Civil War Medicine

Hi Friends, It’s release week for Waiting for His Return. I wanted to invite you to enter the giveaway and learn a bit more about this Civil War Christmas novella. The hero, James Galloway, is attacked and left for dead on the road outside the heroine’s home. The heroine’s father is a doctor, caring for injured troops during the war. James is taken in by the Thornton’s  and nursed by the heroine, Rachel Thornton. Part of my research involved understanding how medicine was practiced during the Civil War. It was an eye-opening study, and it made me very grateful for the medical advances we’ve seen in the last 150 years!

During the 1860s, many doctors were ignorant of the causes of disease. Civil War doctors usually underwent two years of medical school, though some pursued more education. Medicine in the United States was woefully behind Europe. Most Civil War surgeons had never treated a gun shot wound, and many had never performed surgery. Yet, for the most part, the Civil War doctor did the best he could, muddling through the so-called “medical middle ages.”

Some 10,000 surgeons served in the Union army and about 4,000 served in the Confederate. But medical knowledge in the 1860s did not yet encompassed the use of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, or the recognition of the importance of sanitation and hygiene. As a result, thousands died from diseases such as typhoid or dysentery.

A scene from Mercy Street, Civl War drama set in a Union hospital.

For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. They suffered from intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhea and outbreaks of measles, small pox, malaria, and pneumonia. The high incidence of disease was caused by inadequate physical examination of recruits; ignorance; the rural origin of my soldiers; neglect of camp hygiene; insects and vermin; exposure; lack of clothing and shoes; and poor food and water.

Many unqualified recruits entered the Army and diseases cruelly weeded out those who should have been excluded by physical exams. Troops from rural areas were crowded together for the first time with large numbers of other individuals and caught diseases they had no immunity to. Neglect of camp hygiene, ignorance about camp sanitation, and scanty knowledge about how disease was carried made things worse.

Civil War medications

To halt disease, doctors used many cures. For scurvy, doctors prescribed green vegetables. Respiratory problems, such as pneumonia and bronchitis were treated with opium or sometimes quinine. Sometimes bleeding was also used. Malaria could be treated with quinine, or sometimes even turpentine if quinine was not available.

Most medicines were manufactured in the North. Southerners had to run the Union blockade in order to gain access to them. On occasion, vital medicines were smuggled into the South sewn into the petticoats of ladies sympathetic to the Southern cause. The South also had some manufacturing capabilities and worked with herbal remedies. However, many of the Southern medical supplies came from captured Union stores.

Battlefield surgery was also at best archaic. Doctors often took over houses, churches, schools, even barns for hospitals. The field hospital was located near the front lines — sometimes only a mile behind the lines — and was marked with a yellow flag with a green “H”. Anesthesia’s first recorded use was in 1846 and was commonly in use during the Civil War. In fact, there are 800,000 recorded cases of its use. Chloroform was the most common anesthetic, used in 75% of operations.

The numbers killed and wounded in the Civil War were far greater than any previous American war. As the lists of the maimed grew, both North and South built general military hospitals. These hospitals were usually located in big cities. They were usually single storied, of wood construction, and well-ventilated and heated. The largest of these hospitals was  in Richmond, Virginia. By the end of the War, Chimbarazo had 150 wards and was capable of housing 4,500 patients. Some 76,000 soldiers were treated at this hospital.

The Civil War “sawbones” did the best he could. Sadly, when American decided to kill American from 1861 to 1865, the medical field was not yet capable of dealing with the disease and the massive injuries caused by industrial warfare.

Thanks to Ohio State University History Department for this information.  https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/introduction

I hope you’ll visit my book launch blog post and enter the special giveaway!

Until Next Time, Happy Reading,

Carrie

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