Civil War Medicine

By Chuck Seidman


The Civil War is remembered as the bloodiest war in American history where many died from unknown illnesses, infection and gunshot wounds. The medicine in the war was scarce but the soldiers used their resources and some of the developments in medicine made then have carried on into today's society. Whether it was from amputations to treating foot sores from marching, medicine played a very important role in the Civil War.


Since both the North and South did not think the Civil War would
a civil war surgeon standing over an amputated patient
last more than a couple of months, there were only 36 surgeons at the start of the war, 12 of which went to the South. By the end of the war over 17,000 surgeons had served on both sides plus numerous undocumented volunteers. The training in the Civil War to become a doctor was very brief. The major universities at the time such as Yale and Princeton had medical courses that would only last a maximum of two years with no hands on training. If a man did not become a surgeon via medical school he could work his way up from the bottom. A man would usually start as a "litter bearer" by removing corpses off the fields. If they did well enough and showed an interest in medicine they would be promoted to a steward who dealt with minor wounds such as scratches and bumps. If they excelled as steward they would be promoted to guarding the medicine tent from opium addicted soldiers, then be promoted to assistant surgeon and then maybe even a surgeon by the end of the war.


Surgery played a very important role in the Civil War because three quarters of the surgeries performed were amputations. When a soldier was a hit by the minie ball bullet that was popular at the time it would shatter the bone and carry dirt deep into the wound causing infection. After this happened the only option for the surgeon was amputation. Contrary to popular belief the wounded soldier did not have a bullet to bite into, and the choice anesthetic of the time was a chloroform soaked rag put over the soldiers mouth, making sure he was unconscious. The rag would occasionally be removed by the surgeons to prevent chloroform poisoning and the amputation only took about fifteen minutes. Since hypodermic syringes did not exist at the time soldiers were sometimes given opium pills or morphine as a pain killer.


At the start of the war, housing and transportation of wounded soldiers was very crude and progressed very little throughout the war. However, some of the innovations made then have continued into today's medical society. When a soldier was wounded on the battle field, an ambulance carriage would often be sent to retrieve him. The ambulance drivers would often be members of the
A Civil War hospital ward
A four wheeled ambulance provided for a much more stable ride than it's two-wheeled counterpart.
randomly selected to drive and maybe even load the wounded onto a stretcher. This, however, changed with a union medical director named Jonathan Letterman. Letterman devised the "Letterman ambulance plan" where a designated driver would drive to the wounded where they would be loaded onto stretchers by two stretcher bearers. The makeshift hospitals of the time were very poorly put together often consisting of the nearest building such as a barn, church or if nothing could be found tents hastily set up in the battle field. The larger actual hospitals were not much better in terms of cleanliness. During the Civil War an innovation was made on these hospitals that carried over into today's society. Before the Civil War, patients would come to a hospital with a disease and could contract another disease from the patient in the bed next to them. For example, a man could have the measles, go to a hospital, then catch the mumps from the patient next to them and die of that. To prevent this from happening, the major hospitals were split into wards where patients were placed based on their type of medical problem. This innovation helped the containment of different diseases.


Disease was the major killer of soldiers in the Civil War, killing double the amount of soldiers that died from battle wounds and on the field put together. The Civil War created perfect conditions for diseases to spread by the constant stream of troops coming in and out of major cities. Some of the major diseases that killed multitudes of soldiers of both the North and South were measles, mumps and whooping cough. Although the doctors of the time knew of bacteria they were not aware that germs caused disease, nor did they understand the
Bacteria in a healthy digestive tract
importance of washing hands to prevent the spreading of bacteria. Medicines of the time to cure these diseases had not yet been perfected and many of the doctors' remedies for minor afflictions did nothing except exacerbate them and lead to more death. Some examples of these were in an 1863 field manual published by J.J. Chisolm, a confederate surgeon. The manual was meant for inexperienced surgeons and said many things that are now known to be untrue. For example, Chisolm said that bacon could be eaten raw while on the move due to the lack of convenience of cooking. However, eating raw bacon inflamed the digestive tract making it nearly impossible for soldiers to get nutrition out of any food they were eating. Therefore, thousands died from malnutrition. Chisolm also suggested that soldiers on the move wash their socks in soap before marching to prevent foot sores However, the soap of the time was made of a very rough, corrosive material called lye which made foot sores even more painful.
An average Civil War surgery kit consisting of many blades


The medical arrangement of the North and South were very similar with each regiment having one surgeon and one assistant surgeon by the end of the war. However since the North was more industrial they made more tools to be used in the medical field such as clamps and saws. Therefore the South did not have great access to surgical supplies and the North was better equipped for surgeries. The South also had numerous female volunteers acting as nurses.

Civil War medicine Episode 1
Civil War nedicine Episode 2


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