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Monday, April 11, 2016

Bandages and Adhesive Plaster

By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein


Caring for wounds during the Civil War usually involved the use of dressings and bandages of some sort. At the first aid station an attendant would apply a bandage to stop the bleeding. This could be a rolled bandage of clean cotton or linen from a well-stocked medicine chest or wagon. Or, during a desperate battle with crowds of patients exhausting the supplies, the bandage could be a strip of the doctor's shirt.

Once the wound had been cleaned and any necessary operation performed, the wound was often covered with cerate (a beeswax ointment) and then a dressing made of lint (fibers scraped from old linen cloth) or raw cotton (sometimes baked until charred). Most doctors used a cold-water dressing, keeping the pad moist with cold water through frequent applications or a continual drip. Some used warm dressings, but these usually produced infection ("laudable pus"). On occasion some doctors used dry dressings with successful healing and fewer infections.

Dressings were held on the wounds with bandages. Many women, North an South, gave up sheets, bedspreads, skirts, and other material to be torn into strips and rolled for bandages, which were used in addition to manufactured bandages. While these bandages were clean after a fashion, they were never sterile. In many hospitals, bandages were washed and reused, often because of shortages, sometimes spreading infections. In other hospitals, doctors refused to ruse bandages because they suspected that reused bandages hindered healing. Although not elastic, bandages could also be used in the manner of modern elastic bandages to affix splits to broken limbs.

Civil War doctors also used "adhesive plaster." This sticky bandage was made by spreading a mixture of resin, olive oil, lard, and lead monoxide on this muslin. The dried bandage was then rolled for storage and transportation. It could be cut in strips of any length and width for a variety of uses, such as holding the edges of a wound together, holding dressings and bandages in place, and helping to stabilize fractures. However, adhesive plaster bandages could not simply be stuck on; they had to be heated to make them stay. Many doctors kept a can of hot water handy and put the back of the adhesive strip around it until it was sticky enough for use. The bandages could also be heated over the flame of a spirit lamp. If all else failed, rubbing the bandage between the thumb and forefinger might warm the bandage enough for use. Because of the problems of heating the adhesive plaster bandages and because they sometimes irritated the patient's skin, not all doctors used them.

Plaster bandages, such as are used to make casts, were uncommon and were not a regular part of the hospital supplies.

From: "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine" by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

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