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.

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