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Medical Treatment During the Civil War

Although Civil War soldiers suffered from modern weapons like the repeater riffle, they did not have access to modern medical care…

The Civil War is often seen as a turning point in the history of warfare. It was the first big industrial war and foreshadowed the type of warfare that would characterize World War I. At the same time, it still had some of the characteristics of older wars. One of these characteristics was medical treatment. Although Civil War soldiers suffered from modern weapons like the repeater riffle, they did not have access to modern medical care. Thus, many soldiers died in spite of, or sometimes because of medical treatment.

Without an understanding of the germ theory of medicine, army doctors did not know what caused diseases and infections. They could only attempt to treat the symptoms as best they could. By that time symptoms showed, however, it was often too late to do anything. For example, many soldiers died from infection because doctors did not treat infection until it had progressed to the point that it was visible. By that time, it was far too late to do anything about it. Further, because they did not know about germs, they thought it was good for pus to start coming out of a wound. Civil War doctors thought it was a sign that the body was replacing the wound with clean tissue. Because treated soldiers usually left for a regular hospital after being treated at the field hospital, field doctors had few opportunities to connect infection with death.

Treatment options were limited. Generally speaking, doctors only treated wounds to the extremities. Soldiers wounded in the torso, the head, or the neck were given up as mortally wounded. They might be given some strong alcohol or morphine to ease their pain, but they were usually left to die of excessive bleeding or a disease doctors called “blood poisoning.” Treatment for wounds to the arms and legs began with removing any shrapnel or bullets lodged in the body. This was usually done with unwashed hands. After removing the cause of the wound, doctors usually packed it with lint or cotton and applied a cold, wet bandage. If a soldier was lucky he might receive some liquor or drugs for his pain.

Often, doctors determined that amputation was needed. In the North, soldiers were usually given chloroform as an anesthetic. In the South, however, soldiers rarely had the luxury of an anesthetic for surgery. Whether or not they had anesthetic, doctors removed many, many wounded limbs. Often, the pile of amputated limbs could reach several feet high. Obviously, the blood and gore from all of these amputations were a tremendous health hazard and gave the field hospital a horrible odor.

Everything was done without any thought to sterility or even cleanliness, so many of the wounded died of infection. Not all of them did, however, and doctors in the Civil War saved more men than had doctors in previous wars. Still the conditions in the hospitals were far from good and resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands.

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