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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library –

Submitted Information - Union Index - Union Officer Listing
Major Eugene F. Sanger

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One of the most controversial figures in the history of the prison camp, Major Eugene Sanger served as the camp's chief surgeon. Born on October 18, 1829 in Waterville, Maine, Sanger was the second of four children and the oldest son of Zebulon and Charlotte Sanger. A quick learner, Sanger graduated from Dartmough College in 1849. During the following winter, he tutored for the family of Lawrence B. Washington in Virginia. In the spring of 1850, he returned to Maine to pursue his first love: medicine. He graduated in 185 from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Before starting his practice, he served for a brief time as the assistant surgeon for the Marine Hospital in Chelsae, Massachusetts. He returned to Maine in May 1855 (after a brief tour of the medical halls of Europe) and opened a small practice in Ellsworth. Tow years later, in 1857, he moved his practice to Bangor and remained there the rest of his life. Throughout his long and extensive career, Sanger was known for his exceptional, progressive, and innovative skills as a surgeon.

Having no real military background, it is difficult to see how this quite surgeon could be come involved in the Elmira Prison Camp. As it turned out, it was his faith in Republican politics that sparked it all. In June 1861, Sanger happily accepted a post as surgeon of the 6th Maine Infantry. He saw duty in the Potomac and in the Gulf. In April 1862, Sanger reported to Maj. General Benjamin F. Butler at Ship Island, Mississippi, where he served as a brigade surgeon. Following the capture of New Orleans, Sanger became the medical purveyor of the Department of the Gulf and Surgeon in Charge of St. James Hospital. After securing the post of Medical Director of the Defenses of New Orleans, Sanger was appointed Surgeon in Chief of Major General William Sherman's division (1863). Later in 1863, at the siege of Port Hudson, Sanger lost part of his left leg below the knee. In spite this injury, Sanger continued his duties and in June 1864 when he was assigned to serve as the surgeon in charge of the Union military hospital at Annapolis Junction. This lasted only a few weeks and by the last week of July, Sanger was awaiting orders in Baltimore.

Perhaps because of the lack of military background or the fact that he had only been serving for four years, but what ever the reason, Major Sanger was a source of discomfort for many of those around him. He was often cury and inconsiderate of others. Sanger was a man who realized his own potential and self-wealth, and made every effort to see that others realized it as well. In several letters back to Governor Israel Washburn of Maine, Sanger openly criticized his postings and at one pointed asked the following: "I really ache to be with the fighting men. I want to cultivate my art. I want to put in use that knowledge and experience which I have studied and labored for since I left college, and for which there seems to be a great demand in the Western and Eastern Armies."

His Republican view of the war called for a complete victory. The Confederacy must "submit to the dicates of the victors" and when the war ended "all will wheel into line." In many ways, Sanger was a man who was a victim of his own reputation. Some of the prisoners under his care at Elmira characterized him as "a club-footed little gentleman, with an abnormal head and snaky look in his eyes." Prisoner Anthony Keiley summed it up by saying, "Sanger was simply a brute."

His ill manners were not confined to his professional life. His family caught the brunt of it as well. His divorced his first wife (Emily Fay Sanger) because he felt that she had turned the children against him. She was not even mentioned in his will. He left most of his estate to his second wife, Mary Robena Treat Sanger, provided that "the amounts so paid shall not exceed one third part of th net income of said trust estate." To the youngest son, and a doctor, Eugene Boutelle Sanger, Major Sanger left the greatest share. To his other two children (Mary Charlotte Sanger and Sabine Paul Sanger), one dollar was given.

Such a man was appointed chief medical officer for the Elmira Prison Camp. Within a week of his arrival, there were five doctors ready to assist Major Sanger. By September 10, there were 10 assistant surgeons. One assistant stands out in one report: Surgeon Charles E. Rider of the 54th NY Infantry. During August, Sanger made a thurough inspection of the camp and reported that a problem was growing with the pond located inside the camp walls. This report was received by Lt. Thomas R. Lounsbury, the acting assistant adjutant-general in Elmira. Both men made recommendations on what to do with the pond and how to improve conditions surrounding it. The report was forwarded from Col. Eastman to Col. Hoffman for his review. This report was the first one made by Eastman in the way to trying to inform Washington about the deteriorating conditions inside the camp. Little to nothing was done about the report.

On August 26, 1864, with the camp population reaching 9,000, Major Sanger made the discovery of scurvy in the camp. Scurvy, by itself, is not fatal. It comes about when the diet is not changed and lacks fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, however, does lower the immune system, thus opening up the body to attack by other diseases. Sanger asked for potatoes, onions and cabbage be added to the diet. Eastman sent this report on to Hoffman for approval. Hoffman responded that the diet of the prisoners was in the hands of the camp commander. By this time, Eastman was r4eady to step down and Col. Benjamin Tracy was about to assume command of the prison. It was with Tracy that Sanger would meet his greatest personal clash.