Friday, April 16, 2021

American Civil War Medicine 1861-1865

 Of the approximately 600,000 soldiers who died in the American Civil, fully two-thirds died from disease.  It is estimated that some 300,000 men died from sickness caused by intestinal disorders alone, mainly typhoid fever, diarrhea, and dysentery.  The fault lay with the shocking filth of the army camps themselves.  A Federal inspector reported in late 1861 that Union camps were, “ littered with refuse, food, and other rubbish, sometimes in an offensive state of decomposition; slops deposited in pits within the camp limits or thrown out of broadcast; heaps of manure and offal close to the camp.” Confederate camps were no better.  Bacteria and viruses spread through the camps.  Typhoid fever, caused by the consumption of food or water contaminated by salmonella bacteria was devastating.  Poor diet and exposure to the elements often developed into pneumonia, which was the third great killing disease of the war, after typhoid and dysentery.  Tuberculosis was a common disease among the troops.  Camps populated by soldiers from small rural areas, who lacked immunity to common contagious diseases, were stricken by outbreaks of measles, chickenpox, and mumps. Additionally, epidemics of malaria spread through camps located near swamps.

 Approximately 110,000 Union and 94,000 Confederate soldiers died of battle wounds.  Most of the wounded were treated within the first forty eight hours.  Emergency medical care on the battlefield consisted of bandaging a soldier’s wounds as fast possible, and giving him whiskey and morphine, if necessary, for pain. Primary care took place in field hospitals.  Those who survived were then transported in overcrowded ambulance wagons to rail lines where they were put on box cars and rushed to nearby cities and towns, where doctors and nurses did their best to care for them in makeshift hospitals.

The most common battlefield operation was the amputation of arms and legs.  Amputation was a quick and reliable answer to the severe wounds created by the .58 caliber Minie ball used during the war.  This heavy bullet of soft lead caused large gaping wounds that filled with dirt and pieces of clothing.  It shattered bone.  Surgeons usually chose amputation over trying to save the limb.  Heavy doses of chloroform were administered and some seventy five percent of all soldiers survived the operation.  The poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse in the Union army at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, recounted seeing, “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc, a full load for a one-horse cart.”

 When the Civil War began, the Federal army had 98 medical officers, and the Confederate army had 24 medical officers. By the end of the war in 1865, some 13,000 Union doctors had served in the field and in the army hospitals; in the Confederacy, about 4,000 medical officers treated war casualties.

Exchange Hotel and Civil War Hospital: Gordonsville, Virginia

Despite the horrors of war, or maybe because of them, humor still had a place in American life. Abraham Lincoln best summed up the role of humor in the war when he said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.”

A brief but fascinating look at humor in the Civil War including: (1) Stories Around the Campfire, (2) Parody, (3) the Irish, (4) Humorous Incidents, (5) Civil War Humorists, and (6) Lincoln.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Why Custer Lost the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer's Last Stand)

 Custer's Last Stand

In 1926, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, William A. Graham published the first authoritative book on the battle entitled The Story of the Little Big Horn: Custer's Last Fight.

Graham’s book was based largely on the voluminous information provided during the 1879 Court of Inquiry into the conduct of Major Reno.

Of the number, intention and armaments of the Indians, Graham writes: “The Seventh Cavalry was sent by (General) Terry to round up a band of recalcitrant variously estimated at between eight and fifteen hundred fighting men.  They found almost three times the number at the highest estimate. 

They rode to locate and to drive or capture a band which, judged by all past experiences, would scatter and run at their approach; they found instead a force of stern warriors who fought with determination and tenacity equal to their own….

They thought to find a band equipped with ancient muskets and discarded rifles, with primitive spear and bow and arrow.  Instead, they found a foe far better armed than they themselves, possessing Winchester rifles of the latest pattern and stores of ammunition that seemed inexhaustible.”

Graham writes, “When Reno rode into the attack with his pitiful force of 112 men, his was the only part of the regiment on the western or village side of the river….Benteen’s battalion was at this time miles away to the left and rear, its whereabouts unknown, and had no orders to cooperate with Reno or with Custer.  Reno, when he crossed the river, believed and had reason to believe that he was expected to bring only an advance-guard action, and that Custer, with his larger and stronger force would deliver the main attack, supporting his charge from the rear.  But instead of supporting, Custer changed direction and rode five miles down the river without notifying Reno of his change of purpose.”

     Of Custer’s flawed logistics, Graham writes, “The pack train, which with its escort accounted for 130 men, more than twenty per cent of the regiment, and which had in charge all the reserve ammunition, had been left far back on the trail, to struggle along the best it might.  The men of the (other) three battalions carried only one hundred rounds apiece of carbine ammunition, and four loadings, or twenty-four rounds, for their pistols.  When the fight in the valley began, therefore, not one of the three fighting battalions had ammunition sufficient for prolonged combat, nor was within communicating distance of the reserve supply; nor was any one of the four detachments of the regiment within supporting distance of either of (the) others.”

      One of the interesting aspects of Graham’s book is that he effectively provides a timeline of the events of June 25, 1876.  (1) 12:07 PM, Custer divides his command, Benteen marches south; (2) 2:30 PM Reno crosses the river and commences offensive operations; (3) 3:00 PM Reno retreats to the timbers; (4) 4:00 PM Reno retreats to the bluffs; (5) 4:00 PM Benteen receives the “Come quick” order from Custer; (5) 4:30 PM Benteen joins Reno. Firing is heard downriver. Captain Weir marches to the sound of the guns; (5) 5:00 PM the last of the pack train joins Reno and Benteen; (6) 6:00 PM Reno and Benteen join Weir and are engaged by the Sioux; (7) 7:00 PM Reno and Benteen complete a fighting withdrawal and take up the command’s original defensive positions.

Custer’s Last Stand: Portraits in Time

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.




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