Monday, July 6, 2015

Medicine in the Civil War


The doctor of a regiment in the Civil War was called a surgeon. These men were responsible for treating the sick and wounded of their regiment. Often there were so many wounded that they treated wounded men from many other regiments. This was especially true at Gettysburg where so many soldiers were injured. Surgeons in both armies were taxed to the limits of their endurance and treated the most severe cases first. The remaining soldiers languished in the open air, waiting their turn on the surgeon's table.

For the wounded, the horrors of the battlefield were only equaled by the horrors they experienced in a field hospital. Most wounds during the Civil War were caused by gunshot. The Minie ball, which was the standard bullet of the war, was made from very soft lead. When it struck human tissue, it would create a very ragged wounded and could splinter once inside. This led to infection which could be fatal. The large bullets could also shatter bones. Shell fragments from artillery were the next most common cause of wounds. An exploding shell sent large fragments of iron sailing into the air and would cause terrible wounds as well.

Bayonet wounds were rare. Only about 2% of all wounds during the war were caused by the bayonet. Soldiers were not always inclined to use them and close fighting usually called for clubs or swinging rifles like clubs, though Colonel Harrison Jeffords of the 4th Michigan Infantry was mortally wounded by a bayonet thrust at Gettysburg.

Even when wounds were treated with great care, infection could easily set in. Medical knowledge in the 1860's did not understand bacteria and germs and how they could be transmitted. They did not properly sterilize the tools and equipment, and bacteria could easily spread from patient to patient during a days worth of operations. This lack of understanding of germs and bacteria led to the spread of disease that killed more soldiers than enemy bullets during the entire war.


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