PORTABLE MEDICINE CASE OF DR. WILLIAM HOWARD KING 149th PA, BUCKTAILS; 21st PA CAV; POSTWAR REGULAR ARMY POST SURGEON

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Item Code: 2021-1084

This is a small leather covered and tack-decorated doctor’s travelling case for medicine bottles with several wide leather strips winding around the interior to form small holders to keep bottles in place.  This is not military issue, but typical of personal medical gear that might be brought into service by a doctor from civilian life. Born in Delaware in 1840, we first find King serving as a Contract Surgeon, that is: a private, civilian physician working for the government on a contract, in 1863.

Measuring 11 by 9 inches and 8 inches tall, the case is made with a leather carrying handle on the top and is decorated with rows of tacks on the top and sides and probably saw use for some years before King obtained it for his medical practice. Painted on the top in old yellow paint is “SURGEON / WILLIAM H. KING / 149 Regt Pa/ Vols.” We are very cautious about hand-painted military identifications added to civilian pieces, but in this case, we have noted that that the paint never goes into any of shallow gaps left by finish loss, indicating it was applied when the complete finish was intact. King’s medical background is unclear, but he was born in 1840 and we find his first military service as Acting Assistant Surgeon at Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia on a contract from March 3 to May 19, 1863. At that point his contract was cancelled by arrangement to allow him to take a commission as Assistant Surgeon of the 149th Pa., the Second Bucktails, serving in the First Army Corps. He was present with the regiment on the field at Gettysburg, as is proven by the presence of his name on the regiment’s panel on the Pennsylvania state monument. Out of 450 men engaged on July 1, the regiment lost 53 killed, 172 wounded, and 111 missing or captured, a casualty rate of nearly 75% in fighting along McPherson’s Ridge and the railroad cut, buying about ninety minutes of essential time for Union forces.

After that bloody initiation, King served with regiment only four more weeks, mustering out to receive a promotion on July 30, a commission as full Surgeon on August 5 in the 21st PA Cavalry, which was just being organized for three years’ service. Part of the regiment was posted in Pennsylvania and part at Harpers Ferry until February 1864, when they were reunited and dismounted to serve as infantry in the 5th Corps. In the severe fighting at Cold Harbor, it lost 1 officer and 7 men killed, 4 officers and 43 men wounded, and was again heavily engaged in front of Petersburg on June 18, losing 11 killed, 79 wounded and 1 missing, and saw further fighting at the Jerusalem plank road, the mine explosion, and Weldon Railroad.

King was on sick leave from August to October, shortly after which the regiment was again mounted and assigned to Gregg’s division, seeing action at Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, Amelia Springs, where it lost 98 out of 234 engaged in less than an hour's fighting, Sailor's creek and Farmville, with the dismounted men of the regiment seeing separate service as infantry. The regiment served as provost guards by detachment in Virginia when the war ended and King mustered out with them July 8, 1865.

King apparently tried civilian life for a time, but rejoined the regular army as Acting Asst. Surgeon, a contract post, from November 1867 to November 1868, serving at Cincinnati, Fort Hayes and Fort Zarah in Kansas. He was then appointed Assistant Surgeon U.S. Army, November 16, 1868, continuing as Post Surgeon at Fort Zarah to October 1869, Fort Wallace to July 1873, McPherson Barracks at Atlanta, Yorkville, Newberry and Greenville, S.C., to April 1877, and Fort Sully, Dakota to May 1881; on sick leave to October 1881, Fort Trumbull, Ct. to December 1881, and Fort McHenry until April 1882. He took a sick leave at that point and was still on sick leave when he died in Philadelphia Aug. 23, 1883. [sr] [ph:m]

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