The American Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars in history. But it wasn’t the muskets, landmines or the cannons that killed most of the soldiers. Ironically, the biggest killing machine of the civil war was the ones who were supposed to save them. Medics! The tale of medics of the civil war & civil war surgeries are one of the nuttiest stories of war medicine in human history.
It’s the proverbial dark ages that led to the revolutionization of American pharmaceuticals and the medical industry. However, it didn’t happen without a lot of trial and error, which led to the sacrifice of an enormous number of young American men who became part of this gruesome war that shaped America as we know the land today.
Let’s get the interesting details from the life of a medic during the trying times of the civil war.
1 The civil War Outbreak
The civil war outbreak was a wake up call for the United States’ medical industry. Suddenly, the whole nation, on both the union and the confederacy front, was facing a huge shortage of supply of doctors and medical supplies as well.
Things were worse on one side than the other for rebelling against their own government, and it resulted in blockades, making their supplies restricted. The union was responding to war by building army hospitals in every state to cover up at least some of the medical deficiency. But over the confederate lines, even hygiene was a major challenge for medics and their staff. Frankly, hygiene was so bad for both sides that eventually they just stopped caring.
2 Paging For Doctors
The battle of the bull run, which was the bloodiest battle in the to-that-date history of the United States of America, caught the nation with its pants down in the matters of infirmaries. Both sides also realized after the battle that the war would be longer and more brutal than they were anticipating and that there would be more casualties. This led to some rushed decisions as the union tried to recruit as many civil war surgeons and medics to fulfill the needs of the army.
The rank of medical director of the army was also created, and surgeon Charles s. Tripler took the command. He made the presence of medics and traveling armies necessary. However, despite the huge demand for professional medical practitioners and civil war surgeons, there were not enough qualified people to fill up the positions.
This ultimately led to the recruitment of a majority of underqualified and under experienced medical personnel. On average, civil war medics had only two years of medical school to show for education. Perfect time to go to med school, you might say. We think not. The education itself was inadequate in hindsight, the state of medical schools was so poor that even Harvard Medical School had no stethoscope or microscope until the war ended.
Most of these medical school graduates also had no experience in surgery, major operations, or, for worse, treating battle wounds. They were fresh out of school and mostly ignorant of many health conditions that were possible on the battleground. On top of that, simply to meet the numbers, medical boards admitted many quacks with little to no qualification. This opportunity enticed many novice practitioners eager to jump on some of the more adventurous medical procedures which they were not allowed to practice in any other circumstance.
3 Emergence Of The Sawbones
Though the number of such inexperienced but enthusiastic novice practitioners was significantly less than the qualified surgeons present in military medical camps. The notoriety of their quirky treatments spread fast and wide.
The rumors about inhumane medical practices, along with the threat of being infected with the disease and overall lack of care and patience from the staff, which was constantly overburdened with patients, made the visit to medical camps a bigger nightmare than facing the enemy in the war itself.
Some might say it was almost the equivalent of flipping a coin of death. Bone saws were used more frequently than sutures or forceps. In fact, scalpels, one of the most common tools you can find among surgeons while they are at work today, were substituted back then by bloody rusted knives.
In confederate camps, the lack of anesthesia and chloroform was met by using alcohol like whiskey and rum, which also led to the abuse and medics and civil war surgeons getting drunk on duty themselves. But hey, when you are pulled from your loving home and forced to take care of whaling and dying soldiers who are too high in number and have too little hope to live, you would want a drink or two to get through the day as well. Possibly. Abuse of pain healers, alternatives like morphine and OPM in the treatment of patients and among surgeons was also a common occurrence.
The image of medics among common soldiers was formed by them carrying long knives and bone saws and the loud scream of help and torment coming from the patient’s beds. It’s not hard to imagine why those soldiers came up to the conclusion that every medic was a straight up, real life version of dexter. It led to medics of the Civil War gaining infamous nicknames like butchers or barbers. However, contrary to popular belief, which paints these medics in the somewhat wrong light, most medics were devoted to their cause of saving lives, despite not every one of them being good at it.
These medics professionals, at their job or not, saved millions of lives, even with their botched up and rushed methods.
4 Civil War Surgery With Amputations
Of the approximately 175000 wounds to the extremities received among federal troops, about 30000 led to amputation; roughly the same proportion occurred in the Confederacy. Amputation was the most common and most often performed surgery on both sides of the conflict. One of the eyewitnesses’ accounts pictured what amputation surgery looked like during Civil Wars.
Tables about breast high had been erected upon which the screaming victims were having legs and arms cut off. The surgeons and their assistants, stripped to the waist and bespattered with blood, stood around, some holding the poor fellows, while others, armed with long, bloody knives and saws, cut and sawed away with frightful motions, throwing the mangled limbs on a pile nearby as soon as removed.
That kind of sounds like a scene from a gnarly horror movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But that does not mean the surgeons had any choice in this matter. The most shocking fact about injuries in the Civil War that led to amputation was they were not mostly caused by cannonballs or landmines or hand grenades.
The cause of such injuries was actually a small but dreadful miniball. This minuscule bullet, fired from the musket, was able to cause an enormous wound on impact. This round projectile from hell was so heavy that an abdominal or head wound meant immediate death, and if shot from a closer range, the bullet would shatter bones into smithereens.
Unfortunately, American surgeons, and especially those who were on military duty, simply did not have the skills or techniques to deal with such wounds in any better way than quick and easy amputations. And given miniball was the cause of a majority of injuries, these doctors always had a limb or two to deal with, so it would not be too rash to go out on a limb, and just accept that they opted to chop over patching. However, many ball wounds were so disastrous that even if victims survived injury or surgery, there was yet another demon waiting. Gangrene! Which brings us to the cause of gangrene – sanitation.
5 9 Out Of 10 Civil War Surgeons Did Not Practice Good Hygiene
Sanitation was a huge challenge for early Civil War medics, and apart from a certain number of places, the unhygienic environment remained an undefeated nemesis for medics throughout the war.
The conditions in which these doctors and nurses worked were downright primitive. As we have learned from Back to the Future and A Million Ways To Die in the West, clean water was a rarity, and staying clean was a luxury. Doors were used often as an operating table. Life saving drugs were always on a shortage. Basic supplies and space they worked in were minimal. And most of all, they were always out of time.
A prime example of their workload would be the Battle of Gettysburg, where medics attended over 50000 battle injuries and casualties in a short span of three days. With the number of medics on either side always being deficient, the available medics worked until they dropped. And that is exactly why bloody knives were never cleaned, hands were never washed, and sterilization was not even a possibility in most of the cases.
As we mentioned before, this helped gangrene to fester alongside a slew of other contagious diseases such as chickenpox, mumps, whooping coughs, and measles. These childhood diseases turned their ugly heads as epidemic demons among the ranks of soldiers.
What followed after that was the spread of diarrhea, malaria and typhoid, as the infected remained in the army or medical camps thanks to antibiotics not being a thing. Yet there was no stopping them either. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of diseases. However, blaming the SawBone doctors for these deaths would not be justified. Sadly, when Americans decided to kill each other in the early 1860s, the medical field was not yet capable of dealing with the disease and the massive injuries caused by industrial warfare. These medics simply did the best they could, even if it was somewhat of a messy business.
6 Civil War Medics Shaped The Foundation Of The Medical Industry
It is true what medics did during the Civil War was not all rainbows and sunshine. In fact, their deeds were far from it. But the general perception of Civil War medics being butchers is farthest from the truth. In fact, their hardship and challenges, along with their failures as much as their success, paved the way towards a medical revolution in America.
The innovative methods crafted by these inexperienced surgeons led to the invention of medical techniques that are used today as well. Amputations during the Civil War may be perceived as barbaric and rushed treatments, but with lots of trial and error, medics learned the most efficient ways of amputating without putting lives at risk.
The mortality reduced from 75% to 25% among amputation cases throughout the war.
Anesthesia inhaler, chest wounds, closure, and modern cosmetic surgery were invented during the Civil War. thanks to the complications that occurred during amputation surgeries.
The Civil War’s lessons helped the United States to come up with an ambulance to the ER system. Ambulances also got upgraded with spring suspensions and lockboxes to make sure that the injured reach hospitals not only in time, but safely as well.
Nightingale’s model of nursing was adopted in America soon after the war. Colonel Eli Lilly got inspired to lay the foundation of a pharmaceutical empire, and Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. And all of this happened because a few thousand medics did whatever they could to salvage lives and inspire a nation.
What do you think? Were these medic heroes for revolutionizing the medical industry of the United States? Or were they really as the masses remember the butchers of the Civil War?