GRANT IN PANAMA *** Ulysses S. Grant was never in greater personal danger while serving in the army than during his passage across the Isthmus of Panama in 1852. Grant, a thirty-year-old brevet captain serving as regimental quartermaster, had left his wife and son behind when his regiment, the Fourth Infantry, was ordered to the Pacific Coast. He later doubted that his wife, expecting another child, could have survived the crossing and was certain that his son would have succumbed to disease as had every other child in the party his age or younger.1
Under the best conditions the trip across the Isthmus in 1852 was hazardous: housing was inferior, transportation uncertain, and disease prevalent. The Fourth Infantry, ordered to the Pacific Coast in June, landed at Aspinwall in the midst of the rainy season to find the streets under water. Grant “wondered how any person could live many months In Aspinwall, and wondered still more why any one tried.”2 The regiment boarded the Panama Railroad, completed across half of the sixty-mile route, then boarded boats on the Chagres River for the trip upstream to Gorgona, where the bulk of the regiment debarked for the march to Panama. Quartermaster Grant went a few miles farther up the river to Cruces with the regiment’s equipment and one company to guard it, the soldiers with families, and all the women and children. There a contractor was to furnish mules for the remainder of the journey.
[pg. 2] The Ohio, which had brought the Fourth Infantry to Aspinwall, had also carried a large number of civilian passengers who bid up the hiring price for mules. The contractor obligated to supply mules to the army, unwilling or unable to supply them, stalled Grant until several days had passed, cholera had broken out, and the company detailed as guards had marched to Panama. Grant remained with the equipment, the sick, and the civilians, finally deciding, on his own responsibility, to make a new contract with the alcalde at more than twice the original rate to get the party to Panama.3
While Grant was detained at Cruces, cholera also struck the troops at Panama. About a third of the people with Grant at Cruces died on the Isthmus and about a tenth traveling with the regiment perished.4 When Major Charles Stuart Tripler, the army surgeon who accompanied the Fourth Infantry, reached San Francisco, he reported to Surgeon-General Thomas L. Lawson the details of the cholera epidemic which had decimated the regiment.5 His letter, printed below, illuminates the confusion and horror of the Panama passage, and adds detail about Grant’s role in the deadly jungle.
San Francisco, Calif.,
September 14, 1852.Sir: The occurrence of malignant cholera in the Fourth regiment of infantry, which I accompanied from New York to California, seemed to me to require that I should make a special report to you upon the subject. I have, therefore, made a report of the sick of that regiment up to the 31st August, and beg leave to accompany it with the following remarks:
The regiment was concentrated at Fort Columbus, New York, in obedience to orders from the War Department, the last company having arrived on the 23d June. On that day 243 recruits were received and examined. On the evening of the 2d July, a telegraphic order was received for the troops to embark on the 5th. On the evening of the 3d July, about 150 more recruits were received and examined. On the 5th July eight companies of the regiment, with the band and headquarters, were embarked on the United States mail steamer Ohio, bound for Aspinwall, New Granada. We had a good deal of diarrhoea among our men during, their stay upon Governor’s Island, but it was quite manageable, and when we embarked I [pg. 3] did not consider it necessary to leave but one man in the hospital; he was recovering from a broken leg, and would not have been able to march across the Isthmus. The Ohio was a large ship, as to tonnage, and in that respect, capable of carrying our whole command; but her room is so badly distributed, that we should have been crowded had there been no other passengers. Our command, including women and children, was about 800. We had, however, all told, passengers, crew, etc., 1,100 on board. This was altogether too many people for her accommodations at that season of the year, and in a voyage to the tropics. We, however, reached Aspinwall on the 16th July, without losing a man. We had a number of cases of both diarrhoea and constipation, and a few cases of fever on the voyage. Our sick report, nevertheless, was very small upon landing. One man (the bandmaster), sick with chronic diarrhoea, had sunk so much on the voyage I was obliged to leave him on the ship, where be died two days afterwards.
On the voyage I had endeavored to impress upon the commanding officer the necessity of preventing the men from eating the fruits of the country, and from indulging in any of the liquors they would meet with on the march. A very judicious order, embracing these views, was issued previous to our debarkation. I am sorry to say, however, it was not observed on the march. Had it been strictly obeyed, I think we should have been spared much suffering. It being the height of the rainy season when we reached the Isthmus we were much embarrassed by the state of the roads; by rains every day; by the extreme heat, and by the epidemic influences prevailing.
Cholera existed at Aspinwall when we landed. It had been very fatal a short time previously among the laborers on the railroad, in consequence of which they had very generally abandoned the work. Forty laborers out of one hundred, I was told, had died at one station. It was existing at both Cruces and Gorgona on the route–points we were obliged to pass–and at both of which we were unfortunately detained. We found it also at Panama upon our arrival there.
Notwithstanding all this, and the cautions in the order of march, the men had no sooner been permitted to land to procure water, than numbers of them sought the first tavern they could find, to indulge their fatal craving for liquor. Many were brought back on board that night intoxicated and drenched with rain. Fruits were also eaten with avidity whenever they could be procured.
As we did not reach Aspinwall until after the departure of the daily train of cars we were obliged to remain there until next morning. Our baggage, however, was principally landed, and stowed in the cars that afternoon, and this operation was completed early the next morning. When the hour arrived for starting, it was found that the locomotives were too light to carry more than half our men in one train. They were accordingly despatched in two trains at intervals of an hour, and then the baggage had to be left to be brought up by a return engine. Arrived at Barbacoas, the present terminus of the railway, Colonel Bonneville6informed me that it was determined to march the main body of the men from Gorgona to Panama; that the sick, the women, the baggage, and one company would proceed to Cruces, where the mule transportation would be provided, and whence they would also proceed to Panama. I was ordered to accompany this last detachment. Colonel Bonneville then proceeded at once in boats to Gorgona. Colonel Wright7 was to follow when the baggage came [pg. 4] up. The baggage did not arrive till after dark; too late to transfer it to the boats.
In the morning it was discovered that the hospital stores were not contained in those cars. I had a special messenger sent back to bring them up immediately. Colonel Wright went on with his battalion, leaving me, a subaltern, and a small guard, with the sick. My messenger did not return till late in the afternoon, and then brought up but four packages out of thirty, declaring there were no more to be found. This made it necessary for me to return to Aspinwall, which I did that night upon a hand car. I found my stores in the first baggage car I met with in the depot, and the next morning carried them to Barbacoas in a special train furnished me by Colonel Totten, the engineer of the road. I proceeded at once up the river to Cruces, a distance of twelve miles, against a rapid and dangerous current, in a small boat, propelled by setting-poles only; and by dint of great exertion and determination succeeded in reaching that point at about 9 1/2 at night. My hospital boat did not get up until next morning. At Cruces, very much to my surprise, I found the regimental quartermaster, about seventy men, and all the women and children. This was Monday night. He had been there since Sunday morning, and no transportation for the baggage had yet been furnished by the contractors. The detachment was encamped on the river, at the landing-place and all the baggage piled up in the vicinity. At this time all were well, and my sick had entirely recovered. Transportation was promised in the morning, and I determined to push on as rapidly as possible, to overtake the main body, at that time probably at Panama.
In the morning we were again disappointed in transportation. This was Tuesday, 20th July. While endeavoring to get from the contractor mules for myself and necessary stores, I was called to see a soldier said to be ill of cramps. I found a case of malignant cholera, of the most aggravated character. The man died in six hours. Upon instituting a rigid inquiry I found that the disease was, and had been, for some time prevailing in the town; that numbers had died, and were still dying there; and that a physician had been sent there from Panama for the special purpose of treating such cases. It was of course impossible for me to leave the detachment under such circumstances. I, therefore, decided to remain until the men were all started, and this more especially, as I was informed from day to day by passengers from Panama that the main body had gone on board the transport in Panama bay, and that there was no disease among them. I thought it but prudent, however, to urge the quartermaster to as speedy a movement from the place as possible; and by my advice he determined if the requisite transportation was not furnished by the next morning, to procure it himself of anybody, at any price, and require the contracting parties to pay for it. It must be observed that a subcontractor had agreed to furnish mules for 11 cents a pound, and all this time they were in demand for private transportation at 16 to 20 cents. We had the vexation of seeing hundreds of citizens forwarded, with scarcely an hour’s detention, while our men were kept at the most unhealthy point of the Isthmus for five days, with no adequate effort on the part of the contractors to forward us to Panama. The next morning we were no better off. Captain Grant then went into the market, and succeeded in completing a contract before night with a responsible person, for the requisite number of mules, to be ready early the next day. In the meanwhile several cases of cholera occurred, and [pg. 5] we had four more deaths. One man convalesced from the disease, but too ill to move, I was obliged to leave in charge of the alcalde and the town physician. I recommended, under the circumstances, that the whole detachment should be furnished with mules lest the fatigue of marching over so desperate a road should excite the disease in men predisposed to it, and they should perish, without the possibility of my aiding them, on the way. This was done, but notwithstanding every precaution on our part, three fatal cases did occur on the road.
In compliance with Captain Grant’s contract, a large number of mules, both saddle and cargo, were brought up in the morning, and despatched as fast as possible with riders and burdens, respectively; by 1 p. m. about one-half our men and nearly one-half our baggage were on the road. he usual rain then coming on operations were necessarily suspended for the day. I must here remark that the preservation of any thing like order or organization in the forwarding of troops or baggage on mules across the Isthmus is altogether out of the question. The moment a rider, or a cargo is placed upon a mule’s back that moment he must set out, or the muleteer strips his mule and carries him off. Our movement was, therefore, of necessity, a straggling one, each man making his way to Panama, as he best could, when once mounted. The next morning, before 10 o’clock, the last of our men was on the way, and most of the remaining baggage, and I then set out myself. I reached Panama before dark, but too late to go to the ship that night. I learned that she was lying off Taboga, 12 miles dawn the bay; that cholera had broken out on board and carried off a number of men. A small steamer communicated with her once a day only, leaving Panama at 5 p. m. I was, therefore, detained at Panama until that hour the following day. Here I learned that six of the cabin passengers by the Ohio(our ship) had died in Panama of cholera contracted on the Isthmus.
I proceeded to the ship on the first opportunity, and there was informed that the main body had passed three nights on the road between Gorgona and Panama without shelter; that they were drenched by the rains every day; that the order relative to fruits and drink had been entirely disregarded, and in consequence several men had been attacked by cholera, and died on the way. After their arrival upon the ship, the surgeon of that and of two other ships of the same line had been constant in their attendance upon the sick, and abundance of hospital stores and medicines had been furnished by the company. That day (Saturday) the sick had been removed to a hulk anchored near, and a detail of men to nurse them, under the charge of an officer, had been sent on board by the commanding officer. I went on board the hulk and passed the night there. Several new cases were sent on board from the ship during the night. The next day, Dr. Martin, of the Columbia, kindly volunteered to take my place, and I got some sleep. I passed the next night again on board the hulk, besides frequent visits during the day. The next day I was obliged to apply to the commanding officer for assistance. It was impossible for anyone to endure such an amount of physical and mental exertion any longer. We had, fortunately, among our passengers, Dr. Deal, of California, a physician of experience and intelligence, with whom a contract was made to perform the duties of an assistant surgeon on board the Golden Gate, from that time until she reached San Francisco, for the moderate sum of $250. Had we known what was before us we could not have secured his services for ten times the amount.
[pg. 6] Tuesday, 27th July, the disease was evidently subsiding. No new cases had occurred during the night, and the sick were, for the most part, improving. I entertained strong hopes that as soon as our baggage was all, received we should be in condition to prosecute our voyage. In this hope, however, we were doomed to be disappointed. In the afternoon of that day we had a heavy rain, against which many of our men were but ill protected. Upon the arrival of the small steamer in the evening about a dozen knapsacks were received, that had been lying and moulding somewhere on the Isthmus for a long time. The men to whom they belonged seized upon them immediately with great eagerness, and opened them to get a change of clothing. I was afterwards informed that some of these men fell sick while in the act. Be this as it may, in about 20 hours afterwards they were all taken ill of cholera in its worst form and within an hour of each other, and most of them died. The disease having thus reappeared, it was determined to land the troops. There being shelter for the sick upon the island of Flaminco, about six miles from Panama, the debarkation was effected upon the 29th; the sick were placed in huts, and the well in a few tents and under sails stretched over poles. On the 1st August, Brevet Major Gore was attacked, and died on board the Golden Gate.8 His was the last case of cholera that occurred, and he the only officer we lost. I recommended to Colonel Bonneville to destroy any other knapsacks that might be received from the Isthmus, and to have the ship fumigated with chlorine, which was done. Several other officers were threatened, but, by timely means, escaped a decided attack upon the island a number of those previously ill died, but no new cases appeared. The fever of the country, however, began to show itself, which made all anxious to leave Panama as soon as possible.
On the 3d August, the Golden Gate determined to go to sea the next day, but refused to take on board more than 450 of our people, and expressly declared that she would not receive a single sick man. To this extraordinary demand we were forced to submit, and I was accordingly ordered to remain on the island with the sick, most of the women and children, and one company of troops to act as nurses, etc., until the next steamer should sail. I approved of the proposal to divide the command between two ships, but could not agree as to the propriety of leaving all the sick for another steamer, as a similar objection would probably be made to their reception on board of her. I was, however, overruled, and on the 4th August, the Golden Gate sailed with 450 well men, Dr. Deal acting assistant surgeon. The three months’ supply for the regiment being stowed away in the hold of the ship, I placed it in charge of Dr. Deal, with the packer’s list, that he might use such of the medicines and store that he should need on the voyage; the remainder to be left with the medical purveyor at Benicia. Dr. Deal was discharged at the termination of the voyage, and I have not seen him since, nor have I had any report from him. I have ascertained, however, that he had ninety cases of fever and diarrhoea on the voyage, and three deaths. These are embodied in my report. I have also learned that, not being able to find the box containing the sulphate of quinine, he had purchased two ounces at Acapulco and borrowed more of the ship, which has since been returned.9
Upon the 7th of August it was announced that the steamer Northerner would take us on board and sail the next day. The surgeon of that ship was sent on shore to inspect our men; and although he thought there were [pg. 7] several cases of fever that would die, still, as no infectious disease was prevailing, he made no objection to receiving them on board. Arrangements were accordingly made for embarking. The sick were to be first sent on board and accommodated before the ship should be crowded with the well. By a mistake of the agent a scow was sent to the island this evening to take us on board. In this scow our baggage was first stowed, and the sick placed upon it. In a few minutes the whole was flooded away, owing to the leaky condition of the scow. Our sick and baggage were hastily transferred to boats alongside, and thus sent to the steamer. It was this accident that caused the damage to the instruments that were afterwards condemned by a board of survey.
It appeared afterwards that it was not intended we should be embarked that evening, and the consequence of the blunder was a remonstrance on the part of the other passengers against our sick being permitted to remain on board. After a great deal of negotiation it was finally agreed that a few of the worst cases might be left in hospital at Taboga, under the special charge of the agent of the company, he guaranteeing that every comfort and suitable medical attendance should be provided for them, and they forwarded as soon as possible. I considered it of the greatest importance that we should leave that climate, as our well men were daily sickening with the fever. Accordingly four men were selected to be left, by the ship’s surgeon, which satisfied the passengers, and on the 8th of August we embarked the remainder and put to sea.
We arrived at Benicia on the 26th of August, having lost but one man on the voyage. He died of the secondary fever of cholera. Upon my arrival at Benicia I found a large sick report from among the men shipped on the Golden Gate. They were ill of diarrhoea, dysentery, and typhoid fever. The men were destitute of clothing, and were in tents, exposed to intense heat by day and to very cold nights. By the advice of Assistant Surgeon Griffin10 they were ordered from the tents into some new cavalry stables just finished, and with marked good effect. The character of the fever was decidedly typhoid, and the dysenteries generally assumed the same type.
With regard to the treatment of the cholera as it prevailed among us, I have only to say that all the usual means were tried, and with the usual want of success. The first cases were nearly all fatal. I think the free exhibition of brandy with capsicum and chloride sodium was about as successful as anything. We found the acetas plumbi, in doses of five to ten grains, a valuable means of restraining the diarrhoea. I feel sure many cases were relieved by it that would have terminated in malignant cholera without speedy relief. Mustard and bottles of hot water with frictions of the surface externally, camphor, calomel, and quinine internally, were freely used. But, as I have already remarked, and as usually happens in severe epidemics, the chances are that the cases first attacked will die, and that the ratio of the mortality will diminish with the duration of the epidemic. In this epidemic we lost about eighty men.11
Very respectfully, your obd’t serv’t,
CHAS. S. TRIPLER,
Surgeon, U. S. Army.
Surgeon-General, Washington, D. C.
[pg. 8] 1. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, Sept. 19, 1852, Feb. 15, 1853, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967), 1, 266, 288. Hereafter Papers.
2. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), 1, 195.
3. Papers, 1, 249-250.
4. Memoirs, 1, 197.
5. Tripler’s letter was printed in The Canal Record, a newsletter published for those employed in constructing the Panama Canal, 1, 44 (July 1, 1908), 347-348, with a note explaining that General George H. Davis, Governor of the Canal Zone, “recently chanced upon” the document. Inquiries to the Canal Zone Library-Museum and the National Archives have not led to the original.
6. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin L. E. Bonneville commanded the Fourth Infantry. Surgeon Tripler’s wife later characterized Bonneville as “very stupid,” probably reflecting her husband’s opinion. Louis A. Arthur, ed, Eunice Tripler: Some Notes of her Personal Recollections (New York, 1910), 108.
7. Brevet Colonel George Wright.
8. John H. Gore. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, Aug. 9, 1852, Papers, 1, 252.
9. On Jan. 5, 1853, Grant certified that six ounces of quinine had been borrowed from Dr. Holdman, surgeon of the Golden Gate, for the use of the troops. Ibid., 1, 284-285.
10. Assistant Surgeon John Strother Griffin.
11. On Aug. 25, 1852, Bonneville reported the death of seventy-eight members of the Fourth Infantry since the regiment had landed at Aspinwall. Bonneville to E. D. Townsend, Pacific Division, Letters Received, Record Group 393, National Archives. The number of deaths among the women and children in the party is not known.
NEWS NOTES *** Ralph G. Newman is the newly elected president of the board of directors of the Chicago Public Library. Newman, also president of the Grant Association, is the subject of an article in the Spring, 1967, issue of Manuscripts. *** E. B. Long, vice chairman of the Editorial Board of the Grant Association, is Visiting Lecturer in History at the University of California at Riverside, Calif., for the fall and winter quarters. He will be teaching Civil War and Reconstruction and a seminar in research methods. *** Major General Ulysses S. Grant 3rd recently received a Southern Illinois University distinguished service award from President Delyte W. Morris at & dinner in Washington, D. C. General Grant 3rd was honored for “his generous cooperation with the Ulysses S. Grant Association.”