At the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, public health practices in the United States had been virtually static for nearly 100 years. Those individuals fortunate enough to survive the ravages of numerous childhood diseases could expect to live to an average age of 55. The army surgeons and civilian doctors who would soon be called upon to treat large numbers of soldiers knew little or nothing about the existence of germs and microbes. Their surgical practices were, by today's standards, crude and unsanitary. With the cause and treatment of diseases and infection rarely understood by medical professionals, it would not be the best of times to be wounded in a war.
Around noon on Thursday, July 18, 1861, Gen. McDowell's Union army wearily trudged into Centreville in the 90-degree summer heat. Later in the day, fighting flared at Blackburn's ford (where Route 28 now crosses Bull Run) as a Union force of approximately 3,000 led by Col. I. B. Richardson probed the Confederate defenses held by Gen. James Longstreet. Soon the blood-smeared ambulances bearing the Union dead and wounded (83) and those felled by sunstroke began arriving in the village.
As the sound of the heavy firing at the ford reverberated throughout Centreville, W.S. King, a Union army surgeon, rode out of Centreville toward the sound of the firing and soon found the ambulances bearing the dead, wounded and disabled moving toward Centreville. He dispatched Assistant Surgeon D.S. Magruder to locate suitable buildings for hospital purposes. Dr. Magruder returned to the village and commandeered a "hotel, a church and a large dwelling" for use as hospital facilities. Among the first of the casualties to reach the surgeons was a seriously wounded soldier. The stunned doctors noted he "had his face shot away completely." In the ensuing chaos, one contrary regimental surgeon ignored two wounded soldiers and let them remain lying in an ambulance for hours because they were not from his regiment. He treated them only after being ordered to do so by W.S. King, who outranked him.
During this first encounter with the realities of war, the doctors encountered great difficulty in obtaining water for drinking and medical use because the large number of newly arrived, thirsty troops in Gen. McDowell's army created a severe water shortage as they quickly emptied the wells in Centreville. To ensure access to water, guards had to be posted at certain strategic wells to protect the critical water supplies used by the medical staff.
It is unclear which Centreville structures were the first to be turned into hospitals on that long ago July day because Dr. King did not name them. He spent the 19th and 20th of July supervising treatment of the wounded and arranging for additional medical supplies to be shipped from Washington via Fairfax Station. All the wounded from the Blackburn's ford fight able to withstand the rigors of travel were moved to Fairfax Station on July 20 and sent back to Alexandria and Washington.
As the army prepared to go into battle, Assistant Surgeon D.S. Magruder took possession of "a stone church situated in a grove of trees directly on and to the right side of the road." Men were set to work removing the seats from the church and whatever blankets were available were stacked in readiness on the floor. Buckets were collected and filled with water, an operating table was improvised, instruments readied, and hay was brought in from the nearby fields to serve as bedding. As the preparations were hurried along, Union army nurse, Emma Edmonds who must have had a premonition of what was coming wryly noted it was "a church which many a soldier will remember, as long as memory lasts."
About two hours after the first battle of Manassas battle began on Sunday, July 21, 1861, the Stone Church was filled with wounded and Magruder took over three other unoccupied buildings "situated about seventy-five paces farther down and on the opposite side of road." These buildings were also soon filled and the incoming wounded were placed in the grove of trees around the Stone Church. Although they remained in the open, they would at least be afforded the benefit of the shade cast by the trees until the doctors could attend them.
After being defeated, the routed Union army left behind many of its 1,100 wounded and another 1,300 missing men. On July 25, a captured Union surgeon noted that a number of wounded men remained in Centreville. On or about July 28, many of the captured wounded were moved to Manassas Junction by the victorious Confederates and loaded into freight cars for transport to Richmond. The trains transporting the wounded were given no special priority and, as they were often switched onto sidings for long periods, took as long as two days to reach Richmond. Without proper food, adequate water or medical treatment many of the wounded soldiers died during the agonizing trip in the sweltering, rail cars.
A little over a year later, the armies returned to fight again on the same ground. During the second battle of Manassas, the Union army established a medical depot at Centreville and once again utilized the churches and other buildings in the village as treatment centers. The medical inspector assigned to Gen. Pope's army established his headquarters at Centreville and directed the affairs of the transport service and medical department from the village. By Sunday, Aug. 31, 1862, the village was again filled with wounded, and the defeated Union forces were sullenly regrouping along the Centreville heights.
The Union army had over 8,000 wounded and another 4,000 men listed as missing. On Sept. 1, 1862, under a flag of truce, Union surgeons, medical attendants and volunteers began collecting some of wounded left on battlefield. Those fortunate enough to be collected were promptly paroled by the Confederates and moved to Centreville. As the Union army withdrew from the Centreville heights, a large number of the wounded appear to have been left behind in the village. The medical situation was so unfavorable at Centreville that on Sept. 4, one of the remaining Union surgeons sent a desperate communication to Gen. Lee's headquarters begging for food, forage and ambulances. The Confederates acknowledged the gravity of the situation and agreed to share food and captured medical supplies with the Union doctors who had remained behind.
On Sept. 6, as Lee's weary army moved deeper into Maryland headed for yet another epic battle, a column of ambulances came out from Washington to pick up the Union wounded in Centreville. By that time, the Confederates were gone, having evacuated over 6,000 of their own wounded by railroad to the receiving hospital at Gordonsville, Va., where they were treated and forwarded to hospitals in Richmond, Lynchburg and Charlottesville. As with the Union wounded the year before, many of the Confederates died during the trip on the railroad. The Rebel wounded had been laid on the bare floors of the rail cars like bags of grain, and no one thought to send attendants with them to provide food and water. There was an embarrassing incident in Lynchburg when a train arrived during the night and was allowed to stand at the depot unattended, the wounded receiving no care.
As an eerie quiet settled over the war-ravaged northern Virginia countryside during that hot summer, the blood-spattered buildings of Centreville waited once again to be reclaimed from their brush with history by an ever-dwindling number of inhabitants.