Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Ghastly Work Of The Field Surgeons

From: civilwarhome.com

      Here are three descriptions of the work of the surgeons, all of them tending to bear out the complaints of the Baroness von Oinhausen. These descriptions of heartlessness could be matched in letter after letter, diary after diary, North and South. One Kentucky editor charged that the doctors had " slain more of our troops than all of Lincoln's minions " and a Richmond one characterized the Medical Department as "unfeeling,'shameful and brutal." We must remember however that it is the exceptionally bad conduct that gets recorded; routine work is taken for granted. On the whole the surgeons and nurses did about as well as they could. Certainly many of those who worked all through the war, at great peril to themselves, were distinguished members of a distinguished profession.

        The first of these critics, Samuel Nichols, was an Amherst College student who enlisted in the 37th Massachusetts Volunteers; served through the war; and later edited the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Sun. The second is the famous politician and reformer Carl Schurz, who commanded the XI Corps at Gettysburg. The third is Augustus Brown, Captain in the 4th New York Heavy Artillery.


Hd. Qtrs- 37th Regiment Mass. Vols.
Camp near Stafford Court House
Nov. 23rd 1862

My Dear Cousin Phebe:

        As yet only four of our number have died and some six have been discharged, two of the latter of whom were officers. Lieut. Eli T. Blackmer, a son of the Blackmer that moved from Hodges Corner in Warren, is discharged and has gone to his home in Chicopee. His health is much impaired, and his discharge was merited. Everything here concerning sickness and its management seems so repulsive that the thought of being sick or of having one of your friends in the Hospital, is filled with gloom. I will relate an instance. It is probably an instance more censurable to those having charge than usually occurs; but if the whole history of this war were brought to light more such facts would be revealed, in my mind, than would be pleasing to men (no, brutes) whose duty it is to look after the physical health of the soldier.

        In our regiment was a man, private of course, who came under my notice while we were at New Baltimore, a little over one week since. He was emaciated and almost spiritless. He, to be sure, was not as cleanly as he should have been; but I know that it requires much exertion where water is scarce (and it always is in the vicinity of an army like ours) to keep decent. He looked as though he had been sick for some time. He like many others had acquired a dislike to reporting himself to the surgeons, as they have an idea the surgeons are destitute of feeling and unjust. I will not say how far this feeling is just. He at length came with those of his company who reported sick that day to the Surgeon's office within a few steps of where I sleep. I stood at the mouth of my tent and saw and heard the treatment each patient received. This fellow was treated as the rest. He took his turn and came to the front of the Doctor's tent, and received the customary question, "What's the matter with you?" (pretty question for a doctor). "What are you here for? Let's see your tongue. Shall return you to duty."

        He was returned to duty. He refused to do duty and as punishment was sentenced to stand on the barrel (a very severe punishment), and added to this, to hold a heavy stone in his hand, two hours on and two off. This was the Doctor's work and not the Colonel's. I admit that it was the Colonel's duty to stop an unjust punishment if he saw one being exacted, but he would probably refer the whole case to the Doctor. To continue my story: after this I watched that young man. All energy seemed absent from him, and he acted as if he was unable to stir. I went to him and advised him to go to the Surgeon again, knowing that by tiring out the M.D. he might receive attention. I could not induce him. I saw during my conversation that he was really sick; and I was anxious to find out what ailed him, knowing if I did, I could find him medicine. I went to another regiment to get a doctor with whom I was acquainted to come and see him; but the regiment had moved that morning, and so I let the matter go for the time being. Two mornings after I saw him again at the Doctor's tent. With the usual flourishes he was reported for duty, and the next morning he was brought to the Hospital to die almost immediately. The same day he was buried with soldier's honors; and with the last volleys fired over his grave died all feelings of remissness or regret, if any such feelings were entertained.
-UNDERHILL, ed'., "Your Soldier Boy Samuel"


        To look after the wounded of my command, I visited the places where the surgeons were at work. At Bull Run, I had seen only on a very small scale what I was now to behold. At Gettysburg the wounded-many thousands of them-were carried to the farmsteads behind our lines. The houses, the barns, the sheds, and the open barnyards were crowded with the moaning and waiting human beings, and still an unceasing procession of stretchers and ambulances was coming in from all sides to augment the number of the sufferers. A heavy rain set in during the day-the usual rain after a battle and large numbers had to remain unprotected in the open, there being no room left under roof. I saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the buildings, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams. Most of the operating tables were placed in the open where the light was best, some of them partially protected against the rain by tarpaulins or blankets stretched upon poles.

        There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up to the elbows, their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood, their knives not seldom held between their teeth, while they were helping a patient on or off the table, or had their hands otherwise occupied; around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in I heaps, sometimes more than man-high. Antiseptic methods were still unknown at that time. As a wounded man was lifted on the table, often shrieking with pain as the attendants handled him, the surgeon quickly examined the wound and resolved upon cutting off the injured limb. Some ether was administered and the body put in position in a moment. The surgeon snatched his knife from between his teeth, where it had been while his hands were busy, wiped it rapidly once or twice across his blood-stained apron, and the cutting began. The operation accomplished, the surgeon would look around with a deep sigh, and then-"Next!"

        And so it went on, hour after hour, while the number of expectant patients seemed hardly to diminish. Now and then one of the wounded men, would call attention to the fact that his neighbor lying on the ground had given up the ghost while waiting for his turn, and the dead body was then quietly removed. Or a surgeon, having been long at work, would put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance-not seldom hysterical tears streaming down his face. Many of the wounded men suffered with silent fortitude, fierce determination in the knitting of their brows and the steady gaze of their bloodshot eyes. Some would even force themselves to a grim jest about their situation or about the "skedaddling of the rebels." But there were, too, heart-rending groans and shrill cries of pain piercing the air, and despairing exclamations, "Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!" or "Let me die!" or softer murmurings in which the words "mother" or "father" or "home" were often heard.

        I saw many of my command among the sufferers, whose faces I well remembered, and who greeted me with a look or even a painful smile of recognition, and usually with the question what I thought of their chances of life, or whether I could do anything for them, sometimes, also, whether I thought the enemy were well beaten. I was sadly conscious that many of the words of cheer and encouragement I gave them were mere hollow sound, but they might be at least some solace for the moment.
-BANCROFT AND DUNNING, eds., The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz


        Tuesday, May 10th [1864]. Heavy cannonading from 8 A.M. to 1 P.M. The Pontoon train has been sent back to Fredericksburg, apparently to get it out of the way, and the army horses are put on half-rations, that is, five pounds of food. Ambulances and army wagons with two tiers of flooring, loaded with wounded and drawn by four and six mule teams, pass along the plank, or rather, corduroy road to Fredericksburg, the teamsters lashing their teams to keep up with the train, and the wounded screaming with pain as the wagons go jolting over the corduroy. Many of the wounds are full of maggots. I saw one man with an arm off at the shoulder, with maggots half an inch long crawling in the sloughing flesh, and several poor fellows were holding stumps of legs and arms straight up in the air so as to ease the pain the rough road and the heartless drivers subjected them to. These men had been suffering in temporary field hospitals, as no opportunity had been afforded to send them to the rear until we got within reach of the road running to Fredericksburg.

        And this reminds me of a scene I witnessed a day or two since which seemed to me to cap the climax of the horrors of war. Passing along a little in the rear of the lines when a battle was raging in which in battalion was not engaged, I came upon a field-hospital to which the stretcher-bearers were bringing the men wounded in the conflict. Under three large "tent flies," the center one the largest of all, stood three heavy wooden tables, around which were grouped a number of surgeons and their assistants, the former bareheaded and clad in long linen dusters reaching nearly to the ground, which 'were covered with blood from top to bottom and had the arms cut off or rolled to the shoulders. The stretcher-bearers deposited their ghastly freight side by side in a winrow on the ground in front of the table under the first tent fly. Here a number of assistants took charge of the poor fellows, and as some of them lifted a man on to the first table others moved up the winrow so that no time nor space should be lost. Then some of the surgeons administered an anaesthetic to the groaning and writhing patient, exposed his wound and passed him to the center table. There the surgeons who were operating made a hasty examination and determined what was to be done and did it, and more often than not, in a very few moments an arm or a leg or some other portion of the subject's anatomy was flung out upon a pile of similar fragments behind the hospital, which was then more than six feet wide and three feet high, and what remained of the man was passed on to the third table, where other surgeons finished the bandaging, resuscitated him and posted him off with others in an ambulance. Heaven forbid that I should ever again witness such a sight!


Governments held a war and everyone forgot to bring the band aids. What pitifully few surgeons there were operated in horrendous conditions, sometimes around the clock. Nurses were in short supply, too and only men until someone came to their senses- Dix was allowed to bring in only 10% of the total nurses. Still horribly short.

Citizens, North and South mustered resources which finally enabled civilized medical care- but front line hospitals remained abysmal, surgeons working frantically while wounded lay in open fields waiting hours, sometimes days for attention. The need was for more surgeons, not for a handful of surgeons to be able to cope with barbaric conditions more heroically. It's a little tough operating, too, while getting blown up. Gettysburg's Second Corp hospital took a direct hit during the battle, killing surgeons. It was a shambles.

Surgeons deliberately became POW's rather than retreat with their armies. Caring for men was more important than freedom. Those who remained behind at Gettysburg were given escorts back to their lines.

Perception can be as subjective as the limits of one's scope on any given topic.

Post a Comment


Facebook Twitter Delicious Stumbleupon Favorites