Civil War Medicine

The American Civil War was a turning point in the history of medicine. Many of the advancements made during the war influenced modern medical practices. Those ideas are still relevant today such as a structured ambulance, on-site response team, and a hospital system. At the beginning of the war, there wasn’t a system to transport the wounded soldiers from the front lines to the field hospitals. In August of 1862, Medical Director, Jonathan Letterman created an organized system of ambulances and trained stretcher bearers designed to evacuate the wounded quickly as possible. Many were transported by wagons pulled by horses, until they also used the railroad to transfer others in stretcher-like beds.

The first level of care was a field dressing station located close to the fighting. Medical personnel bandaged wounds and administered whiskey for shock and morphine for pain. The first enemy the soldiers faced was disease. Healthy recruits became victims of illness that spread easily due to the large number of people in the camps, the unsanitary conditions, and the poor diet of the soldiers. Of over 700,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, two-thirds died not of bullets and bayonets, but of disease. Medical practioners had no knowledge of germ therapy or antiseptic practices. The following pictures show the medicines used, the medicine wagon, an iron bedpan, and tools for amputations. Many wounds became infected, especially gas gangrene which the only cure was amputation. The arm pictured was amputated and mummified. The Minie bullets used during the Civil War flattened out when it hit target. The projectile splintered large sections of bone into small pieces and destroyed surrounding soft tissues.

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