Thursday, May 15, 2014

Civil War Doctor: Modern-day Physician Explores Battlefield Practices Of Predecessors

February 21, 1990
By Janette H. Rodrigues

GLOUCESTER — Monday through Friday, Col. Adrian Wheat, M.D., is a physician with the Army Medical Corps. On weekends, he steps back into the past and dons the uniform of a Civil War surgeon.

Wheat, who is chief of surgery at McDonald Army Hospital at Fort Eustis, is a Civil War re-enactor. Approximately six times a year he and others can be found on a mock battlefield, wearing the Confederate gray or sometimes Union blue, bringing the War Between the States to vivid life.

A collector of Civil War medical artifacts, Wheat says he became interested in this historical period when he was a small boy.

He missed out on participating in activities during the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s, so when he got the chance to become a re-enactor he took it.

"I joined a unit when I was in medical school at the University of Tennessee."

He likes to portray the role of an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Army because it allows him to participate fully in re-creating the historical period. "It gives me a reason for being in the action."

While a Confederate Army regiment - a military unit of about 100 men - was assigned two medical officers, a chief surgeon and his assistant, it was the latter who tended the wounded on the battlefield.

"When troops got ready for a battle it was the assistant surgeon's task to accompany the soldiers to the front."

In his research of Civil War doctors, Wheat has learned that an assistant surgeon carried with him only simple medical instruments, wooden splints and anesthetic drugs.

Although there were no major scientific advances made y surgeons during the war, improvements were made on standard medical procedures, says Wheat.

"They learned by trial and error."

A surgeon's job during the Civil War was focused more on saving soldiers from disease than wounds.

For every man that died from battle wounds, two men died from illnesses brought on by infection.

"It was an improvement over the Revolutionary War," he says.

According to Wheat, the cause of death ratio was 12 to 1 with disease killing more soldiers than anything else.

Some of the medicines used during that period in time, from 1861 to 1865, were more harm than help. "Sometimes it was a blessing in disguise when they ran out" of medical supplies, says Wheat.

Helpful drugs like laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol, were useful. But other concoctions, like drastics, were not.

Drastics, were used to purge a patient's system. These medicines contained ingredients like lead, mercury and arsenic, that are now known to be poisonous.

The most common diseases soldiers suffered from were dysentery and malaria.

Medical personnel never became great military leaders. The highest rank they could reach was that of major.

Wheat says he prefers portraying a captain.

"It's more flexible," he says. The higher ranking officer's job was more administrative; the chief surgeon's responsibilities included managing a support staff of about 20 people including such medical personnel as medics, nurses, orderlies and litter bearers.

Wheat attends annual events above and below the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland that separated the North from the South.

Every Memorial Day he and fellow re-enactors set up a military hospital in Yorktown, which as well as being a Revolutionary War site is also an area of Civil War activity.

Some day when he retires, Wheat says he hopes to finish writing a book he has been researching on Confederate surgeons.

"I've been working on this book for years," he says, "I'm in no big hurry to finish it."

Wheat says finishing the book has turned into a long-term project because he enjoys doing the research so much.

The doctor lives in Gloucester Point with his wife, Marla, a clinical social worker, and their daughters, Courtney, who attends the University of Virginia, and Brittney, a Gloucester High School student.



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