While there are many, many sources out there for in-depth learning about St. Elizabeths, we offer these bits of information as a supplement to the content contained on our website.
The first patient was received on November 2, 1861.
The Government Hospital for the Insane is now called St. Elizabeths Hospital as of 1916 when the name was formally adopted. But when we are referring to the days of the mental hospital on this website, we use it’s original name.
The name St. Elizabeths was used by the military hospital established there during the Civil War to differentiate it from the original hospital, and so we use the name St. Elizabeths when referring to the military years.
Between November 2, 1861, and April 29, 1864 nearly 1,900 soldiers were admitted to the Army hospital. The vast majority of soldiers were treated not for battle wounds but for illnesses like typhoid, bronchitis, pneumonia, and syphilis. It wasn’t until January 19, 1862, when forty Union soldiers—most likely wounded when Confederate forces took Romney, West Virginia—that the hospital received casualties from the battlefield. In fact, although records aren’t entirely clear, only about 452 of the 1,890 admissions were for injuries sustained in battle.
St. Elizabeths is conveniently located for utilization by both the Army and Navy during the Civil War. Located east of the Anacostia River and about a mile east of the Navy Yard, it had the additional benefits of a wharf and rail line that would allow for the direct delivery of the wounded.
The usage of apostrophes back when the tract of land was named was inconsistent and infrequent. Congress made the name change official in 1916, maintaining the seventeenth-century name with its lack of apostrophe. What was the Government Hospital for the Insane in now formally St. Elizabeths Hospital.
First utilized about 1856 for the burial of patients, the cemetery on the west campus, often referred to as the Civil War Cemetery includes the grave stones of about 220 Civil War veterans. The dead buried here include white and African American veterans as well as civilian indigent patients.
View an inventory of those buried in the Civil War Cemetery.
The grave markers for the veterans were placed in the cemetery sometime after 1873 and don’t necessarily correlate with specific grave sites. Most, if not all, of the veterans buried here were patients in the hospital for the insane and were not casualties who died at the general army or navy hospitals. Civilian graves were marked with an iron cross with the patient’s initials and date of death. In the 1960s only nine civilian crosses remained in the cemetery and poor record keeping makes it impossible to know how many civilian patients are buried here.
A good place to start would be the National Archives in Washington, DC. The collection provides a wealth of information on the hospital but these records only tell part of the institution’s history. Not many patient records exist and if they do, to protect privacy, only patient files that are 75 years or older are available to the public.
Some records from St. Elizabeths have been digitized and you can view a catalog of what is available online, such as the Register of Patients from 1855-1963. This register lists only names – no dates or other information – but may still be helpful in your search.
Also, a Google search will find copies of the annual Operations Reports, such as this one from 1869 which contain general patient statics for that period. Sources such as these can provide insight into what life was like at St. Elizabeths.
Admissions were limited to the indigent residing in the District of Columbia at the time they became ill and to the insane of the Army and Navy. If the hospital had vacancies, it also accepted additional patients for a fee, regardless of their state of residence. Although there would be slight modifications to this policy and some exceptions over the years, the intent of the admissions policy would remain substantively the same until after World War II.
It was sometime around 1856 that the Civil War Cemetery was first utilized.
It is our desire to tell the stories of as many soldiers and patients as we can and we’d love to hear from you about your ancestor. Please reach out to us using the contact form.
The Army hospital was discontinued on June 30, 1864, and the artificial limb shop moved to another location in the city. The Naval hospital remained in the West Lodge until 1865 when it was removed to Capitol Hill.
We are working to add photos of the gravestones for those buried in the Civil War Cemetery and the military areas of the John Howard Cemetery. Unfortunately, most of the general patients were buried without gravestones. The exceptions to this are Fred Goldstein, a small stone inscribed ‘Baby Joe, aged 3 years, and ground marker for George Dahrooge, and another for Louis R. Wolfes.
Thomas Sessford was an indigent civilian resident of D.C. of English birth with no age or birth date listed in the patient register. He suffered from dementia, but there is no further information about his medical condition or the circumstances of his death less than seven months after his admission.
Information gathered from the Register of Cases, ,1855-1941, National Archives in Washington, DC, Record Group 418, Entry 64.
We’re working to find out as much as we can about those buried in the cemeteries but unfortunately, much of the historical information has been lost. Please reach out to us with what you know about your ancestor, what has been documented, or even what is the family lore, and we’ll do what we can to find out more for you.
The official name of the military hospital was St. Elizabeth Army General Hospital to differentiate it from the mental hospital, which retained its original name of the Government Hospital for the Insane.
The name was taken from the name of the tract of land upon which the hospital now stands, which has been known ever since the settlement of the country as the St. Elizabeth tract.
President Abraham Lincoln visited General Hooker when he was convalescing at St. Elizabeths, but it is unclear whether the president visited troops at the hospital. Lincoln and his cabinet did visit Pen Cote Battery, an experimental battery that was used for testing naval ordnance and armor plating which was located in the northwest corner of the hospital grounds along the Anacostia River but there is no record of other visits to St. Elizabeth. However, there can by found at least one mention of Lincoln visiting “a number of hospitals in and around the city” and on May 22, 1863 he addressed the “One-Legged Brigade” from St. Elizabeths that visited the White House.
On February 21, 1855, Mary E. Walker became the first female patient at the hospital. Walker was 23 and suffering from dementia assumed to be caused by epilepsy. She died at the hospital on January 6, 1893.
Information gathered from the National Archives, Washington, DC.
They stopped using the Civil War Cemetery in 1873 when they began utilizing the John Howard Cemetery.
From its inception, St. Elizabeths endeavored to produce as much of its own food as possible. Just as the first superintendent, Dr. Nichols, wanted the hospital to be a model for mental institutions, he also wanted his hospital farm to be a model farm. About half of the original 200 acres of the hospital grounds were under cultivation, and more land was acquired over the years to expand the farming operations.
In addition to the garden produce and livestock, the hospital also produced considerable hay, oats, rye and mangel-wurzel (fodder beet) for livestock feed, as well as having hundreds of Iona, Catawba, and Diana grapevines; and an apple and peach orchard at the bottom of the slope near the river.
The most notable patient to receive care at the army hospital was Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the First Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker had been shot in the foot at the battle of Antietam. The “ball passed directly through the foot between the plantar arch and plantar fascia”. He was admitted on September 21, 1862, and remained at the hospital until he returned to duty two months later on November 11.
In that 1873 the three-quarteracre West Campus burial ground, known as the Civil War Cemetery, was deemed full and a new cemetery was opened on the East Campus. This cemetery is known today as the John Howard Cemetery.
The the bricks for the Center Building (the main hospital) were manufactured with clay sourced from the hospital grounds by “certain strong patients of the laboring class” who were employed “digging and shoveling clay, and in the many handlings to which both raw and burnt bricks are subject”. By 1860, it was estimated that over 9 million bricks had been manufactured on site.
In addition, trees of various species growing on the site were used to finish and furnish patient wards in the main hospital. Each ward was then named after the wood that was used for its trim work. Thus, the Poplar Ward had trim made of poplar wood, and the Birch Ward had trim of birch wood.
Some of the stone used for the perimeter wall was quarried on the neighboring Barry Farm property, and the wood for some of the fencing came from the Giesboro Cavalry Depot when it closed after the Civil War.
In spring of 1862, recognizing the alarming number of amputations resulting from combat, the U.S. government unveiled the “Great Civil War Benefaction,” a federal program to provide prosthetics to all disabled veterans of the Union veterans. Soldiers who had lost a limb by amputation in any one of the neighboring hospitals might, if they wished, be transferred to the St. Elizabeth Hospital as soon as the stump was healed, to be fitted with an artificial leg.
R.W. Jewett, the owner of a artificial limb shop, took up residence on the grounds with certain rooms of the hospital set aside for the production of artificial legs. More than 6,600 men to acquire prosthetics as part of this federal program.
There are actually three cemeteries located in the far eastern portion of the East Campus, collectively referred to as the John Howard Cemetery. Individually, these are dedicated to the burial of military and general patients* who died at St. Elizabeths from 1856 to 1983.
In most cases, funeral arrangements for patients who died at Saint Elizabeths were made by family members of the deceased, and the remains were not interred on the hospital grounds. In some cases, however, when no next of kin could be found or other arrangements made, deceased patients were interred in cemetery.
* The term General Patient refers to civilians and former military personnel who remained at the hospital at the end of their service commitment.
It is believed that burials occurred up until the 1990’s but that has been difficult to substantiate due to poor record keeping. Thanks to the efforts of Paul Sluby, Sr., a rare ledger of burials records from July 5, 1917 to August 30, 1983 has been preserved. Information from this valuable historical record is included on this website.
A congressional act in 1946 transferred the care of members of the military to Veterans Administration facilities.
In recent years, a coalition of mental health providers has launched an effort to build a national memorial on the grounds of St. Elizabeths to stand for the thousands of patients who died at such facilities. St. Elizabeths was selected as the site in recognition of its historic leadership in moral treatment for people with mental illness. “The Gardens at St. Elizabeths — A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity” will be incorporated into the John Howard Cemtery with metal markers surrounded by gardens and a pool of water representing those buried in hospitals from throughout the country, including in the District of Columbia.
The West Campus, will be used to consolidate the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This project is the largest federal construction project in the Washington, DC area since the Pentagon was built during World War II. The East Campus, which has been part of the District of Columbia since 1987, will house the headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the remainder of the land developed as a mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable community.