Sunday, November 10, 2013

Civil War Era Medicine in Missouri

By Thomas Sweeney, retired physician and long-time avocational Civil War historian 

By January of 1862 St. Louis emerged as the center of military medicine not only in Missouri but also in the Mississippi River Valley. Over crowding of hospitals in St. Louis had been considerably decreased by treating less serious cases in camp and regimental hospitals and sending more serious cases to the city. Convalescing patients were also sent to camps outside of the city. St. Louis had 2,300 beds in the general hospital and 200 to 300 more in the City and Sister’s of Charity Hospitals. Separate isolation hospitals were established for smallpox patients and another for measles. During the spring of 1863 military medicine in St. Louis expanded even further. Medicines, hospital stores, dressings, bedding and clothing were being manufactured in a government facility in St. Louis. A large amphitheatre in the old fairgrounds in Benton Barracks was turned into a 2,500 bed hospital second only to the Lincoln Hospital in Washington which had a 2,575 bed capacity.
By 1864 there were military hospitals located in Jefferson City, Springfield, Kansas City Missouri, and Rolla (at the terminus of the SW branch of the Pacific R.R.) along with Tipton and Sedalia. In southeast Missouri a hospital was located at the southern terminus of the Iron Mountain RR in Ironton. Serious wounded from battle of Springfield through Price’s Raid in the fall of 1864 could be taken care of in various hospitals in Kansas City, around the Ozarks or to one of the hospitals in St. Louis. Battles in isolated areas in the Ozarks such as Newtonia (September 30, 1862 and October 28, 1864) resulted in the wounded being cared for in buildings or tent hospitals surrounding the battlefield.
As had been true for the previous two years, Missouri State Guard and Confederate forces operating within the state provided only the most basic medical services. They setup temporary makeshift hospitals in nearby structures during battles, but as they failed to control any territory permanently their serious wounded were left behind. The highly mobile Southern guerrillas and opportunistic bushwhackers who roamed the state until the very end of the war relied heavily on friendly civilians for care of their sick and wounded. The effectiveness of this care would be difficult to determine. Unfortunately, it led to retaliation upon the civilians by the Unionists.
The fortunes of war were such that the story of medical care in Missouri is really the story of the Union side. Thanks to the efforts of the federal and state governments, civilian relief organizations, and civilian volunteers, medical care in Missouri equaled that of any other state during the conflict. Although authorities were caught off guard and almost overwhelmed by events in 1861, medical care increased steadily from 1862 onwards, until by war’s end it was state of the art for that period of history.


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