Historical essay
When Philadelphia Became a Battlefield, Its Surgeons Bore Witness

When Philadelphia Became a Battlefield, Its Surgeons Bore Witness

Zachary M. Schrag

In the summer of 1844, Philadelphians rioted with an intensity beyond anything the city had endured for decades. A new political party – dedicated to restricting the rights of immigrants – sought to gain followers by staging mass rallies throughout Philadelphia County. When they gathered in the predominantly Irish-Catholic Third Ward of Kensington in May, they provoked a brawl that led to three days of gunfire and arson, as native-born Protestants fought Irish-born Catholics. After eight weeks of uneasy peace, the fighting resumed in July. This time, the volunteer militia intervened in defense of a Catholic church against a nativist mob. In both sets of clashes, Philadelphians fought with muskets, shotguns, and, eventually, cannon, scarring buildings and mangling bodies.

Summoned to the wounded, Philadelphia’s physicians and surgeons shared their neighbors’ horror at seeing their city reduced to a battlefield. Yet they also recognized a rare opportunity to test some of the new ideas about military surgery that had arrived from Europe. Bearing witness to the carnage, they recorded their observations in notes and, later, in print. By doing so, they left me – the historian – with the same challenge they had faced nearly two centuries before: how to respect the dignity of the wounded, while also making the most of the catastrophe?

The surgeons’ observations survive thanks to a remarkable document: an eleven-page published report presented by Dr. Isaac Parrish to the November 1844 meeting of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. While officially deploring “this dark page in our history,” Parrish – a 33-year-old surgeon of rising renown – seized the opportunity to enhance his colleagues’ knowledge of military surgery by describing each wound in loving detail.[1]

Edward Lyon, Parrish reported, was shot as he waved the musket he had seized from a militia soldier. “The slug entered the front of the arm, passed through the axilla, inside of the vessels, (they being thrown out by the raised position of the arm) and was extracted outside of the external edge of the scapula. He died from absorption of pus, his lungs being covered with metastatic abscesses.”[2]

Nathan Ramsey was shot in the chest. The ball “penetrated the upper portion of the right side of the thorax, near the edge of the sternum, and passing a short distance obliquely, entered the left thoracic cavity in front of the pericardium, and then passing directly backward, came out under the posterior edge of the left scapula.” Remarkably, Ramsey survived for three weeks, and Parrish half-regretted not observing him more carefully. The wound was so big that a doctor might have been able to watch Ramsey’s beating heart, “but it was not deemed prudent during life to inspect the interesting phenomena which must have been thus made evident.”[3]

William Manning was hit in both legs; a ball had gone through one thigh and into the other, cracking the femur. The doctors knew that in most such cases, a failure to amputate promptly could endanger the patient’s life, and at best save a useless, painful limb. But Manning’s “youth, temperate habits, and good constitution, were all in his favor, and rendered the case more hopeful than usual.” The surgeons held back, and – months later – Manning had “every prospect of having a good serviceable limb.”[4]

Cover of The Fires of Philadelphia by Zachary Schrag
Book cover courtesy Simon and Schuster.

As I incorporated Parrish’s observations into my book The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation, I knew I risked reproducing descriptions of wounds simply for voyeuristic appeal. Storytellers since Homer have included gruesome specifics in their accounts of combat, and local TV news producers know that if it bleeds, it leads. Like them, I want to keep my readers engaged in the story, and gore can help. But beyond such sensationalism, I hope I had more noble reasons to use these medical details.

First, Parrish’s account helped me write accurate history. In the aftermath of the riots, Philadelphia’s nativists exaggerated the wounds that they and innocent bystanders had suffered at the hands of Catholics or volunteer militia. The doctors’ records show that, along with Lyon, at least one more of the July rioters was killed by the jagged slugs used by his fellow civilians, not a government-issue musket ball. And the absence of other names on their lists proved to be a good clue that the militia had killed fewer people than their critics charged.

Second, knowing the severity of the wounds helps me understand the actions of those who survived them. Though the surgeon’s report feinted at respecting privacy by identifying some survivors by initials, rather than by full names, it was not hard to reidentify them. One man, shot through the hips in May, had a particularly narrow escape from serious injury or death. The musket ball tunneled through his body without hitting any major bones or organs, and “the patient was entirely well within three weeks from the date of his accident.”[5] Knowing that helps me speculate about this man’s mood in July, when he searched a Catholic church for weapons. Whether he was still in physical pain or merely shaken by his experience, being shot through the body – presumably by a Catholic’s musket – likely increased his determination as he led that search. The “A.R.P” whose arm amputation is detailed in the report was Augustus Peale, the grandson of the famous portraitist, Charles Willson Peale. By October 1844, he had recovered enough to win election as county auditor. By electing one of their wounded to that important office, the nativists reinforced their claim that the street battles had been acts of heroism.

Third, and most importantly, emphasizing the bodily trauma of the riots makes clear that “gunplay” has serious consequences. One of the nativists, while awaiting trial for murder, sought to reduce the May riots to a game, calling them “a general shooting match, and it was the best man got the best shot.”⁠[6] With only such language, stories of the street battles would too easily collapse into sportswriting, as rival teams gain or lose yardage, score points, or change formations. Looking closely at the torments of the dying, and the mutilation of the survivors, helped me deflate such bravado and replace it with moral reckoning.

The surgeons of 1844 could apply leeches, extract musket balls, amputate limbs, or, as in Manning’s case, take the risk of trying to save a grievously wounded leg. And even in hopeless cases, they could observe and learn. For his fellow medical men, Parrish’s report served as a means to improve their knowledge of gunshot wounds. This knowledge would become incalculably more important seventeen years later, as those surgeons and their students faced tens of thousands of Civil War casualties. And while Parrish may not have been thinking of the future historian’s needs, he did understand the importance of bearing witness. “It becomes our profession calmly to look back upon the scene of desolation through which we have passed,” he wrote, “and to view it in its relations to the cause of science, and to questions affecting human life.”[7] With those words, he joined surgery and history.


    1. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” in Summary of the Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Volume I. From November, 1841, to August, 1846, Inclusive. (Philadelphia, William F. Geddes, 1846), 251–262.
    2. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” 253.
    3. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” 260.
    4. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” 253.
    5. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” 261.
    6. Wm. H. Hartnett, testimony, “Kensington Riot Cases,” Public Ledger (Philadelphia), October 18, 1844.
    7. “Stated Meeting, November 5, 1844,” 251.

Featured image caption: The destruction Philadelphia’s Church of St. Augustine in the 1844 Nativist Riots. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of "The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation" and "The Princeton Guide to Historical Research."