January 1864: "... I doubt not an effort will be made to discover the perpetrators of this fraud."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Samuel Hooper to Jonathan Mason Warren, 8 January 1864

Letter from Samuel Hooper to Jonathan Mason Warren, 8 January 1864

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    In this letter of 8 January 1864, Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Hooper writes to Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, a prominent Boston physician, urging Warren to denounce as a fraud a printed circular in support of Surgeon General William Hammond, who was in the midst of court-martial proceedings.

    William Alexander Hammond, born 28 August 1828, was a 34-year-old neurologist when President Abraham Lincoln, acting against the vociferous objections of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, appointed him as Surgeon General. Dr. Hammond was an outspoken reformer and, at first, his actions as Surgeon General were well-received. In early 1863, however, he antagonized many in the military when he banned the use of the mercury compound calomel for treatment of wounded soldiers, especially since there was no accepted alternative treatment. Dr. Hammond felt that mercury (which caused vomiting) debilitated the already weakened soldiers; a judgment that was subsequently proven to be accurate. In 1863, Dr. Hammond’s relationship with Secretary Stanton became even more strained and Stanton arranged for Hammond to be removed from his post as Surgeon General and sent on an “inspection tour” of the Southern States. In response, Dr. Hammond demanded that he either be court-martialed or reinstated as Surgeon General.

    The printed circular dated 1 January 1864 mentioned by Congressman Hooper in this letter asserts that Hammond performed his duties honorably and demands that he receive a fair and impartial hearing, rather than being attacked by anonymous accusers. The circular is purportedly signed by several prominent individuals from Massachusetts including the President of Harvard University Thomas Hill, Harvard professors Benjamin Peirce and Louis Agassiz, Henry W. Longfellow, and Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, among many others.

    Congressman Hooper allied himself with Secretary Stanton against Dr. Hammond. As soon as the circular was printed, Hooper spoke to Professors Peirce and Agassiz and had them pronounce the circular as a “base fabrication.” In the letter at hand, Congressman Hooper urges Dr. Warren to likewise “denounce this fraud as emphatically as Prof. Agassiz and Pierce have.”

    Upon receipt of this letter, Dr. Warren forwarded it to his respected medical colleague William Van Buren for his opinion and advice. In a letter dated 12 January 1864 (also contained in the Warren collection), Dr. Van Buren replied that the circular was “literally true” and further, that “Edw. Stanton’s treatment of Gen’l Hammond has been arbitrary and discourteous to the last degree.”

    After a four month trial, Surgeon General Hammond was found guilty of charges of buying inferior supplies for the army, including poor quality blankets and substandard meat. He was then removed from his position and discharged from the military. In 1878, Dr. Hammond was vindicated of all the charges against him and was restored to the army with the rank of Brigadier General.

    Samuel Hooper, the author of this letter, was born on 3 February 1808 in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He served in both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1861. While in Congress, he served as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1869 to 1871; of the Committee on Banking and Currency from 1871 to 1873; and of the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures from 1871 to 1875. Hooper died in office on 14 February 1875.

    Jonathan Mason Warren, the recipient of this letter, was born on 2 February 1811 and followed in his father’s footsteps, attending both Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. In 1846, he was appointed visiting surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. His journals, which are also part of the John Collins Warren collection at the MHS, contain descriptions of his surgical procedures as well as his interest in reconstructive surgery, specifically the then-innovative surgery for the closing of cleft palates. Dr. Warren died on 19 August 1867.

    Sources for Further Reading

    Friend, Henry C. “Abraham Lincoln and the Court Martial of Surgeon General William A. Hammond.” Commercial Law Journal, March 1957: 71-78.

    Samuel Hooper papers, 1836-1902.

    John Collins Warren Papers, 1738-1926.