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Historian: Early Philadelphia College of Pharmacy Graduate Awarded Medal of Honor for Bravery in Civil War
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 edition of the “Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage Historian”.
In the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War there have been numerous reflections on the people and events of the era. One such person was a Pennsylvania pharmacist, Joseph Kirby Corson, a 1858 graduate of Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, who received the Medal of Honor for bravery. Few pharmacists in the history of the medal, perhaps only two, have won such distinction.
No decorations for bravery existed in the American military at the beginning of the Civil War; such shows were considered too European. After the beginning of the War first the Navy and then the Army secured Congressional authorization to recognize exceptional gallantry and courage. In 1863, surviving members of the Andrews’ Raid who captured a Confederate locomotive, The General, were awarded the first Medals of Honor. Over 1,500 of the medals were awarded during the war but many were not given until long after the end of hostilities; the last two were awarded in 1917.
Pharmacist and physician Corson received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bristoe Station, VA on October 14, 1863. At the time Corson was serving as an assistant surgeon with the 6th Pennsylvania Infantry Reserves. He was awarded the medal on May 13, 1899, almost 36 years after the event.
Personal Background and Education
Joseph Corson was born on November 22, 1836 the second of nine children of Dr. Hiram and Ann Jones Foulke Corson in Montgomery County, PA. His early education was largely with tutors before he was enrolled at the Treemount Seminary in Norristown, PA. In 1856 Corson moved to
Philadelphia and apprenticed with the wholesale drugstore of the brothers William and John Savery at 807 Market Street while he attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Corson graduated with a PhG (a pharmacy degree) in 1858. Seemingly possessed of a restless and adventuresome nature he accepted a position with a pharmacist in St. Paul, MN. The venture soon failed and Corson returned to Norristown to enter the lime business with a cousin. Again searching, perhaps because of his father’s influence, he soon enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Medicine.
In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for troops to defend Washington, DC from troops of the southern states. By law, the president was allowed to call only 75,000 men for an enlistment limited to 3 months. Pennsylvania was to supply 15 regiments, approximately 27,000 men. On April 20, Joseph Corson volunteered as a corporal with the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment being formed in Norristown under Captain Walter H. Cook. By the time that the regiment was discharged from service on July 26, Corson had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. There is no evidence that he served in any medical capacity during this period of service.
He returned to his studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1861. While at the University he is listed as serving as either an Acting Medical Cadet or a Medical Cadet at the army hospital located at Cherry and Brad Streets. Cadets were used to expand medical personnel for a rapidly growing Union army and many moved on to an assignment as an officer in the Medical Corps after graduation.
After Corson’s graduation with his MD in 1863 he immediately enlisted and was assigned as an Assistant Surgeon in the 35th Pennsylvania Infantry (6th Reserves). He joined his regiment in time to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg and the subsequent battles of Falling Waters, Manassas Gap, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, Rappahannock Station, the Wilderness Campaign, Spotsylvania, North-Anna River, and Bethesda Church. He was promoted to Brevet Major for his meritorious service during the Wilderness Campaign.
From November 1864 until his discharge in May 1865, Dr. Corson was assigned to medical duties at Camp Discharge, a mustering out camp located on the outskirts of Philadelphia (the location of the present-day golf course of the Philadelphia Country Club).
Medal of Honor
In January, 1899 the Association of the 6th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, put forward Joseph Kirby Corson for the Medal of Honor. The petition, signed by Brevet Captain A. B Jameson, was accompanied by affidavits from Charles S. Fornwald and William H.H. Gore who were present at the time of the action. The official commendation is short and remarkably devoid of detail.
Corson’s commentary, part of the recommendation for the award, provides a clearer picture of the action:
“On the 14th of October 1863, the 3rd Division of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, to which the 6th Regt. Pa Res. Corps belonged and to which I was attached as an Assistant Surgeon was marching North near Bristoe and about noon crossed Cedar (or Broad) Run and halted to rest on the top of the bank, stacking arms and preparing to take lunch. On either side of the stream was a plateau extending back several hundred yards. As our Division arrived on the ground, the 2nd Division which had been resting, started for Manassas, so that no other troops were in supporting distance. While the men were eating with arms stacked, the enemy suddenly opened fire from the wood on the South side of the stream, from a battery of five guns firing first shell and later I think, canister or grape. The Division was formed at once, took arms and was marched rapidly by the flank for the cover of the woods. Our Regiment was on the right, Major Gore and myself riding in the rear of it. Just as we started Private Ernest Arenholdt of Co. ‘E’ broke from the ranks and attempted to run to the nearest point of the woods. When a short distance away a shot or shell struck him and shattered his leg just above the knee. I did not see him at first but my attention being called to the fact, I turned and rode back, taking with me Private James O’Boyle of ‘I’ Co., Hospital Attendant. After a hasty examination finding that nothing could be done under fire of the Battery, on the spot and the man begging to be taken from the exposed position, we managed to put him on my horse and carry him to where the regiment was halted behind the wood, O’Boyle leading the horse and I supporting the man and holding his leg. The limb was amputated that day with successful result. The operation was performed by Surgeon Charles Bower of the Regiment. During the occurrence narrated the firing of the Battery was severe and the enemy’s skirmishers were plainly visible on the opposite side of the stream. It is certain in my judgment that the action taken was the means of saving the man’s life as the ground was not regained, I think that day, if at all, and the nature of the wound made delay absolutely fatal.” [punctuation and capitalization in original typescript]
Joseph Corson mustered out of the Medical Department and returned to practice medicine with his father in Plymouth Meeting, PA but soon tired of the routine and determined to return to military medicine. He reenlisted as an assistant surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieutenant in October 1867 serving mostly at forts throughout the western states including Wyoming, Arizona, and Idaho. In 1871 he was assigned as the medical officer for the Clarence King geological survey of the 40th parallel. His services were obviously well regarded since King named the highest point of Phil Pico Mountain in Utah Corson Peak.
Corson had a broad range of interests that included fossil hunting in Fort Bridger, WY while he was stationed in the area. Corson, his father-in-law Judge William A. Carter and his brother-in-law, a physician in the area, were largely responsible for discovering the fossils of Eocene mammals. The fossils were provided to Professor Joseph Leidy of the University of Pennsylvania who would become regarded as the founder of
While on duty at Fort Bridger in 1874, Joseph Corson married Mary Ada Carter the daughter of Judge Carter, a prominent businessman and probate judge of Fort Bridger. The couple had two children: Mary Carter Corson, who died young in a railroad accident, and Edward Foulke Corson, who later followed his father and grandfather into medical practice.
Joseph Kirby Corson practiced as a physician for most of his adult life. However, he was ever aware of his beginnings in pharmacy and his first alma mater. In his Army efficiency report for 1890, and perhaps earlier, Corson noted that he was a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and worked for three years in wholesale drug and manufacturing chemist establishments. He retired from active duty in November 1897 and lived in Plymouth Meeting until his death on July 24, 1913.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Dan Flanagan of the Archives of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy for alerting me to the story of Joseph K. Corson. This is adapted from an article in Pennsylvania Pharmacist 95(5):34-5, 2014
RP Broadwater, Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients. Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, 2007.
Joseph K. Corson Diary
GR Hasegawa, “The Civil War’s Medical Cadets: Medical Students Serving the Union” J Am Coll Surg 2001.
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Commandery of the State of Pennsylvania, “In Memoriam: Joseph Kirby Corson.” Circular No. 5. Series of 1914 Whole No. 785.
National Archives, Corson Medal of Honor file.
M Auge, Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, PA. Norris-town, PA. M Auge Publisher 1879.
K Thomson, The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.
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