Posted in American Civil War, American Civil War Medicine

American Civil War – Kindness of Strangers, The Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon and The Cooper Shop Hospital, Philadelphia

Food provisions for the war-weary Union Soldier. Exhibition by So.Sk.An.

Amidst all the disease, suffering and death that occurred during the American Civil War, I was heartened to come across an extraordinary act of compassion shown by the citizens of Philadelphia.  The Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon was a 2 storey brick building, 50 yards from Washington Avenue, on Otsego Street.  Philadelphia was the main travel intersection between the East and the seat of rebellion.  Large numbers of troops marched along Washington Avenue before boarding the railroad cars, of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Company, for onward transportation. Before the War, Messrs. Cooper & Pearce, owners of The Cooper Shop as it was then known, were involved in the manufacture of shooks for the sugar planters of the West Indies.  

The Saloon operated between 26th May 1861 and 28th August 1865 and served approximately 600,000 patriots. During this period a committee of women, assisted by the generosity of friends and neighbours, took over The Saloon’s organisation.   The committee consisted of: Mrs William Cooper, Mrs Grace Nickels, Mrs Sarah Ewing, Mrs Elizabeth Vansdale, Miss Catherine Vansdale, Mrs Jane Coward, Mrs Susan Turner, Mrs Sarah Mellen, Miss Catherine Alexander, Mrs Mary Plant, Mrs Captain Weston, Mrs Thomas D. Grover and Mrs James M. Moore.  Day and night the team tended to the sick and wounded Union troops, mended and washed clothes and offered all the comforts of home to any soldier who turned-up. The Saloon remained open around the clock and the public were also welcome to visit.  Women from the “neck”, which was the garden area of Philadelphia, came to The Saloon daily with wagons laden with fresh milk.  At one point, 100 gallons of coffee was being made every hour in the shop’s large fireplace. 

Soldiers presenting themselves at The Saloon were in a truly terrible state.  Nearly all were starving, exhausted, badly sunburned (particularly on their faces), wearing filthy, tattered and lice-ridden clothing.  All got a warm welcome from the Saloon team.   Each soldier would be thoroughly washed, supplied with a fresh set of clothes including underwear, socks and mittens and given cup of coffee and some food.  The ladies took care of letter writing requests from the soldiers and attended to their every need with warmth and compassion. 

In December 1861, a private, non-military hospital was established above the main Saloon. The aim of The Cooper Hospital being to create a safe, pleasant ‘home from home’ environment for the sick and convalescing soldier with no strict military discipline or regime imposed. Dr Andrew Nebinger was in charge assisted by Dr George W. Nebinger, both worked tirelessly night and day without pay. In February 1862, Robert Nebinger began work as the Hospital’s dispensing pharmacist. The Hospital also had its own apothecary shop. Originally there were 11 beds and by 1st March 1862 bed capacity had increased to 27. Miss Anna M. Ross was the Lady Principal of the Hospital and oversaw the women who volunteered to nurse the sick and wounded.  Sadly, on 22nd December 1863 aged 50, Miss Ross died. The Hospital entered a 30 day period of mourning and the Manager’s Room remained draped in mourning paraphernalia for 6 months.  Following her death, Mrs Abigail Horner became the Lady Principal.

Conditions in the Hospital were excellent.  The rooms were clean, well-ventilated and brightly lit. In March 1862 the Philadelphia Associates of the US Sanitary Commission visited the Hospital and its Chairman Dr Francis G. Smith stated that he was ‘…impressed with the comfortable and home-like appearance of the Hospital, and with the kindly ministrations of those having it in charge.’  Mrs Dorothea Dix visited the Hospital and her sentiments echoed those of Dr Smith.  She was extremely pleased with what she had seen and gave the venture her highest commendations, fully endorsing its usefulness.  In fact, she was so impressed that after her visit she sent The Hospital a donation of books.  The Hospital closed in the autumn of 1865 and out of the 854 patients treated there, only 14 died.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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