civil war medicine

Support a Good Cause

by fifer1863 on May 9, 2013

I received the following email the other day and I encourage you to support this terrific cause


I hope this finds you well.  I’m writing to ask for a favor.  The museum I’ve been working on, Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, is one of 24 finalists in a grant contest held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The historic site with the top vote automatically received $100,000.00!  Although we peaked at 7th place, we’ve recently slipped to 11th, which will be out of the running.  All you need to do is register at the site and vote for Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office every day through May 10.  Every time you share a post on Facebook about voting or retweet a message on Twitter that contains #clarabarton we receive extra points!  The website is

Please help me spread the word by asking your friends and family to vote for us!  Clara Barton began giving to anyone and everyone she could in need from the Civil War in 1861 to her death in 1912.  The Missing Soldiers Office is just one aspect of her extraordinary life that continues to support the military and civilians around the world today.  Winning this grant will enable us to restore and reinstall the original building’s windows.  Miss Barton deserves to have a first class museum to inspire others to continue her work.

THANK YOU in advance

Susan Rosenvold
Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office
National Museum of Civil War Medicine


Recently I had a guest blogger post on Health and Medicine in the Civil War.  Shortly after the post was up, I received an email from Terry Reimer who is the Director of Research at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine about some points that needed to be clarified.

In an effort to provide accurate information, I want to share with you the correct information that I received from Terry.   The following is some of the email that I received.


The staff at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine has enjoyed your website “Teaching the Civil War with Technology.” We truly appreciate having a link on the page on Health and Medicine during the Civil War, however, there are a few points concerning Civil War medicine that we wish to clarify. I have listed them below in the order in which they appear.

Standardized medical schools did not yet exist…
In America, medical schools were established to provide organized lectures to supplement the practical learning of an apprenticeship. In 1765 the Philadelphia College of Medicine, now the University of Pennsylvania, became the first medical school in the United States. By 1860 a total of one hundred medical schools had opened, although many had only a short life. Over forty were operating at the start of the war in both the North and the South. Most schools provided lectures for 14 to 16 weeks a year. There were no pre-medical education requirements.

Soldiers had to rely on makeshift field hospitals…
While field hospitals were indeed “makeshift,” they were not replaced by general hospitals. Both field hospitals and general hospitals are steps in the treatment of the wounded. At a field hospital, usually located in a barn or tent to the rear of the fighting, wounded soldiers were triaged into three categories: mortally wounded, slightly wounded, and surgical cases. Most surgeries were amputations and took place at the field hospitals. When it was safe to do so, the patients were moved to the larger more permanent hospitals.

Later, general hospitals were established near battlefields…
Prior to the Civil War, any organized system of hospitalization was virtually unknown in the United States. With the large number of wounded and sick needing long-term care, a network of general hospitals was created in cities in both the North and the South. At first, large existing buildings were taken over for hospitals, but soon both armies constructed large pavilion-style hospitals that were clean, well ventilated, and highly efficient. The quality of care that the patients received improved dramatically after the opening months of the war, and the general hospitals had an average mortality rate of 8 percent.

…treated at unsanitary hospitals.
Hospital sanitation was certainly not up to today’s standards, but most hospitals would not have been considered unsanitary for their time. Surgical cleanliness and the use of antiseptics as we know it today did not exist during the Civil War. Lister established the practice of antiseptic surgery using carbolic acid in 1867, a few years after the war was over. Germ theory was unknown, and the rigorous cleaning of hands and surgical instruments and use of antiseptic dressings did not occur until after the Civil War. However, some of the medicines and chemicals used by Civil War surgeons did have antiseptic qualities. Hospital cleanliness was considered important and the chlorine, bromine and charcoal used for this purpose contributed to a more “antiseptic” atmosphere for the General Hospitals.

Camp life itself was a threat to a soldier’s health. Healthy recruits became victims of illnesses that were easily spread due to the large number of people in the camps, the often unsanitary conditions, and the poor diet of the soldiers. Childhood diseases such as measles could devastate regiments, and many men succumbed to diarrhea and dysentery. Of the nearly 620,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, two-thirds died not of bullets and bayonets, but of disease.

“Lead poisoning was called dropsy…”
The term dropsy was used to denote edema, the buildup of fluid in the tissues of the body, and not lead poisoning.

These now outdated terms reflect the uncertainty and lack of knowledge…
We need to be aware that it is unfair to judge people in history based on the knowledge that we have today. Civil War-era caregivers were not “uncertain” and did not “lack knowledge,” unless they are being compared to people whose resources are far greater than what was available to them. It is comparable to wondering why the people of the 1970s did not use the internet.

The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, prepared by Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, 1870 (reprinted 1991, Broadfoot Publishing Co., Wilmington, N.C.; originally titled Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865).

Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs; Alfred Jay Bollet, Galen Press, 2002

Doctors in Blue, The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War; George W. Adams, Collier, 1985 (first printing 1952)

Doctors in Gray, The Confederate Medical Service; H. H. Cunningham, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1993 (first printing 1958)

One Vast Hospital: The Civil War Hospital Sites in Frederick, Maryland after Antietam; Terry Reimer, National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Inc., 2001

Divided by Conflict United by Compassion: The National Museum of Civil War Medicine; Terry Reimer, NMCWM Press, 2004

Death is in the Breeze: Disease during the American Civil War; Bonnie Brice Dorwart, NMCWM Press, 2009

Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era; Robert G. Slawson, The NMCWM Press, 2006

Bad Doctors: Military Justice Proceedings Against 622 Civil War Surgeons; Thomas P. Lowry and Terry Reimer, NMCWM Press, 2010

Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment, Volumes I, II, and III; Gordon E. Dammann, Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Missoula, MO, 1983, 1988, and 1998

Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History; Gordon Dammann and Alfred Jay Bollet, Demos Medical Publishing, 2008

So, I want to apologize to everyone for the misinformation in the original post.  I also want to say thanks to Terry and the folks at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine for providing the correct information.  They even invited me down for a visit.



Health and Medicine During the Civil War

by fifer1863 on April 15, 2012

EDITORS NOTE:  This is a guest post by Elaine Hirsch

Health and Medicine During the Civil War

From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War wreaked havoc on American life. Nearly 620,000 soldiers died and an additional 412,000 were wounded. The massive amount of injuries presented new challenges in the medical field. Hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed with patients, disease was rampant and sanitation practices were no where near as sophisticated as today’s standards. Standardized medical schools did not yet exist and there were less than 100 doctors in the army at the start of the war. These factors presented unique challenges that American hospitals were not prepared to meet. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine features a collection of online videos and resources to bring to life a medical world which we cannot imagine living in today.

At the war’s onset, the Union had not yet established its own hospitals and most public hospitals at the time were rat-infested, dirty, and plagued by diseases like smallpox. Soldiers had to rely on makeshift field hospitals to heal their wounds. Later, general hospitals were established near battlefields in civilian buildings like churches, schools, houses and farms.

According to the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum, injured soldiers were threatened by more than just the pain of their wounds. Many soldiers had never been exposed to diseases like chicken pox, the mumps or measles and were therefore more susceptible to this inflictions while being treated at unsanitary hospitals. At the time, doctors did not yet understand how many diseases were spread and used contaminated instruments on patients. Today, strict sanitation guidelines reduces the risk of spreading diseases and infection, but this knowledge was unavailable during the Civil War.

Antibiotics now save millions of lives each year but were not available in the 19th century. Doctors performed surgeries without gloves, used bare fingers to inspect wounds and simply wiped instruments clean using their aprons. Due to these practices and the infections they caused, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine calculated that over half the casualties incurred were a result of disease, not gunshots or bayonet wounds.

Medical jargon was also different during the Civil War. Doctors spoke of mania instead of insanity, lung fever instead of pneumonia and jail fever instead of typhus. Clearly, legitimate medical transcription services were not available at the time. Syphilis was simply called pox, rickets was used to describe any problem with the skeletal system and any day-long illness was called diary fever. Lead poisoning was called dropsy, circulatory problems were attributed to flux of humor and anemia was known as green sickness. These now outdated terms reflect the uncertainty and lack of knowledge held by the medical community at the time.

While medical technology and knowledge have certainly improved since the Civil War, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine asserts that some 19th century practices are still used during warfare today. Medical professionals working out of field hospitals are still often the first responders to emergencies and evacuating wounded soldiers is a priority now as it was then. Lessons learned during the Civil War about keeping adequate medical supplies on hand are still valid today. These lessons contributed greatly to the advancement of medical knowledge and influenced the way we now practice medicine both on war fields and in civilian hospitals.


Civil War Medicine

August 29, 2009

The unfortunate Civil War soldier, whether he came from the North or South, not only was in the army when the killing power of weapons was being brought to a brand-new peak of efficiency; he enlisted in the closing years of an era when the science of medicine was woefully, incredibly imperfect. Efficient weapons and […]

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Using Civil War Photos Part 2

August 22, 2009

Okay, so back in December I asked you to take a look at the following photograph so we could explore all of its hidden treasures. This photograph shows the same building from my December 8th post that showed wounded soldiers from the battles in the “Wilderness” at Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864. This Gardner photograph of […]

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Using Photos Part 1

August 8, 2009

So I thought that I would start a series on how to use photographs from the Civil War era in order to increase understanding. Looking at photographs can tell us a great deal about many different aspects of the war. Today we will discuss the following photograph from the Library of Congress website: This photo […]

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Clara Barton

May 31, 2009

Clara Barton is one of the most famous women in American history. So while in 4th grade, it came time for my daughter to do a report on a famous person from history, she chose Clara. What was even more fun was that she wanted to do a slide show of pictures about Clara as […]

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Civil War Casualties

December 18, 2008

In order to better understand the impact that the Civil War had on the United States, it is important for students to review data of how many soldiers were killed, died from disease, died as a prisoner of war, and died in accidents. Information such as this was collected during it is currently available online. […]

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