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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Civil War Amputations

By Susan Macatee, 11-14-08


“Union Colonel Thomas Reynolds lay in a hospital bed after the July 1864 Battle of Peachtree Creek, Georgia. Gathered around him, surgeons discussed the possibility of amputating his wounded leg. The Irish-born Reynolds, hoping to sway the debate toward a conservative decision, pointed out that his wasn’t any old leg, but an ‘imported leg.’ Whether or not this indisputable claim influenced the doctors, Reynolds did get to keep his body intact.”

Amputation. A rather gruesome subject. The problem was, weapons of the American Civil War period had advanced so much so that a gunshot ball could shatter bones. But medicine of the period hadn’t caught up. In the event of such an injury, surgeons could do little more than amputate the limb. Add to that the sheer numbers of casualties those surgeons had to treat. Civil War surgeons grew proficient at performing amputations, which could be completed in as little as ten minutes.

“Surgeons, along with their assistants, would work round the clock, ending up with stacks of amputated limbs up to five feet high. The number of wounded needing attention, and the relative lack of water meant that there was no attempt to wash hands or instruments between procedures. This lack of hygiene and sterility did create a large chance of infection. However, it has been estimated that as many as 75% of the amputees did recover.”

“The Practice of Surgery” by Samuel Cooper was the guidebook for many Civil War surgeons.

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