Thursday, January 1, 2015

Civil War Medicine

From: totalgettysburg.com

Civil War medicine played a large part in keeping soldiers on the field and disease at bay, yet 19th century medicine in America left much to be desired. Civil War doctors were only required to have two years medical training prior to being appointed, and many had even less. In short, at this time in America, Civil War medicine was unable to keep up with the horrors of an industrialized war.

More men died of disease in the Civil War then fell in battle at a rate of 2 to 1. Diarrhea and dysentery were two of the worst afflictions soldiers faced and took many lives over the course of the war. Typhoid, smallpox, measles, pneumonia, camp itch and malaria ran rampant through the camps. Thousands of men were thrust together in cramped quarters and many had no immunity to the diseases they faced.

Conditions in camps on both sides were often deplorable with feces and rotting food within the camps creating highly unsanitary conditions. The overall knowledge of disease and how it spread was not common knowledge like it is today and mistakes were made that cost many men their lives outside of the field of battle.

Civil War Medicine and Civil War Doctors could not keep up with the horrors of the Civil War.

For the most part medical supplies were manufactured in the north. The Confederates found supplies harder to come by as the were typically either smuggled through the Union blockade, or captured Union stores were utilized to treat troops.

Quinine was widely used by both armies to treat high-fever, namely malaria. It was known that a camp near a swampy area would cause outbreaks of fever, chills, headache and the shakes and this drug that is derived from the South American Cinchona tree could effectively treat these symptoms.

Whiskey was often used as anesthetic when nothing else was available and was utilized to treat wounds as well. It could be ingested prior to amputations to make the patient calmer in a tough situation and acted as a painkiller.

Use of unprocessed opium was popular during the conflict for treating pain and for a variety of other needs. Open bowels were treated with a plug of opium and closed bowels were treated with a mixture of “blue mass” containing mercury and chalk.

Civil War surgery caused many issues as well with few doctors having actual surgical experience prior to the war. Limb after limb would be cut off using the same blade and sterilization of instruments was largely non-existent. It was not often a doctor or Civil War nurses for that matter would even wash their hands before moving on to the next patient, nor did they always have the time.

Civil War medicine evolved over the course of the war and made great advances over time yet many good men died from lack of good medicines, a general misunderstanding of hygienic practices and the lack of practical experience in treating the horrific wounds that evolved through industrial-age warfare.


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