A Healing History of North and South

By Johnston, Penny | History Today, January 1997 | Go to article overview

A Healing History of North and South


Johnston, Penny, History Today


A yellow flag emblazoned with an H flies high over the new National Museum of Civil War Medicine in the historic block of downtown Frederick, Maryland. Frederick, founded English and German settlers in 1745 was named after Frederick Calvert, 6th Lord of Baltimore.

During the American Civil War, Frederick was witness to no less than three Confederate invasions, thirty-eight skirmishes and two major battles (South Mountain and Monocacy).

The new National Museum of Civil War Medicine, is housed in a former furniture store in a building which dates back to the 1830s on what was the National Road, now Patrick Street.

After the Battle of Antietam, which occurred less than fifteen miles away on September 17th, IMP, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, 8,000 wounded were brought back to Frederick, doubling the town's population. Twenty-nine buildings - churches, with planks placed on top of pews for beds, schools and hotels - were set up as make-shift hospitals. The building which now houses the museum, was used as an embalming station.

On the ground floor of the museum, 'Phase One', has just been completed. This is a state-of-the-art exhibit designed to cover the main issues of Civil War medicine, via a sequence of events in the life of the new recruit: enrolment, training, the battle, injury, treatment and convalescence of those lucky enough to make a recovery. Among the exhibits is a coffin made up of three layers, the bottom layer held ice, in the second layer lay the deceased, while on the top is a lid which could be open for partial viewing.

Over the years, Michigan Dental Surgeon, Dr Gordon Damman collected a total of 3,000 Civil War artefacts which form the basis of the new museum. These include implements, sketch books, letters, uniforms and photographs.

One panel depicts sixty-year-old Dorothea Dix who volunteered as a nurse in 1861 and eventually became Superintendent of Nurses for the entire Union Army.

Another nurse, referred to as the 'Angle of Mercy' was Clara Barton, who later went on to found the American Red Cross. She was active in the field hospital established at Chatham, on the banks of the Rappahannock River, overlooking Fredericksburg and the scene of the four Civil War battles: Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and Fredericksburg. During the Battle of Antietam, a bullet went through the sleeve of Clara's dress and killed the man she was tending.

There is also the Union coat of Louis Razinski, an assistant surgeon of the 36th New York Volunteers. Later he became surgeon to the 54th Massachusetts, the famous black regiment featured in the film, Glory.

A staple of the army was 'hardtack', a dry biscuit which was soaked in coffee. The soaking got out the worms which floated to the surface: these were wiped off by the soldier before eating.

Needless to say, diseases flourished in camp life due to poor nutrition, inadequate sewage disposal, dirty water and infrequent bathing. Diseases such as typhoid, measles, cholera and dysentery killed hundreds. General Lee contracted dysentery on his way to Gettysburg. Remarkably, of the 600,000 military deaths in the American Civil War, almost two thirds were caused by disease.

In battle, the Minie bullet, a soft lead bullet, was very damaging. Fired from a rifle musket, these large .58 calibre bullets would deform and tunnel on impact causing large wounds.

Dr E.I. Howard of the Army of Northern Virginia described the effects of Minie Ball on bone: '... wounds of bony structure inflicted by this missile are characterized by extensive fissuring and comminution such as was rarely, if ever, seen when the old smooth Bore musket was the weapon of the soldier. …

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