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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Pelvic Wound of Union Major Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

By William J. Harmon, M.D. and Charles K. McAllister, M.D.

Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a true American hero. His medical history and war wounds provide a rare snapshot of Civil War era medicine. In particular the most devastating injury was a rifle shot through the pelvis rupturing the bladder and urethra.

The prognosis was grim. Civil War surgeons were adept at removing limbs for extremity wounds but "gut wound" soldiers were left to die. Word of the injury reached his brother Tom who was still in the 20th Maine regiment. Tom recruited Drs. A.O.Shaw and M.W.Townsend, and through the night they searched field hospitals until they found his brother.

The surgeons embarked on an unprecedented open wound exploration in the field hospital with Chamberlain receiving morphine and chloroform sedation, Halfway through the operation the pain became sheet torture and the surgeons laid down the instruments, thinking that the agony had gone on long enough.

However, the patient himself encouraged them to continue and they did, reconnecting severed urinary organs and removing the minie ball that had done so much damage. Hope for recovery was nonexistent as shortly after finishing, the exhausted surgeons noted urine exiting the lower wound.

Miraculously, Chamberlain began to recover and by the end of July the surgeons started to admit that the danger of death was passing and recovery was certain. Ironically he would ultimately die of this wound but not until he was 85 years old.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain survived smallpox, heat stroke, malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. His horse was shot from under him 5 times and 6 times he was hit with rebel lead causing his obituary to be sent to the New York papers on 2 occasions. The most devastating injury was the pelvic wound, the complications of which he endured for almost 50 years. Despite this medical history, he engaged in innumerable skirmishes and 24 battles, capturing 2,700 prisoners and 8 battle flags. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his effort at Gettysburg and was subsequently promoted to Major General. This former theology professor is not only among the most remarkable soldiers ever to serve, but also one of America's greatest heroes.

Excerpted from: "The Lion of the Union: The Pelvic Wound of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain", The Journal of Civil War Medicine, Vol..6, No. 2

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