What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War

By Mike Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY

Battlefield Medicine:
Malpractice Makes Imperfect

Poor George was a good boy and an excellent soldier. He told the boys when shot he was sorry to lose his leg but was grateful his life was spared. And told the Surgeon after the Second amputation he knew he was bound to die and if his leg had been properly taken off at the first he would have lived.

—Pvt. Harry Lewis
July 20, 1862 1

The timing of the Civil War was all off. There is never a good time for a war, but America's Civil War came along at a time when the art of killing far outstripped the art of healing.

Of the approximately 3,000,000 soldiers and sailors who fought in the war, more than 600,000 died, about 360,000 for the North and another 258,000 for the South. Of that total, less than one-third, about 200,000, were either killed outright or died of wounds in battle. The other two-thirds died of disease. It was infection that took their lives, not bullets or cannonballs. Usually, it was due to the physicians' almost total lack of knowledge about infection.

It was not unusual to see a surgeon go from one patient to another without even so much as wiping his hands, not to mention washing and sterilizing himself and/or his instruments. Surgeons of the day praised what they called "laudable pus," saying it was a good sign. They even bragged about how fast they could amputate a man's arm or leg. Speed was important when they lacked morphine or chloroform—or chose not to use them.

The Union's medical inspector general believed "the smart [pain] of the knife [was] a powerful stimulant." Many surgeons agreed and fell back on Samuel Gross's Manual of Military Surgery as a how-to text.

-200-

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