• Susan Langley, Ph.D.

Surgical Instruments from the U.S.S. Scorpion

Updated: Apr 13

Susan Langley, State Underwater Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

When Joshua Barney came out of retirement to command the mosquito fleet known as the Chesapeake Flotilla during the War of 1812, the vessels were a mix of older craft brought out of mothball, some which had been modified to update them, and a handful of new vessels. Likewise, his crews were a mixture of professional sailors, watermen, militia, and both enslaved and free men. The diversity in material and age of the artifacts recovered from the excavations of gunboats 137 and 138 in St. Leonards Creek reflect the fact that the crews provided their own kit. The surprise is that this seems to have carried over to medical equipment and supplies as well.

Barney’s medical personnel consisted of Surgeon Dr. Thomas Hamilton and Surgeon’s Mate A.C. Thompson. Although Hamilton’s service enrollment was to be December 22, 1813 to April 6, 1814, which would mean that he was not serving when the Flotilla was scuttled on August 22, he is documented as having been at Barney’s side when he was wounded at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24. While Hamilton may have served ashore at a hospital camp at St. Leonard’s Town for the month of June, it is clear he returned to Flotilla duty. Thompson began service with Barney on July 17, 1814 and remained through September 7, 1814.

During the formation of the Flotilla, the Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, informed Barney that he would receive the medical chest and surgical tools from the U.S.S. Ontario which was still under construction for his Surgeon’s use. About this he instructed Barney, “which you will preserve in perfect order to be returned to the ship when prepared for service.”* There is no list or description of what constituted the chest and tools but the illustration shows the kit of U.S. Navy Surgeon William Swift who served during the War of 1812 on the vessels Chesapeake and Syren, both captured by the British with Swift aboard. During 1980 excavations of a wreck that would prove to be Barney’s flagship U.S.S. Scorpion, a decayed white pine box produced a tooth key, dental forceps, probes, including a bullet probe, surgical scissors, scalpels including some with tortoise shell handles, and cauterizers. Related materials nearby included apothecary jars, bowls and a plate as well as a spatula associated with the mixing of medicines and unguents. A chamber pot may also have been for the use of the injured as the able seaman would not be so accommodated. In 2011, another pair of surgical scissors was recovered from the same area of the vessel.

Many of the surgical instruments bear maker’s marks. The most common were variations on “Nowill” indicating the Sheffield, England firm of Hague and Nowill; founded by Thomas Nowill in 1700. Others bore the name Evans, reflecting manufacture by the older firm of John Evans and Company of London; founded in 1676. More valuable is the small crown over the Evans mark indicating it was the authorized manufacturer for the Royal Navy. This authorization was rescinded after 1813 which provides a terminus ante quem for these instruments. Questions these instruments raise include, why were they left behind when the fleet was scuttled and do they reflect more than the one surgical kit that was documented?

When Barney determined to scuttle the fleet, he left behind 103 sailors, all personal possessions, and all but 3 days provisions for the march to Washington. Leaving the apothecary ceramics and other cumbersome or weighty materials makes some sense but does not explain leaving the surgical kit. As kits were just that; a set of specific and consistent items, and these were produced by one manufacturer. The presence of at least two manufacturers indicates that pieces may have had to be replaced piecemeal or, more likely, Hamilton and/or Thompson, brought at least some instruments in a personal kit. It is possible that they created a more portable field kit to carry and left the remainder. Another possibility might be that the kit left aboard was intended for the use of invalids left behind, or in anticipation of skirmishes with the approaching British, and with the thought that the troops they would join would have full surgical kits. That it was left aboard the Scorpion when it was scuttled must be seen as an error.

*Letter from Jones to Barney April 14, 1814. Secretary of the Navy Letters to Officers, 1814, Vol. II, 277, National Archives and Records Service.

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