittent fever was showing itself.
Although he experienced a change of scene, the surgeon's wants altered little and he addressed Captain A. H. Rubia:
"Sir, you will oblige Dr. M. P. Burns if you bring him the following articles; 10 gallons good whiskey, a pair of boots strong No. 9, one pair of strong pants, two woolen shirts grey, a pair of leather gloves, a good riding saddle and bridle, one broad brimmed hat to turn rain, 1 Navy revolver and belt, l neck handkerchief."
The doctor's final report in the packet tells of 42 patients treated in the month ending August 8 and concludes on a mournful note:
"Private Joseph Stutsull, who was accidentally shot in the thigh in three different places from the discharge of a musket loaded with three balls died on the 7th inst."
Truce was declared the next month and Burns returned to private practice. The historian, Charles W. Prosch, says he was known well on the upper Sound for many years.
Prosch wrote," He liked surgery and was most happy when he had a chance to mutilate or dismember some unfortunate patient. If a man went to Burns with a felon on a finger or a bruise on a leg or arm the doctor invariably insisting on cutting off the injured member. He had no use for poultice or healing salves. Though few submitted to his treatment he obtained the reputation of being a monomaniac on the subject of amputation."
Small wonder Burns was unhappy during his enlistment there were too few surgical cases.
(Lucile McDonald, "Military Surgeon, 1856, Model," Seattle Times. January 15, 1956.).
James Tilton, Esq.
Adjutant General, W. T. V.
Sir: I send you my report of the killed and wounded in the engagement on the Burnt River and Grand Ronde on the 15th and 16th of July, 1856.
2nd Lieut. John Eustus, Co. N - Residence: Luckimate, O.T. KILLED
Daniel Smith, Co. K - Residence: French Prairie, O.T. KILLED
James Cheney, Co. K - Residence: O.T. WOUNDED in thigh, slightly.
Wm. F. Tooley, Co. A - Residence: Cape Horn Mtn, W.T. KILLED
Wm. Irvin, Co. A - Residence: Vancouver, W.T. KILLED
Wm. Holmes, Co. K - Residence: Thurston County, W.T. KILLED
Thomas Como, Co. A - Residence: Vancouver, W.T. DANGEROUSLY WOUNDED
Shirley Ensign, Co. C - WOUNDED in nose and cheek.
Wm. Downey, Co. D - WOUNDED in knee with arrow, slightly
T. N. Lilley, Co. J - WOUNDED, forearm fractured and head cut by an Indian with an empty gun
I remain, etc,
Mathew P. Burns, M.D.
Surgeon, 2nd Regt., W.T.V.
Please contradict the report that I was killed by the Indians on Wednesday last. I killed seven with my own hands. They hunted me
through the brush for one mile with dogs and lighted sticks and every one who carried a light I shot.
The only wound I got was a skin wound in the forehead from a buckshot. I lived in the brush on leaves and shot an Indian this morning for his dried salmon and wheat at Mr. Lemon's. Give my respects to Bright and Rabbeson and let them known I am safe.
Only I had to throw away my boots and my feet are badly hurt. Lost my horse, instruments and medicine case. My horse was shot in the kidneys in the swamp where we received a murderous discharge of balls and buck-shot.
Please let Mr. Wiley say I am all right.
I remain respectfully,
M. P. Burns,
Surgeon. Captain Hay's Company
Letter to Ad't General Tilton published in the Pioneer and Democrat