In October of 2000, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine completed a $3 million renovation and complete redesign of the exhibits. With nearly 7,000 square feet of exhibit space on two floors, the expanded Museum illustrates the medical story of the American Civil War. It is a story of care and healing, courage and devotion amidst the death and destruction of war. It is also a story of major advances that changed medicine forever. Through the dedication, innovation and devotion of Civil War surgeons and medical support staff on both sides of the conflict, the foundation for today’s modern military medicine was laid. Their tenacity and compassion to heal stemmed a death rate that could have easily been twice the 620,000.
Areas of Study
Medical Education – As the Civil War began, the practice of medicine was emerging from the “heroic era”, with its theory of bringing a balance to the humors of the body. Medical practitioners had no knowledge of germ theory or antiseptic practices. Both discoveries were still years away. Over 60 medical schools existed in America before the war, and apprenticeships with established physicians were also common. The usual course of study in a medical school consisted of two terms of six-month lectures, with the second term often being a repeat of the first.
Recruitment – All new recruits were supposed to receive a physical exam. Occasionally the exam was very superficial, allowing recruits to enter the army with chronic diseases and physical defects that would affect their performance as a soldier. With the number of men willing to enlist dwindling, both the North and South resorted to instituting a draft to secure the large number of soldiers needed to fight.
Camp Life – New recruits were sent to large camps to learn how to become soldiers. The first enemy they faced was disease. Healthy recruits became victims of illnesses that were easily spread due to the large number of people in the camps, the often unsanitary conditions, and the poor diet of the soldiers. Childhood diseases such as measles could devastate regiments and many men succumbed to diarrhea and dysentery. Of the nearly 620,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, two-thirds died not of bullets and bayonets, but of disease.
Evacuation of the Wounded – At the beginning of the Civil War, there was no established system to transport wounded soldiers from the front lines to the field hospitals in the rear. In August of 1862, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, created a highly-organized system of ambulances and trained stretcher bearers designed to evacuate the wounded as quickly as possible. A similar plan was adopted by the Confederate army. The Letterman Plan remains the basis for our present day military evacuation systems. Horses and mules were essential to the army and veterinary medicine played an important role in the war. Large infirmaries were developed to treat animals too sick or worn down to be of immediate use. An estimated one million horses died during the Civil War.
Field Dressing Station – Located close to the fighting, the first level of care received by a wounded soldier was at a field dressing station. Medical personnel bandaged wounds and administered whiskey for shock and morphine for pain. If the soldier was unable to return to battle, he was transported to a field hospital via ambulance or stretcher.
Field Hospital – At a field hospital, usually located in a barn or tent to the rear of the fighting, wounded soldiers were triaged into three categories: mortally wounded, slightly wounded, and surgical cases. Most surgeries were amputations and took place here. Of all the operations performed during the Civil War, 95% were done with the patient under some form of anesthesia. Chloroform and ether were the most common anesthetics. The large number of amputations performed during the war were the result of the severe nature of the wounds caused by the Minie ball, the number of wounded needing immediate treatment, and the often poor condition of the patients.
Pavilion Hospital – Prior to the Civil War, any system of hospitalization was virtually unknown. With the large number of wounded and sick needing long-term care, a network of general hospitals was created in cities in both the North and the South. At first existing buildings were used for hospitals, but soon both armies constructed large pavilion-style hospitals that were clean, well- ventilated, and highly-efficient. Surgeons, hospital stewards, male nurses, female nurses, matrons, laundresses, and volunteers from civilian associations all contributed to the care of the sick and wounded. The quality of care that the patients received improved dramatically after the opening months of the war, and the general hospitals had an 8% mortality rate.
Embalming – Embalming was not widely practiced in the United States prior to the Civil War, but it was a useful way to preserve soldiers’ bodies for shipment home. Most embalmers were surgeons or pharmacists with a knowledge of chemical compounds. They often followed the armies, setting up their makeshift embalming stations near battlefields, hospitals and railroad stations. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 40,000 soldiers were embalmed during the war. As a result, the procedure became more accepted and more common after the war.
Modern Military Medicine – Medical technology and scientific knowledge have changed dramatically since the Civil War, but the basic principles of military health care remain the same. Location of medical personnel near the action, rapid evacuation of the wounded, and providing adequate supplies of medicines and equipment continue to be crucial in the goal of saving soldiers’ lives. As has been the case throughout the history of military medicine, the lessons learned and the technical developments made by the military rapidly find their way into civilian applications.
Additionally, throughout the exhibits there are special blue panels that highlight the military career of Union Private Peleg Bradford. In his own words, Bradford tells us his thoughts on the war, the condition of his regiment and the effect his enlistment had on the family he left behind.
* No flash photography * No food or drink *