Thursday, January 1, 2015

Civil War Doctors


Civil War doctors did the best they could with the knowledge, medicines and training available to them but nothing could prepare them for the horrors of the American Civil War.

It was generally required that a doctor have at least 2 years experience before being accepted into service yet many had less. The Battle of Gettysburg in particular was the bloodiest conflict of the war and doctors were simply overwhelmed by the 51,000 casualties from the 3 days of fighting.

There were over 14,000 doctors total who served in the Civil War, 10,000 for the Union and 4,000 for the Confederates. Often referred to as “butchers” by the soldiers and press, they were generally good hard-working men who did the best they could for all their patients under less than ideal circumstances.

Civil War Doctors and Civil War nurses cared for the sick and wounded at the Battle at Gettysburg.

Thousands of Civil War nurses served in Union hospitals with many women serving the Confederacy as well. Clara Barton was perhaps the most famous of the nurses of the Civil War and in 1881 founded the American Red Cross.

They were forced to treat patients out of homes, churches, barns or whatever was available to them in the field. It is generally estimated that doctors treated close to 10,000,000 individual cases over the Civil War.

By far the biggest challenge the doctors faced was disease. Soldiers were more likely to succumb to disease then to suffer death on the battlefield. Of the 620,000 or so of the men who died during the Civil War, roughly 205,000 died from battle wounds while the rest succumbed to disease.

Doctors used Civil War medicine such as opium, quinine, chloroform and even whiskey to treat everything from dysentery, diarrhea, smallpox, malaria, typhoid & measles to pneumonia and camp itch.

Perhaps the most gruesome task to be performed by Civil War doctors was amputations. Doctors needed to be quick and decisive in extracting limbs from solders who might otherwise succumb to gangrene or infection.

Amputations were typically performed without antiseptic or sterilization and death by post-operation infection was a serious threat. With all the challenges faced with amputations, the soldiers had a 75% survival rate - not bad considering the lack of sterilization, and the conditions under which a typical Civil War surgery was performed.

All-in-all the conflict tested Civil War doctors to the limits of their capabilities, and the things they learned would advance Western medicine to new levels to meet the need for medical knowledge in the face of industrialized warfare.


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