Civil War Era Medicine
Image courtesy of the Civil War Museum at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
Retired physician and long-time avocational Civil War historian, Thomas Sweeney, offers the following:
The medical establishments within the U.S. Army and the nascent Confederate Army were almost totally unprepared for either the scope or duration of the conflict. The peacetime U.S. Army possessed only 113 physicians to care for more than 16,000 personnel scattered across the country. The Army’s Surgeon General, Dr. Thomas Lawson, was unable to think beyond the needs of small, frontier post hospitals. Fortunately for the Union, the Medical Department entered a new era under a relatively junior physician, Dr. William A. Hammond, on April 25, 1862. The Confederate Medical department had to begin from scratch.1
Contrary to popular belief, nineteenth century military medicine was not always crude and ineffective. Lack of preparedness was the foremost problem, and it was responsible for much otherwise unnecessary suffering. The Civil War brought important advances in both organization and technique. While shortages often crippled the Confederacy’s efforts, by the end of the conflict the medical treatment available to Union soldiers was probably the best in the world. It gave sick and injured soldiers a greater opportunity of recovery than in any previous war.
With the outbreak of war civilian doctors entered the ranks of the Northern and Southern forces in large numbers. While some had served only an apprenticeship with an experienced practicing physician, formal medical education was becoming common. Diploma mills existed, but so did an increasing number of respected medical schools, such as the McDowell Medical College in St. Louis. By modern standards the curriculum in even the best schools was surprisingly brief lasting two years, with the second year being merely a repeat of the first. Not surprisingly, the quality of military surgeons differed considerably. Late in 1861 the U.S. Army Medical Department began giving examinations to weed out unqualified physicians. The Confederacy soon took similar and perhaps even more rigorous steps.2
Education and peacetime practice did little to prepare physicians to treat the mass casualties of war. The border troubles labeled “Bleeding Kansas” in the Eastern press gave Missouri a reputation for violence, yet prior to the Civil War relatively few physician within the state ever treated a gunshot wound or performed more than minor surgery, much less attempted the amputation of a limb. The same was true elsewhere. Moreover, once in uniform, few military surgeons considered it to be their duty to address the basic requirements to keep the men healthy to fight, such as proper sanitation, food, and shelter. Civilian organizations, often labeled “sanitary commissions,” sprang up to address these needs, but in Missouri the dynamics of the conflict limited these to the Union side. St. Louis became the center of the regional Western Sanitary Commission, as well as the local St. Louis Ladies Union Aid Society and parallel Colored Ladies Union Aid Society.3
In Union and Confederate volunteer service, and in the Missouri State Guard, regulations authorized each regiment a surgeon, an assistant surgeon, a hospital steward with the rank of sergeant major, and several enlisted men serving as orderlies. Each morning at “sick call,” the surgeons listened to soldiers’ complaints and provided treatment. The steward was responsible for supplies and medicine chests. Orderlies were jacks-of-all-trades, men who showed an interest and aptitude in nursing and were appointed by the surgeon. During combat the medical team set up a field hospital close to the action. The assistant surgeon usually manned an aid station treating wounded at the edge of the battlefield until they could be removed to the surgeon’s care at the field hospital. Near the end of 1861 the Union army began consolidating regimental hospitals into division and corps hospitals to handle larger bodies of troops more efficiently, but an Ambulance Corp was not formed until well into 1862. Prior to that wounded were brought from the field either by comrades or by musicians from the regiment’s band, if it had one.4
Gunshots accounted for 94 percent of the recorded battle wounds. Injuries from artillery projectiles were less common, while bayonet and sword wounds were quite rare. The most common wounds were to the extremities, with almost equal involvement of the arms and legs. In combat involving muzzle-loading weapons, limbs often remained vulnerable even when a soldier fired from a protected position. Non-extremity wounds almost always resulted in death on the battlefield. Penetrating gunshots to the abdomen or head were about 90 percent fatal, those to the chest about 60 percent.5
Contrary to myth, Civil War doctors did not perform excessive numbers of amputations because they were ignorant of, or unwilling to consider, alternatives. Doctors usually performed amputations in cases involving the penetration of a joint, a compound fracture, substantial tissue or bone destruction, or evidence of infection (gangrene). They had to consider the fact that survival rates were much greater when amputations were performed within the first twenty-four hours of injury. This was called primary amputation. Secondary amputations were performed after the 24 hour period and resulted in higher mortality and morbidity caused by bacteria having more time to enter the open wound. Surgeons were aware that the presence of foreign material such as wadding, clothing fragments, or dirt in wounds increased the likelihood complications. Tragically, it was not until just after the war ended that European physician Joseph Lister, using the work of Louis Pasteur, demonstrated the role that bacteria played in wound infection, too late to save the lives of tens of thousands of men in uniform.6
One of the war’s most important advances was the popularization of anesthesia. Military surgeons employed ether and chloroform, which had first come into use at the time of the Mexican War, 1846-1848. Both drugs had drawbacks. Highly flammable ether, which took sixteen minutes to take effect, posed a danger when operations were performed by candle or lantern light. Chloroform was nonflammable and worked in about nine minutes, but improper application could result in death. During those nine minutes the patient passed through an excitable stage and might need to be restrained. The process was poorly understood by laymen observers and led to the myth that many operations were preformed without any anesthetic at all, which was rarely the case. Recovering patients received either morphine or opium, which were effective painkillers but addictive.7
Although more than a thousand military engagements occurred in Missouri, disease killed over twice as many men as bullets. Infections spread rapidly in overcrowded camps. Measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox ran rampant, particularly among newly-enlisted soldiers from rural areas who lacked immunities from prior exposure. But even more fatalities resulted from dysentery and diarrhea contracted due to unsanitary conditions. The Western Sanitary Commission worked tirelessly throughout the war to improve conditions in camps, hospitals, and prisons. Science largely ignorant of the cause of diseases and most medications were ineffective. Malaria was the only major disease combated successfully, being treated with quinine, a drug made from the bark of the Peruvian Cinchona tree.8
Because of its rail and river connections St. Louis became the most important center for military medicine west of the Appalachian Mountains. Only Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, played a greater role during the war. The process was driven by necessity. At the beginning of the war there were only two military hospitals in Missouri, one at the St. Louis Arsenal and the other at Jefferson Barracks, south of the city along the Mississippi River. These and the city’s civilian hospitals were overwhelmed by the casualties from early war battles, but before the conflict ended the city was home to fifteen military hospitals and a fleet of hospital boats serving the war effort in the Mississippi River valley.
The campaigning and fighting in the Ozarks, with its poor roads, rugged hills, and lack of adequate water and rail connections, posed particular medical challenges. Early in the war almost all sick and wounded were treated locally, often with the help of the civilian population. The impact on communities could be devastating, as the case of Springfield demonstrates. When Union forces under Nathaniel Lyon occupied the city in July 1861, they set up military hospitals in tents and buildings to accommodate their routine sick personnel. When Lyon was defeated at the nearby battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, the victorious Southerners occupied Springfield and shifted hundreds of casualties (Union as well as their own) to the town, taking over public spaces, churches, and private homes. Men and women came from miles around to help. O. A. Williams, a surgeon for the Missouri State Guard, wrote to John Willsen about the conditions in Springfield shortly after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Headquarters, General Hospital, Missouri State Guard, Springfield, Missouri
Dear John –
I suppose ere this you have had correct information in regard to the fight so I will say nothing about it. I am not in good health – nor in very good spirits. I can see no end to this infernal war… Springfield presents rather a gloomy appearance, every house nearly has been converted into a Hospital. The wounded are generally well. There has been a great many amputations. I have taken off a good many legs and arms – until I am sick and tired… We get nothing to drink (and) little to eat… Give my love to Mary… (and) respects to… friends and tell my enemies to go to hell…
Witnesses reported that the streets literally stank from the odor of wounded and dying soldiers. Weeks passed before the situation was under control. The Federal wounded that remained were eventually moved to St. Louis by rail road from Rolla. By this time smaller hospitals had been opened at intervals along the rail line in Missouri from Sedalia and Rolla to St. Louis to take care of the less severely wounded and avoid overcrowding of St. Louis Hospitals. The damage to Springfield civilian property was great; the emotional and psychological impact on families whose homes became treatment facilities is impossible to calculate. Springfield changed hands six times during the course of the conflict and was for much of the war a major Union supply depot and hospital center. By mid-war half of the homes were destroyed and more than half of the population was refugees.9
The much larger Battle of Pea Ridge, fought on March 7-8, 1862, only a short distance into Arkansas from the Missouri border, was an even greater disaster. Union medical preparations were minimal, while the attacking Confederates made almost none. Although the Union forces were victorious, it proved impracticable to shift the severely wounded from the battlefield to the expanding facilities in St. Louis. There were no navigable rivers nearby, and the closest rail line to St. Louis began at Rolla, 240 miles from the battlefield. The roads to Springfield, the next best option, were severely rutted and without bridges, while guerrillas roamed the surrounding countryside. As a consequence, the closer small communities Cassville and Keitsville, Missouri, were virtually transformed into hospitals. When the news of the battle reached St. Louis the Western Sanitary Commission worked day and night packing medical supplies and shipping them as fast as possible to the scene of the crisis.10
As the war in the Ozarks progressed both the military and the Western Sanitary Commission became better at averting crises by anticipating needs and stockpiling supplies at key points. One of these key points was Springfield. Large quantities of medical supplies were stockpiled in that city in anticipation of further battles in the western Ozarks. The Union victory on December 7, 1862, at Prairie Grove in northwestern Arkansas produced over 1,000 wounded, and once again poor roads and the threat of guerrillas made evacuations impracticable. On this occasion, however, Sanitary Commission agents in Springfield immediately dispatched two ambulances and stockpiled medical supplies to Fayetteville, which became the main treatment center. They sent additional supplies within ten days.11
By January of 1862 St. Louis emerged as the center of military medicine not only in Missouri but also in the Mississippi River Valley. Over crowding of hospitals in St. Louis had been considerably decreased by treating less serious cases in camp and regimental hospitals and sending more serious cases to the city. Convalescing patients were also sent to camps outside of the city. St. Louis had 2,300 beds in the general hospital and 200 to 300 more in the City and Sister’s of Charity Hospitals. Separate isolation hospitals were established for smallpox patients and another for measles. During the spring of 1863 military medicine in St. Louis expanded even further. Medicines, hospital stores, dressings, bedding and clothing were being manufactured in a government facility in St. Louis. A large amphitheatre in the old fairgrounds in Benton Barracks was turned into a 2,500 bed hospital second only to the Lincoln Hospital in Washington which had a 2,575 bed capacity.
By 1864 there were military hospitals located in Jefferson City, Springfield, Kansas City Missouri, and Rolla (at the terminus of the SW branch of the Pacific R.R.) along with Tipton and Sedalia. In southeast Missouri a hospital was located at the southern terminus of the Iron Mountain RR in Ironton. Serious wounded from battle of Springfield through Price’s Raid in the fall of 1864 could be taken care of in various hospitals in Kansas City, around the Ozarks or to one of the hospitals in St. Louis. Battles in isolated areas in the Ozarks such as Newtonia (September 30, 1862 and October 28, 1864) resulted in the wounded being cared for in buildings or tent hospitals surrounding the battlefield.12
As had been true for the previous two years, Missouri State Guard and Confederate forces operating within the state provided only the most basic medical services. They setup temporary makeshift hospitals in nearby structures during battles, but as they failed to control any territory permanently their serious wounded were left behind. The highly mobile Southern guerrillas and opportunistic bushwhackers who roamed the state until the very end of the war relied heavily on friendly civilians for care of their sick and wounded. The effectiveness of this care would be difficult to determine. Unfortunately, it led to retaliation upon the civilians by the Unionists.13
The fortunes of war were such that the story of medical care in Missouri is really the story of the Union side. Thanks to the efforts of the federal and state governments, civilian relief organizations, and civilian volunteers, medical care in Missouri equaled that of any other state during the conflict. Although authorities were caught off guard and almost overwhelmed by events in 1861, medical care increased steadily from 1862 onwards, until by war’s end it was state of the art for that period of history.
- George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House, Inc., 1985), 4-5.
- Stewart Brooks, Civil War Medicine (Springfield, Illinois: C. C. Thomas, 1966), 26.
- Alfred J. Bollet, Civil War Medicine: Changes and Triumphs (Tucson: Galen Press Ltd., 2002), 81-83.; Paula Coalier, “Beyond Sympathy: The St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society and the Civil War,” Gateway Heritage (Summer 1990), 39-40.
- Edward Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 182.; Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 77, 98.; Joseph J. Woodward M.D., The Hospital Stewards Manual: For the Instruction of Hospital Stewards, Ward-Masters, and Attendants, in Their Several Duties (Navato, California: Jeremy Norman Publishing Co., 1991), 2-28.
- Adams, Doctors in Blue, 113.; Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 84-85.; Brooks, Civil War Medicine, 74-75.
- Samuel D. Gross, A Manual of Military Surgery: Or, Hints on the emergencies of Field, Camp and Hospital (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1861), 79.; John J. Chisolm, A Manual of Military Surgery for the Use Of Surgeons in the Confederate Army (Richmond, Virginia: West & Johnston, 1861), 89.; Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 198-199.
- Adams, Doctors in Blue, 119-120.; Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 76-81.
- Jacob G. Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission; A Sketch of its Origin, History, Labors for the Sick and Wounded of the Western Armies, and Aid Given to Freedmen and Union Refugees, with Incidents of Hospital Life (St. Louis: R. P. Studley & Co., 1864), 48-59, 88-90.; Brooks, Civil War Medicine, 26.; Bollet, Civil War Medicine, 236- 238.
- Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department 1818-1865 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1987), 133, 175.; Griffin Frost, Camp and Prison Journal (Iowa City: Press of the Camp Pope Bookshop, 1994), 113.; Newton G. Elliot Papers, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.; William Garrett Piston, “Springfield is a Vast Hospital: The Dead and Wounded at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek,” Missouri Historical Review, 93 (July 1999), 345-66.
- Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission, 28, 30-32.; Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 166.
- Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission, 60-64.
- William G. Piston & Thomas P. Sweeney, Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Missouri in the Civil War (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009), 10-11.; Email with Larry James, President of the Battle of Newtonia Foundation, January 21, 2010.; Joseph K. Barnes, Joseph J. Woodward and George A. Otis, The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Vol. VI (Wilmington, North Carolina: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1990), 1963.
- Piston and Sweeney, Portraits of Conflict, 201.; Erin Kemper, “The Union, the War, and Elvira Scott,” Missouri Historical Reivew, 95 (April 2001), 287-301.