Civil War Medicine

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Before the Civil War started, the effectiveness of hospitals in America wasnt the best, but as the war waged on, they slowly got better and more efficient. Before the succession of South Carolina, its Medical Department consisted of 30 surgeons that were ranked major, a general surgeon that was ranked colonel, and 84 assistant surgeons ranked lieutenant and then promoted to be a surgeon. They were a part of the General Staff of the army, but they were not part of any regiment because they would work where ever they were needed. In total they had 834 surgeons and 1,668 assistant surgeons. (Picketts Charge)

In the North each regiment had a surgeon and an assistant surgeon that were commissioned by the state. They were permanently a part of a regiment and would only leave the regiment if a situation arose. The Union had 547 surgeons and assistant surgeons that volunteered and were appointed. (Picketts Charge) (MAKE A COMPLETE THOUGHT) (MAKE IT FLOW) When it comes to treating the injured soldiers there were field hospitals and field stations that were used as places to perform surgeries and treat wounds. A field hospital was for second level care that needed to be given to wounded soldiers. Field stations would be set up at the boarder of the battlefields before the battle would start. When a soldier was wounded, they would either be carried to a field hospital or they walked there. When they would get to the field station, they would be separated by the type of injury they had and how bad the injury was.

If a soldiers injury was severe and needed immediate attention, they were treated at the field stations and those whose injury wasnt as severe were given pain killers and sent to a field hospital where they would receive treatment. At the field stations if a soldier was bleeding, they would pack the wound with lint that was scraped from either clothing or bedsheets. If there was an abdominal or chest wound the soldiers were given a pain reliefer and were sent to the field hospital. (Pickett's Charge) Field hospitals suffered major losses due to the spread of disease. During this time, they didnt know about germ theory and there was no knowledge about the cause of disease. With that in mind, more soldiers died of diarrhea and dysentery than the men with battle wounds. At field hospitals the tools used for amputations werent properly cleaned after each use, in fact, they would just set the knife in a bowl of bloody water and when the next man was put on the table, they would pick the knife up from the bowl and use it again. They did not know the importance of hygiene and the use of sterile supplies yet, so this led to the spread of disease and cost thousands of lives. (Pickett's Charge) (MAKE IT FLOW)

With the lack of knowledge about germs and the cause of disease led to problems with doctors. Most doctors during the Civil War only went to medical school for two years, while a few did pursue more education. The majority of the surgeons in the Civil War had never treated a gunshot wound before the war and there were even some surgeons who had never performed a surgery prior to the war. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine) With the lack of knowledge about medicine and treating different wounds it led to surgeons doing odd things to treat soldiers. For example, to treat pneumonia and bronchitis they would give the soldier opium or muster plasters and sometimes they would use bleeding to treat the disease. Surgeons liked to use whiskey and other alcohol to treat disease and wounds, although it offered some pain relief, it wasnt very effective. If a soldier got scurvy, they would prescribe green vegetables. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine.) There were a lot of soldiers that died during the Civil War and a lot of the deaths could have been avoided if we had cleaner medical practices. The two most common causes of death were disease and battlefield injuries. (Reilly)

Due to the lack of sanitation in camps and the neglect of hygiene through the hospitals and through the camps the soldiers stayed in, disease spread quickly. In the camps they stayed in, pneumonia, typhoid, and dysentery claimed the most lives. It didnt help that there was a lack of proper clothing and shoes for the soldiers and the food they were given wasnt the best. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine.) Since most doctors and surgeons had limited knowledge, they did things a lot different than most surgeons and doctors would do today. During surgeries the surgeons would use their fingers as probes and dig around in the body cavity to locate things. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine) In addition, they would use bloody knifes that would be used so much that they needed to be sharpened multiple times throughout the day as scalpels. (Pickett's Charge) Another reason that a lot of soldiers died would be due to the supply difference in the Confederate Army and in the Union Army. Since most of the vital medicines were produced and manufactured in the North, the southerners had to find a way to get around the blockade and get access to these medicines. These medicines were smuggled into the Confederate territory by women in the North who sympathized with the Confederacy. They would do this by sewing the medicine onto the petticoats and get it to the South.

Most of the Confederates medical supplies were from Union stores that they had captured, but the South mainly used herbal remedies for treating soldiers. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine.). When treating soldiers, they would send them to hospitals for further treatment. The early hospitals in the Civil War would be in houses, churches, and schools. (Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine.) These early hospitals were heavily crowded and there wasnt a set system for them. (Civil War Medicine) There were regimental hospitals that were in regimental training camps. They were small and it was where the assistant surgeon and surgeon of that regiment would care for the wounded or sick soldiers. They were intended for men only from that regiment and they would constantly turn people away. (Pickett's Charge ) In addition to the regimental hospitals there were general hospitals. General hospitals were pavilion-like hospitals that had patients' beds in the center of the building and the support services on the edge. They were typically two stories and they only used the bottom story to keep the wounded and sick. The second story had large windows that allowed the bad air to get out. Bad air was a belief in medicine at the time that fumes radiating from swamps and the Earth caused disease, which was later proven wrong. ( Pickett's Charge)

One of the biggest advancements in medicine during this time was the use of anesthesia. With anesthesia being used in 95% of all surgeries performed in the Civil War it became very popular. (Anesthesia in the Civil War) The most common anesthetic was chloroform it was used by it being applied to a cloth or a sponge that was on top of a cone and the open side was put over the mouth and nose of the soldier. They would gradually give it to avoid shock and the cone was removed after nine minutes or when the soldier was unconscious. They would only use enough so that the patient couldnt feel any pain, but during surgery the men would move and moan because of the light dosage. Due to the fact that they were given a low dosage of anesthesia the surgeons had to work quickly so then the men wouldnt wake up during the surgery and be in an overwhelming amount of pain. (Anesthesia in the Civil War) The use of anesthesia would carry on to today. With the use of anesthesia, it allowed them to preform many amputations on soldiers throughout the course of the war. Since there were new forms of technology used in the war it led to more intense injuries. The minie ball did the most damage out of them all with it dragging skin and pieces of clothing into the wound and shattering two or three inches of bone it caused great and lethal damage to a soldier and one of the only fast and efficient ways to save them was to amputate. But some of the inexperienced surgeons were very eager to perform an amputation so they could improve their skill and this was part of why three quarters of all surgeries performed were amputations. (Maimed Men - Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War)

Due to the fact that a lot of men didnt have limbs they created artificial limbs. The industry of creating them grew so then they could accommodate the veteran population in America. For Union veterans in 1862 an artificial leg costed $75 and an artificial arm costed $50. In 1862 the Confederacy provide financial support for the cost of these artificial limbs. Most of the time the cost of the artificial limbs covered the expense of traveling to a showroom so it could be fitted. (Maimed Men - Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War) Since so many men were handicap from the war the federal government established the Invalid Corps program in 1863. The Invalid Corps program employed veterans that were disabled in the war and gave them jobs in war-relate work. They would divide them into two regiments based on how bad their injury was.

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Civil War Medicine. (2019, May 08). Retrieved October 1, 2023 , from

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