Civil War Medicine: Binding A Nation’s Wounds — An Introduction

Introducing a new series on the Emerging Civil War blog… Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at various aspects Civil War era medical theories, practices, and innovations. As seen through the experiences of professional doctors to volunteer nurses or the medical experiences of officers and soldiers, 19th Century medicine saved lives and bridged new innovations but was also riddled with challenges.

The timing of this series in the 160th anniversary of the American Civil War is deliberate, placed just after the anniversary of the battle of Antietam. Under the leadership of Dr. Jonathan Letterman and supported by Dr. William Hammond, the Union’s Army of the Potomac’s medical care was transforming. Antietam tested and catalyzed their innovations which became known as the Letterman System, prioritizing swift battlefield evacuation and better organized field hospital care with competent surgeons at the operating tables.

Dr. Letterman summarized his work at Antietam’s battlefield, writing:

The battle commenced on the evening of September 16th, and continued until dark; it was renewed in the morning of the 17th, and lasted until night…. After night, I visited all the hospitals in Keedysville…. The subject of supplies, always a source of serious consideration, was here peculiarly so….. On the close of the battle, supplies of medicines, stimulants, dressings, and stores were sent for and brought from Frederick in ambulances, and were distributed…. I visited, after the battle, every hospital in the rear of our lines, and in no instances did I find any undue suffering for lack of medical supplies…. Not only were the wounded of our own army supplied, but all the Confederate wounded, which fell into our hands, were finished with all the medicines,…required for their use….

While the supply situation was better than previous battle aftermaths within the Union lines, the suffering continued. One sergeant from the 15th Massachusetts lay on field, unable to move and eventually captured by Confederates for a short time:

Misery, acute, painful misery. How I suffered last night. It was the most painful of anything have ever experienced. My leg must be broken for I cannot help myself scarcely any. I remembered talking and groaning all night. Many died in calling for help…. Sgt. Johnson who lies on the other side of the log is calling for water. Carried off the field at 10 A.M. by the Rebs who show much kindness but devote much time to plundering the dead bodies of our men…. Water very short. We suffer very much.

A few weeks later, nurse Hannah Ropes wrote from a Washington D.C. hospital:

We turn away with saddened eye from the long list of those whose last sleep has fallen upon them in this hospital. Fifteen have died within the month just ended, some of them so worn with fatigue and fasting as to be wholly unable to rally, others kept along with wounded limbs until too exhausted to bear amputation, and thus died….

Confederates endured similar medical scenarios, often exacerbated by limited supplies especially in the later years of the war.

Over the next couple of weeks, stay tuned for emerging accounts and historical research about Civil War medicine. We hope you’ll join us for this exploration of who bandaged the wounded of a nation, how they struggled and innovated, and why they changed the knowledge of the medical field forever.

3 Responses to Civil War Medicine: Binding A Nation’s Wounds — An Introduction

  1. The development of anesthesia, and the treatment of battlefield wounds, were the 2 great contributions of American physicians to the Worlds Literature on Medicine.

  2. I am pleased to see this discussion. As a medical student in early 1950s, physicians returning from Korean War would return and tell the class what innovations were developed during that conflict. So this has been a pattern, medical innovations developing from war..

    F. Norman Vickers, Pensacola Civil War Roundtable

  3. This should be a good, informative series. I have enjoyed the interviews of the two LBGs at Gettysburg with medical training who periodically provide programs on field care. Likewise, Adams County Historical Society recently featured a program on the 11th Corps Hospital behind Union Lines (now a place to visit).

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