By Elizabeth M. Shepard, 3-1-13
Approximately 750,000 Americans whether Union or Confederate died in the Civil War. About 250,000 died of battle wounds. About 500,000 died of infectious diseases such as dysentery/intestinal diseases, malaria, continual fevers, measles, mumps, yellow fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and cholera. These staggering figures are more than the combined statistics of all major wars that Americans participated in through the Korean War.
More than 11,000 doctors served in the Civil War as regiment, military, or contract surgeons. More than 300 military surgeons serving with the U.S. Army or U.S. Volunteers died in the war. Three surgeons from the New York Hospital died of disease.
The war took a great toll on the medical resources available. Medicine was still in the pre-modern age. Many doctors still used the old bleeding, purging, and blistering treating method for most diseases. Often these treatments were more harmful than the disease. By the 1840s, these practices were being criticized by other doctors including the Surgeon General William Hammond. These new breed of doctors emphasized listening to the patient's complaints and letting nature take its course. In spite of the efforts of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and others, many diseases were caused by the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions of the camps and hospitals especially in the early years of the war. Although they understood that unsanitary conditions and filth contributed to disease, they did not understand the role germs play in causing infectious diseases. They had smallpox vaccines and quinine for the malaria. Drugs such as blue mass used for a variety of ailments and calomel and tartar emetic for GI purging had high amounts of mercury.
Poor diet was also an issue in the camps. Many intestinal complaints were caused by the poor diet as well as bacterial infections. Scurvy was a problem from the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Many wounded soldiers required amputations. Since there were many battlefield causalities, surgeons performed the amputations quickly and many surgeons were not trained in the procedure. Amputations were performed within 48 hours and there was a 25% mortality rate. Both chloroform (the most common in the battlefield) and ether (more common in the general hospitals) anesthesia were used for operations, but they were sometimes not available to the Civil War surgeons. Many died from wound infections due to the lack of sterilization of the surgical instruments and unsanitary conditions. Instruments were cleaned only with cold water. The surgical cots and surgeons' clothes were not changed and were covered by the blood of previous patients. Although the surgeons had disinfectants such as iodine they often used them after infection had already set in. Strep infections would spread from patient to patient in crowded conditions. For pain the surgeons used alcohol and opiates. Some patients became addicted to morphine which was dusted into the wounds or injected with a hypodermic syringe, which was a new device.