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Monday, July 14, 2014

A Summary of Civil War Medicine

 by Dr Julius Bonello, MD


“If one wants to learn surgery, one must go to war,” Hippocrates wrote. The number of deaths surrounding the Civil War is staggering. Of the nearly three million soldiers who participated in the conflict, approximately 618,000 died— two-thirds by disease, one-third in battle. The total mortality of the war represents the loss of 2 percent of the entire United States population at that time. Union statistics document the treatment of almost one-half million injuries and six million cases of illness. Nearly 500,000 men came out of the war permanently disabled. In Mississippi, in 1866, one-fifth of the state’s revenue was spent on artificial limbs. Of the 12,344 surgeons in the Union medical corp, 336 were killed in the line of duty or died while in service. In his manual for military surgeons, Chisolm wrote, “the surgeon on the battlefield must participate in the dangers.”

America has never again witnessed pain and death in such magnitude as the Civil War. More Americans died in that conflict than in all other US wars combined. The battle at Shiloh, Tennessee, caused 24,000 casualties. This number of casualties easily surpasses the combined number of Americans who died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. The battle at Antietam, Maryland, on September 17, 1863, took 23,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest day in American history. Between July 1-3, 1863, 51,000 people were killed, wounded or missing at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The number of casualties is almost as many as were killed during the 15-year Vietnam War conflict. On June 3, 1864, at Coldharbor, Virginia, in a frontal assault led by General Ulysses S Grant, the Union army lost more than 12,000 men; 7,000 of them dead in the first seven minutes. General Robert E Lee lost 2,500 men.

The American Civil War was the last great conflagration before the discovery of bacteria. Although Louis Pasteur’s work was carried out during the 1850s, it was not available for general knowledge until 10 to 15 years after the war. In 1867, Joseph Lister published his landmark work on surgical antisepsis, Antiseptic Principle. His principles met wide resistance, especially by American physicians, but were finally accepted and put into effect by World War I. In 1878, Robert Koch discovered the role that bacteria play in causing disease. It would take another war, World War II, and the discovery of antibiotics to bring this chapter to a close.

Excerpted from: Wellness Directory of Minnesota


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