Thursday, July 16, 2015

Civil War Army Medical Department


At the onset of the Civil War, the Medical Department of the U.S. Army had just 30 surgeons and 83 assistants and many of these staff people resigned and joined the Confederacy, leaving the Department with an inadequate ability to meet the crisis of the war. Regular army surgeons who had been serving in the western United States joined new, younger and inexperienced physicians and attendants in caring for wounded soldiers.

Led by a Surgeon General, the medical department was comprised of regular medical officers, volunteer surgeons, assistant surgeons, and civilian physicians who were employed under contract in general hospital wards established in the vicinity of the national capitol and large cities. Assisting the Medical Department in the care of soldiers was the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer
auxiliary service authorized by the Federal government, that provided humanitarian aid in the way of care, food, medical advice, assistance and supplies, clothing, shelter, and male and female nurses to the Union volunteer forces during the war.

Other commissions established were the Western Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission.

The nursing profession was dominated by men who lacked specialized training and whose basic method of instruction was “learn as you go.” Women, who comprise the majority of nurses today, were considered in the Victorian era as too timid and delicate to cope with the demands of the profession. Also, their families objected to having them exposed to the intimate needs of men they were not related to.

Before the war, caring for the sick was done at home; but as the war escalated, the overwhelming numbers of men needing hospital care increased. Coming from different backgrounds and ethnicities, women who volunteered in the nursing services spent their time in hospitals dispensing medicine, attending to visitors, writing letters, distributing food and supplies, entertaining soldiers by singing, playing music, or reading to wounded soldiers.

The Civil War was fought in an era that had rudimentary knowledge of preventative medicine. Disease, not battle, caused the majority of deaths among both Union and Confederate
soldiers. Intestinal disorders including typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, exposure to the elements, filthy and unsanitary camp conditions, communicable diseases (measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox), and poor diet and hygiene all contributed to the spread of disease. In addition, respiratory diseases, including influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia incapacitated and led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers.

In camp, when soldiers became mildly sick they were assigned to their quarters. Soldiers with
more serious illnesses were admitted to the camp hospital tent until they were better.

Early in the war after battle, wounded soldiers who could not walk on their own were removed from the battlefield by untrained and disorganized litter bearers. During the First Battle of Bull Run, untrained civilian ambulance and wagon drivers fled the scene leaving some wounded soldiers on the battlefield for a week.

As the war progressed, specially trained ambulance corps members transported soldiers to ambulance depots near the battle lines, and then to field hospitals where they were treated by a regimental surgeon. If an amputation was needed, patients stood a better chance of recovery if the surgery was done shortly after being wounded. Men who required serious medical attention were taken to more permanent general hospitals where they could receive extended care. However, not every soldier made it off the battlefield. Some, within reach of ambulance attendants, died from lack of care.


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