Shipboard medicine discussed in first ‘Chebacco Chat’ event

MOUNT DESERT — To celebrate the release of this year’s Chebacco, the journal of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, the society is hosting live video presentations with contributing authors. 

The first “Chebacco Chat,” held last Thursday afternoon and broadcast on Zoom and Facebook Live, featured Bill Horner discussing his article, “Dr. William Begg, HMS Tenedos, the War of 1812 and the ‘Battle of Norwood Cove.’” 

Begg was an assistant ship’s surgeon in the British navy, and his journal includes fascinating detail about medicine of the era as well as the 1814 clash between British sailors and Mount Desert Island local militia. 

Horner is a retired trauma surgeon and president of the society’s board of directors. 

“I realized I knew nothing about the War of 1812,” he said, “other than the Star-Spangled Banner and Andrew Jackson beating the British in the Battle of New Orleans.” 

In 1814, he said, “British military vessels were patrolling the waters off New England to blockade those ports and occasionally to raid them.” That’s what happened in the case of the Tenedos dropping anchor that August between Sutton Island and Bear Island.

A 1776 chart of what’s now known as the Great Harbor of Mount Desert Island. The British frigate Tenedas anchored between Sutton Island and Bear Island in August 6 1814, a few days before what became known as the Battle of Norwood Cove. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

They needed fresh water and food, and bought some potatoes from local farmers without incident. But when the ship’s smaller boats encountered two local schooners in Norwood Cove, the crews of the schooners “were apparently told by the British that they had to pay a ransom or risk having their schooners destroyed,” Horner said. 

“There are any number of local tales associated with this,” he noted. 

The schooners’ owners were not willing to pay the ransom, so the frigate’s small boats were deployed again with the intent of destroying the schooners. 

After two and a half hours, “the boats returned without being able to accomplish their purpose owing to the incessant fire kept up by upwards of a hundred men from behind rocks and bushes,” according to the ship’s log. 

Local stories of the encounter have it that five British sailors were killed. But the British sources Horner consulted have no records of casualties; only three wounded. 

“Our getting off so cheaply must be attributed to a kind Providence and the unsoldierlike conduct of the Yankees,” Begg opined, who would not expose their precious carcasses long enough from the cover of the rocks to enable them to take a deliberate aim. 

Naval engagements of the era, Horner said, were often described in terms of “gentlemanly challenges and a sense of honor.” 

But it was Begg’s precise descriptions of the sailors’ injuries in his journal that really caught Horner’s attention. 

Bill Horner presenting from home at last week’s online Chebacco Chat event.

“I felt a real kinship to him because I felt that he was kind of the prototype of a modern trauma surgeon,” he said. “Surgery, at least in terms of trauma, was very well developed. Because of their knowledge of anatomy, they knew where the blood vessels were.” 

“It was virtually identical to what we practice today.” 

If an arm or a leg had a “penetrating injury” it would be amputated whenever possible. There were no anesthetics. 

“The tightness of tourniquet could provide some degree of anesthesia, but it was mainly speed of surgeon that made this possible. A good naval surgeon could amputate an arm in two minutes or less.” 

“Iodine crystals or something like that may have been available,” he continued. “But sterilization was a long time coming. I believe it was Joseph Lister much later in the 19th century who finally convinced English surgeons not only to sterilize their instruments but also to clean wounds. That was about 40 more years coming to the U.S.” 

In contrast to trauma surgery, he said, Begg and his colleagues were at a loss when it came to treating contagious shipboard illnesses, such as the ones that cause fever, and these were common. 

“In those days, the knowledge and understandings that underlay identification of disease and its treatment were markedly different,” Horner said. 

The Chebacco Chat events continue the next few Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. 

On April 23, University of Maine history professor Liam Riordan discussed his article, “Mount Desert Island and the Long Struggle for Maine Statehood.” 

On April 30, Brittany Goetting, a doctoral candidate in history at UMaine, will talk about her article, “Committees, Churches and Classrooms: Influential Women in the Early Nineteenth Century on Mount Desert Island.” 

Visit for links to the Zoom and Facebook Live events. 

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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