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Medical Care in The Civil War

An essay examining the medical care available during the civil war and its effects on the war and its outcome. The prevalent medical diseases, anesthetics, and complications are discussed.

Throughout history conflict between mankind has always been inevitable. With sky-high casualty rates, the American Civil War was a domestic dispute that was the bloodiest war in American history up to that time. Poor medical care just out of the medical middle ages caused a large portion of the tragic loss of life. Disease, poor sanitation, unqualified, incompetent doctors, and lack of proper medical equipment were the causes of death for more Civil War soldiers than the actual battles.

            The leading cause of death during the Civil War was disease.  Nearly two-thirds of soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies died due to disease. The most common diseases in the camps included; dysentery, measles, pneumonia, malaria, diphtheria, and rheumatism. During the war, 198 out of 199 soldiers contracted chronic dysentery. The leading diseases in the camp hospitals included; gangrene (the rotting away of flesh due to low blood circulation), typhoid fever (a disease with symptoms such as prostration, diarrhea, splenomegaly, headaches, leucopoenia and intestinal inflammation caused by the bacteria salmonella), pyaemia (a type of blood poisoning caused by microorganisms in a wound characterized by multiple abscesses, profuse sweating, chills, exhaustion, and high fevers), anemia (loss of blood and/or blood low in red blood cells and hemoglobin), streptococcus pyogenes (a bacterium that causes the formation of fatal septicemias), and Staphylococcus aureus (a bacterium that causes furnunculosis, pyemia, osteomyelitis suppuration of wounds, and food poisoning.). The spreading of gangrene in camp hospitals caused a great portion of both amputations and deaths. Because of all these hospital diseases many soldiers would have had a better chance of surviving if they had been left on the battlefields rather than being taken to a camp hospital.

            Sanitation in camp hospitals during the war was not a well-practiced precaution. Wounded soldiers were crowded into hospitals by the hundreds, and if there were not enough beds they were left lying on the floor in each other’s diseased blood. Sometimes makeshift operating tables would be made from doors that had been taken off their hinges. Between and during operations, doctors practiced absolutely no sanitation. The same tools were used from patient to patient, without washing them in between, even if they fell on the ground. They would operate on patients without washing their hands; in fact, they only washed their hands about once a week if there was a shortage of water, which there often was. If a surgeon didn’t seem to have enough hands during a surgery, doctors would hold bloody tools in their mouths, and then continue to use them on injured soldiers. Amputated limbs would simply be thrown into a corner of the room and only taken out every few days. Piles of extremities sometimes stood over man-high, and about three feet in diameter. Gangrene was actually spread in hospital rooms, and open wounds could be found covered in maggots. The sanitation practices were so crude most civil war soldiers would have been better off if they had just been left to die in peace.

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