Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Civil War Medicine Vocabulary


A surgical operation to remove an arm, leg, hand, foot or digit of the body. Amputations were the most frequently performed surgeries in the Civil War. Massive damage was done to bones and tissue by the new ammunition, the Minié ball. Amputation was the fastest way for doctors to save a life, and 75 percent of the amputees survived their surgeries.


A condition characterized by weakness and pallor. It is a reduction of hemoglobin in the red blood cells, and also a reduction in the number of red blood cells in most forms of anemia, resulting in a deficiency of oxygen. During the war, it was twice as common among black soldiers from the southeastern states. It was discovered many years later that intestinal parasites are usually the cause.


A loss of feeling, awareness or sensation; loss of the ability to feel pain.


A drug used to make patients unconscious and insensitive to pain. It is administered before surgery and allows surgeons to perform more extensive procedures. Anesthesia, in the forms of ether and chloroform, was used most commonly by dentists before the Civil War. President Lincoln brought his own supply of chloroform to a dental appointment in 1862. It was adopted by and available to military surgeons of both armies and used for almost all Civil War surgeries.


Large weapons including cannons, mounted projectile-firing guns or missile launcher; or the branch of an army using artillery.


A slang term for liquor.


A dagger-like weapon attached to the muzzle of a gun for hand-to-hand combat. Civil War bayonet wounds were far fewer than in previous wars, as the new guns and ammunition allowed for combat at a longer range.


Blankets or bedding carried by troops. They were rolled for storage and transport and usually contained a soldier’s personal belongings.


The ancient practice of withdrawing quantities of blood to aid the body’s healing. Considered a “heroic therapy”, bloodletting had been practiced for almost 2,000 years before the Civil War. By the 1830’s it was much less common in America, although some bloodletting through the use of leeches was practiced during the war.


Calomel or mercurous chloride, was a clay-like compound of mercury and chalk. “Blue Mass” was administered to troops suffering diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever and other ailments. “Blue Pills” contained mercury, licorice, rose water, powdered rose, honey and sugar. President Lincoln used Blue pills to treat his constipation. The recommended dose contained more than 9,000 times the amount of mercury considered safe by today’s standards. Some soldiers died from mercury toxicity.


A surgical tool for amputations. Many Civil War bonesaws resemble hacksaws; some were flexible chainsaws. Before the war, bonesaws had been imported from France and England. The Chief Medical Purveyor for the United States Army requisitioned 4,900 amputating and general operating instrument cases from American manufacturers during the war.


A highly communicable skin disease usually caused by scabies. It was easily spread among soldiers in crowded camps and is caused by a mite, Sarcoptes scabiei.


Troops or groups of men who fight from horseback.


A device for the administration of anesthesia. Invented by Confederate physician Dr. John Julian Chisolm, the inhaler provided a more controlled dosage to the patient and less exposure to drug fumes by doctors and nurses. Previously, most anesthesia was administered with a soaked cloth.


A colorless, heavy, sweet-smelling liquid used as a solvent and administered widely as anesthesia during the Civil War. Chloroform was preferred over ether, as it was not explosive and had less bulk to transport.

CONSUMPTION (Pulmonary tuberculosis)

Progressive wasting of the body, usually through pulmonary tuberculosis. It is a contagious bacterial infection that involves the lungs, but can also spread to other organs. Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, it is spread by breathing air droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person. It was one of the most deadly wartime diseases.


An intestinal disorder that is characterized by frequent and fluid bowel movements. Chronic diarrhea was one of the top killers in the Civil War. Diet, poor sanitary practices, spoiled food and contaminated water all made the disease epidemic throughout both armies. Sometimes the terms “diarrhea” and “dysentery” were used interchangeably by the doctors; sometimes the distinction was made that “dysentery” indicated blood in the stool. The phrase “He hasn’t got the guts to stand it” was coined by Civil War soldiers.


Material to dress or bandage a wound. Physicians used any fabric available, even re-using bandages from previous patients. Wounds were frequently packed with lint. Dressings were commonly coated with cerate, a soothing ointment made of beeswax.


An infectious disease of the large intestines which causes severe diarrhea. Chronic dysentery and diarrhea killed more Civil War soldiers than any other disease.


A widespread or highly contagious disease that affects many individuals at the same time. Civil War doctors contended with deadly epidemics including smallpox, yellow fever, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Typhoid fever was the biggest killer among the epidemic diseases.


A severe skin infection characterized by redness and tenderness. It can spread quickly beneath the skin, destroying tissues, and sometimes passes into the bloodstream. It had a very high death rate.


Widely used during the war as an anesthetic, ether is colorless and highly volatile. It was less unpredictable than the more popular but occasionally more deadly chloroform, but had greater bulk to transport and could be explosive.


An abnormally high body temperature.


A temporary facility in the field staffed by medical personnel for the support of troops in battle. Locations were carefully selected near available shelter. Clean water, wood and a dry and even surface were the ideal prerequisites. Arrangements were established for transportation of the wounded, maintaining supplies and burying the dead.


A device to stop bleeding by compression. Soldiers were advised to carry a stick of wood and a handkerchief or piece of cloth to create a tourniquet for a wounded limb.


A common venereal disease among Civil War soldiers, known since Biblical times. Civil War doctors used the term “gonorrhea” to diagnose all types of urethral discharges.


A slang term for Southern soldiers or for lice.


A method of treating disease by administering minute doses of drugs that in a healthy person would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease. In the Civil War, homeopathic treatments were sometimes utilized as a more mild alternative to procedures like bloodletting.

A slang term for bullets.


One of the most feared and deadly wound infections, it was highly contagious. It destroys tissue and can spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.


The branch of an army composed of soldiers who fight on foot.


Parasites that can cause mild itching, diarrhea, vomiting or extreme abdominal pain. Black soldiers who had been in slavery in the southern states showed a higher incidence of intestinal worms.


A yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes, due to an increase of bile pigments in the blood. Jaundice is characteristic of the disease yellow fever.


A slang term for liquor


Civil War physicians welcomed the sight of thick, creamy pus, believing that it was a necessary part of the body’s healing process. They did not know that it was a sign of infection owed to the staphylococci bacteria.

A bloodsucking annelid worm once used for bloodletting.


One of the few clinical advances attributed to Civil War surgeons is “arterial ligation”, the tying off of a major artery to constrict blood vessels and stop hemorrhaging. It was not widely known or used during the first part of the war, but by the second half, surgeons had improved and shared their techniques for this life-saving procedure. The veins or arteries were usually tied off with wire or silk thread.


Minute shreds or ravelings of yarn or cotton fiber. Lint was commonly used to pack and dress wounds. Women volunteers scraped their sheets and tablecloths to gather lint for dressings.


Liquid taken from the lesion of a cow infected with cowpox, or a person infected with smallpox. It was inserted into a cut on a healthy person to create a crude vaccination.


The soft-bodied, legless larva of certain flies. Soldiers were tormented by the appearance of maggots in their wounds. Some physicians realized that the insects only ate the dead tissue, cleaning the wounds effectively and painlessly. The use of maggots continues to be explored in the 21st century.


A disease named after the Italian “Mala Aria”, or “bad air”. Debilitating and recurring chills, fever and sweating are its usual symptoms. Almost a million cases of malaria or “intermittent fevers” among Union soldiers were recorded, and it is thought that even more Confederate troops may have suffered. The disease was thought to be caused by “miasmas” or vapors that rose from swamps, although it was later found to be transmitted by the anopheles mosquito.


Pus that is watery and bloody, usually attributed to the streptococci bacteria. Malignant pus spread rapidly, and frequently had a fatal outcome due to pyemia or “blood poisoning”.


Pretending to be ill, especially in order to shirk work or duty. Some soldiers feigned disease or injury in order to obtain a Medical Certificate of Discharge. Known malingerers were sometimes called to duty as stretcher-bearers.


A highly infectious disease characterized by fever, small red spots and cold-like symptoms. The rash was frequently accompanied by pneumonia, making measles very deadly. It ravaged the young troops from rural areas, who had minimal exposure to disease and few immunities. It is estimated that in the Union army, measles were fatal in 6% of white troops and 11% of black troops. Measles epidemics were lethal in Confederate camps, sometimes necessitating the temporary disbanding of companies, battalions and whole regiments.


The Minié ball caused most of the Civil War wounds. Invented by a French army officer and adapted by American manufacturers, the large conical lead missile was a radical advance in ammunition. It was used in the new rifled weapons and caused massive damage to bones and tissue.


An addictive narcotic obtained from opium, morphine is used as a powerful pain-killing drug or a sedative. Civil War surgeons frequently dusted morphine powder directly into wounds, sometimes applying it with a moist finger.


The branch of medicine that deals with the nervous system. The large numbers of nerve injuries in the war wounded led to the founding of a specialty hospital called Turner’s Lane in Philadelphia. The medical team was led by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia, who had begun to study the phenomenon of “phantom limb” in amputees. Dr. Mitchell gathered valuable data and experimented with treatments, including electrical. He is regarded as one of the founders of American neurology.


A slang term for liquor


An instrument utilizing a series of lenses to see inside the eye. Early models used sunlight or an oil lamp as a light source. During the war, both the Federal and Confederate armies established specialty hospitals to treat eye injuries.


Long, narrow, well-ventilated wooden buildings, commonly built like spokes on a hub. By 1862, Union and Confederacy favored the newly designed “pavilion hospital”. Specialized areas at the hub included operating rooms, kitchens, offices, supply rooms and “dead house”. Although overall sanitation was still poor, pavilion hospitals were usually equipped with rudimentary toilet facilities. Medications, food, laundry and supplies moved much more efficiently through the pavilion hospitals and the quality of convalescent care improved.


A slang term for a pistol.


The sensation experienced by some amputees that a missing limb is still attached. This phenomenon was noticed and studied during the Civil War by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, now considered one of the founders of the field of neurology.


The creation of a photographic reproduction of an object as viewed through a microscope. The Federal Surgeon General’s Office purchased a compound microscope in 1863 for the use of Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward, an international pioneer in the field of photomicroscopy. Dr. Woodward led the research being conducted by the Army Medical Museum.


A medical specialty focused on the correction or restoration of form and function. Facing many serious head and facial wounds, Civil War surgeons began to attempt some major facial reconstructions. The surgeries were done in multiple steps and used flaps of skin and cork to repair structural damage. Union army records list 32 “plastic operations”.


A soft, moist, mass of cloth, meal, or herbs that was applied to wounds. They were frequently made of bread or flaxseed. Yeast poultices were commonly applied to suppurating wounds in the belief that they would stop infection.


A long, thin, flexible metal wand with a ceramic tip. Invented by a French military surgeon named Nélaton, it was used to detect the presence of a bullet in a wound. The probe was never sterilized, and probably carried germs deep into the body. President Lincoln’s fatal head wound was examined with a Nélaton probe.


Cleansing or purging, usually by inducing evacuation of the bowels. Civil War doctors used purgatives to draw fluids into the gastrointestinal tract, in the belief that they were draining the fluids from other areas of the body. They also used emetic agents to induce vomiting.


A yellow-white viscous substance composed of bacteria, white blood cells and dead tissue. It is characteristic of infected wounds. Civil War physicians believed that it was part of the healing process.


Infections that spread throughout the bloodstream, also known as “blood poisoning”. During the Civil War, the death rate of soldiers with this condition was 97%.


A slang term for diarrhea, one of the deadliest ailments of the war.


A drug made from cinchona tree bark, whose active ingredient is the alkaloid “quinine.” Spanish missionaries observed its use in South America in the 1500’s. It was an effective treatment for malaria and widely used by Civil War doctors.


A slang term meaning “surgeon”.


A small, usually straight knife used in surgery to cut through skin and other soft tissue.


Scurvy is a disease related to dietary deficiency, known during the Civil War as a “dietetic disease”, their term for malnutrition. It is caused by a lack of vitamin C and other nutrients. It is a debilitating disease, frequently characterized by swollen and bleeding gums and livid spots on the skin. The effectiveness of the military was sometimes severely affected by the widespread nature of this affliction in some units. Scurvy remained a problem in the U.S. military through World War I.


A viral disease characterized by fever and pustular eruptions of the skin. The fatality rate was 20-40%. Those who survived usually bore its scars. Smallpox was known to be highly contagious, and separate hospital units, called “pest houses” were used to house those with the disease. Smallpox was one of the few diseases for which vaccinations were available, but not always enforced. President Lincoln suffered a mild case of smallpox in November, 1863.


The discharge or formation of pus. Also a term for pus.


Stitches that join the edges of a wound or vessel. Civil War surgeons used silk or cotton thread. When severe supply shortages affected the Confederacy, surgeons used horsehair that was boiled to make it more pliable.


A chronic infectious, usually venereal disease caused by a spirochete. Syphilis was not as feared as gonorrhea by Civil War soldiers, as the serious nervous system and cardiovascular system effects can take years to appear and were not well known until the late 19th century. Syphilis was sometimes transmitted through the smallpox vaccine when “lymph” from an infected person was transmitted to someone else.


A slang term for liquor.


A slang term for ordinary (not chronic) diarrhea.


Any device that is used to stop bleeding by compressing a blood vessel. A tourniquet can be a device that wraps around a limb, or even a bandage that is tightened by twisting.


A strong-smelling liquid frequently used as a paint thinner and solvent. It is distilled from a substance derived from coniferous trees. Civil War physicians used turpentine orally for chronic diarrhea and sometimes for typhoid fever. They used it topically on the skin in the belief that it would increase blood flow and reduce inflammation. It was sometimes applied to bandages to discourage maggot infestation in wounds.


An infectious disease that is characterized by fever, general malaise and intestinal inflammation. It is spread by food or water contaminated with the bacteria Salmonella typhi. Such contamination was common in army camps and caused terrible epidemics. Thousands of soldiers died from Typhoid fever, the biggest killer among the epidemic diseases.


The introduction into the body of a preparation of weakened or killed bacteria or viruses for the purpose of preventing disease by stimulating antibodies against it. Civil War physicians usually used material taken from a cow infected with cowpox (the term “vaccine” refers to the Latin word “vaccus”, meaning “cow”), or sometimes material taken from a patient with a mild form of smallpox. Sometimes, during an outbreak of the disease, mass inoculations were carried out.


An injury, usually one that involves the cutting or tearing of tissue.


A form of fulminating viral hepatitis usually found in warm climates. It is characterized by fever, hemorrhages, and jaundice, which turns the skin yellow. The disease is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits it from person to person. Outbreaks of yellow fever were greatly feared, and there was no effective treatment at the time; there is still none today.

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