Medicine in the Civil War


A medical amputation
A Union surgeon operates.
(National Archives)
The doctor of a regiment in the Civil War was called a surgeon. These men were responsible for treating the sick and wounded of their regiment. Often there were so many wounded that they treated wounded men from many other regiments. This was especially true at Gettysburg where so many soldiers were injured. Surgeons in both armies were taxed to the limits of their endurance and treated the most severe cases first. The remaining soldiers languished in the open air, waiting their turn on the surgeon's table. For the wounded, the horrors of the battlefield were only equaled by the horrors they experienced in a field hospital. Most wounds during the Civil War were caused by gunshot. The Minie ball, which was the standard bullet of the war, was made from very soft lead. When it struck human tissue, it would create a very ragged wounded and could splinter once inside. This led to infection which could be fatal. The large bullets could also shatter bones. Shell fragments from artillery were the next most common cause of wounds. An exploding shell sent large fragments of iron sailing into the air and would cause terrible wounds as well. Bayonet wounds were rare. Only about 2% of all wounds during the war were caused by the bayonet. Soldiers were not always inclined to use them and close fighting usually called for clubs or swinging rifles like clubs, though Colonel Harrison Jeffords of the 4th Michigan Infantry was mortally wounded by a bayonet thrust at Gettysburg. Even when wounds were treated with great care, infection could easily set in. Medical knowledge in the 1860's did not understand bacteria and germs and how they could be transmitted. They did not properly sterilize the tools and equipment, and bacteria could easily spread from patient to patient during a days worth of operations. This lack of understanding of germs and bacteria led to the spread of disease that killed more soldiers than enemy bullets during the entire war.
A surgeon's kit
A surgeon's kit.
(National Park Service)
This surgeon's operating kit is typical of those used by army doctors. Though they seem ancient by today's standards, the instruments were made of the finest metals with precision and encased in beautiful walnut cases. Confederate instruments were not as fine as those made in northern factories or in Europe, so captured instruments and medical supplies were highly prized. Radical surgery took place in the crudest conditions. A typical "operating room" was in the open air where the surgeon had plenty of light. Otherwise, it was the room of a farmhouse, the center of a barn, or under a tree. Assistants held lamps over the surgeon to provide light. Patients were placed on a door removed from its hinges and set on sawhorses. With little more than a rag to wipe his hands, the surgeon then began the examination of the wounded soldier and then decided on what course to take.

The Wounded at Gettysburg

Second Corps Hospital on Rock Creek
Second Corps Hospital on Rock Creek.
National Archives
Over 30,000 soldiers of both armies lay wounded in temporary field hospitals at the close of the Battle of Gettysburg. In every sense of the word, these were not real hospitals at all, but private homes and buildings which afforded some shelter and a nearby source of water. Every barn, church, warehouse, and outbuilding within a ten mile radius of Gettysburg was filled with suffering men, so many that they could not all be attended to at once. Surgeons from the various regiments worked for days without rest to treat the wounded and medical supplies were hurried to the scene as rapidly as possible. Still, many soldiers went without care or treatment for several days. "Houses and barns, but chiefly the woods were used as hospitals and the wounded, necessarily endured much suffering," wrote Dr. Jonathan Letterman. As the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, Dr. Letterman and his staff had an overwhelming job ahead of them. Before the battle ended, Dr. Letterman ordered more medical supplies to be brought to Gettysburg and he sent his ambulance corps over the field to move the wounded into a more central medical stations called corps hospitals. Dr. Letterman was forced to leave Gettysburg with the army in the pursuit of the Confederates, but he assigned Surgeon Henry James to the task of supervising the gathering and treatment of all the wounded in the area.
Camp Letterman hospital tents
Camp Letterman at Gettysburg.
(National Archives)

The first task was gathering all of the wounded into central field hospitals where adequate water supplies could be found, treatment could be rendered and wounds dressed. Further surgery could also be performed at these hospitals until the wounded could be taken to Gettysburg where they could be transported by railroad to hospitals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. A central hospital was established on the York Pike east of Gettysburg and near the railroad and named Camp Letterman after Dr. Letterman. Wounded soldiers were taken from the field hospitals by horse-drawn ambulances to the new camp where they were housed in large canvas tents. Unlike the rigors of a field hospital, the new camp had cots with clean sheets and pillows. Nurses were assigned to each of the tents and surgeons stayed busy around the clock treating the more serious cases. Food was plentiful and the camp was remarkable for its sanitation. Cases considered too serious to move remained at the camp while an average of 800 men per day were shipped by rail to hospitals in northern cities.

Many of the nurses at Camp Letterman were women who were members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and U.S. Christian Commission, organizations formed in the north for the benefit of Union soldiers wounded in battle. Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, was not at Gettysburg, but many women like her were. They put in long hours in the hospital wards, aiding the sick and injured soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

Surgical operations continued on the most serious cases at Camp Letterman. A visitor to the hospital witnessed the most gruesome of treatments in a surgeon's tent:

Operation at Camp Letterman
Surgery at Camp Letterman.
(National Archives)
"In the operating tent, the amputation of a very bad looking leg was witnessed. The surgeons had been laboring since the battle to save the leg, but it was impossible. The patient, a delicate looking man, was put under the influence of chloroform, and the amputation was performed with great skill by a surgeon who appeared to be quite accustomed to the use of his instruments. After the arteries were tied, the amputator scraped the end and edge of the bone until they were quite smooth. While the scraping was going on, an attendant asked: 'How do you feel, Thompson?' 'Awful!' was the distinct and emphatic reply. This answer was returned, although the man was far more sensible of the effects of the chloroform than he was of the amputation."
 (excerpt from A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle, by Gregory Coco, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, 1995.)

By August 7, 1863 all of the corps and field hospitals were closed and Camp Letterman was the only hospital remaining with over 3,000 patients. Union and Confederate wounded were both treated at the camp by army doctors and personnel of the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission. Still, not all of those wounded men could be saved and many died from the results of their wounds or infection. A cemetery was established near the camp and burials took place every day. The camp remained at Gettysburg until November 1863 when the last remaining patients left, the tents were packed, and the doctors and nurses left for other battlefield hospitals.

Kindle Available
Civil War Medicine

Civil War Medicine
The staggering challenge of treating wounds and disease on both sides of the conflict. Written for general readers and scholars alike, this first-of-its kind encyclopedia will help all Civil War enthusiasts to better understand this amazing medical saga. Clearly organized, authoritative, and readable




Clara Barton: Spirit of the American Red Cross
Ready To Read - Level Three
Clara Barton was very shy and sensitive, and not always sure of herself. But her fighting spirit and desire to help others drove her to become one of the world's most famous humanitarians. Learn all about the life of the woman who formed the American Red Cross.





Kindle Available

The Civil War for Kids
History explodes in this activity guide spanning the turmoil preceding secession, the first shots fired at Fort Sumter, the fierce battles on land and sea, and finally the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Making butternut dye for a Rebel uniform, learning drills and signals with flags, decoding wigwag, baking hardtack, reenacting battles, and making a medicine kit bring this pivotal period in our nation's history to life.






Clara Barton Founder of the American Red Cross
Young Clara Barton is shy and lonely in her early days at boarding school.


72 Piece Civil War Army Men
Play Set 52mm Union and Confederate Figures, Bridge, Horses, Canon
  • 48 Union and Confederate Soldiers up to 2-1/8 inches tall
  • 4 Horses, 4 Sandbag Bunkers, 6 Fence Sections, 3 Cannon, 3 Ammo Carts
  • Bridge, Small Barracks
  • Scale: About 1/35th
Kids Zone Exhibits
Civil War Timeline
State Battle Maps
Civil War Picture Album
Civil War Maps
Civil War Cooking
Civil War Exhibits
Women in the War
Young Reader Books

The Boys War
With the many boys who fought in the civil war most of them lied about their age. A lot of them wrote letters or had a diary. Johnny Clem had run away from his home at 11. At age 12 he tried to enlist but they refused to let him join because he was clearly too young. The next day he came back to join as a drummer boy.

Unconditional Surrender
U. S. Grant and the Civil War

This is the best juvenile biography on Ulysses S. Grant by a wide margin. Marrin has done an excellent job in introducing Grant to a young audience. I highly recommend it.

Civil War Weapons
Weapons and Strategies of the Civil War
For grades 3-6 which packs 48 pages with color photos and 30 links providing quality Internet sites for more research. Chapter notes, a bibliography and an index round out information and assure not just accuracy, but constant updates to research information.
Ballad of the Civil War young reader book
A Ballad of the Civil War
A wonderful chapter book for children that should help them to appreciate the fact that some people could not defend a person's right to own other people and to understand that sad era that ended in the "brothers' war." It has four chapters with a prologue and a closing author's note. The conversations that Tom has with the household slave "Uncle Roger" provide some unique insight into the dilemma that slaves faced in the antebellum South
Fields of Fury young reader book
Fields of Fury
The American Civil War

Written for young readers a stirring account of the greatest conflict to happen on our nation's soil, the Civil War, bringing to life the tragic struggle that divided not only a nation, but also friends and family. well-organized, well-executed, kid-friendly history of the Civil War was a brilliant idea if there ever was one. It's difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job than McPherson at breaking down this complex, interrelated series of events.

The Journal of James Edmond Pease: A Civil War Union Soldier, Virginia, 1863
James was only 15 when he joined, but he was able to get in. Nobody really liked him cause he was unlucky. One day in the confusion he charged ahead of his company and scared off all the Confederates single handed. After that, he became well liked by most people and soon rose Corporal. He showed his bravery when he spent a week in enemy territory. By the end of the war he rose up to Second Lieutenant.
Night Boat to Freedom
Night Boat To Freedom
Night Boat to Freedom is a wonderful story about the Underground Railroad, as told from the point of view of two "ordinary" people who made it possible. Beyond that, it is a story about dignity and courage, and a devotion to the ideal of freedom.

Behind the Blue and Gray
The Soldier's Life in the Civil War

Civil War reading can be very dry, but not this book. Delia Ray takes us on a soldiers journey beginning with enlistment and ending with a soldiers life after the war, using quotes from actual letters and diaries strategically placed throughout the book.

Grace's Letter to Lincoln
Many important details of the time period help to make the reader understand what life was like then. It also includes photos of the actual letters written between Grace and Mr. Lincoln

Turn Homeward, Hannalee
During the closing days of the Civil War, plucky 12-year-old Hannalee Reed, sent north to work in a Yankee mill, struggles to return to the family she left behind in war-torn Georgia. "A fast-moving novel based upon an actual historical incident with a spunky heroine and fine historical detail."--School Library Journal.

My Brothers Keeper
Virginia Dickens is angry. Her father and brother Jed have left her behind while they go off to Uncle Jack's farm to help him hide his horses from Confederate raiders. It's the summer of 1863 and Pa and Jed believe 9-year-old Virginia will be out of harm's way in the sleepy little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Kindle Available

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina 1865
Not only is 12-year-old Patsy a slave, but she's also one of the least important slaves, since she stutters and walks with a limp. So when the war ends and she's given her freedom, Patsy is naturally curious and afraid of what her future will hold.

Numbering The Bones
The Civil War is at an end, but for thirteen-year-old Eulinda, it is no time to rejoice. Her younger brother Zeke was sold away, her older brother Neddy joined the Northern war effort,. With the help of Clara Barton, the eventual founder of the Red Cross, Eulinda must find a way to let go of the skeletons from her past.

Kindle Available
Curiosities

Civil War Curiosities: Strange Stories, Oddities, Events, and Coincidences
This work was fascinating to read and was neither over dramatic or under written. The stories were lively and interesting and the additon of old photos and draqwings helped fill out the book.

The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864
Fought in a tangled forest fringing the south bank of the Rapidan River, the Battle of the Wilderness marked the initial engagement in the climactic months of the Civil War in Virginia, and the first encounter between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee
Civil War Almanac
The Civil War Day By Day
An Almanac, 1861-1865

The most exhaustively detailed and fascinating book on the American Civil War of its kind. Not only does it provide a day-by-day look at the major events of the war, but lists so many of the small skirmishes and actions as well. Accurate and enjoyable
Kindle Available
Civil War Medicine

Civil War Medicine
The staggering challenge of treating wounds and disease on both sides of the conflict. Written for general readers and scholars alike, this first-of-its kind encyclopedia will help all Civil War enthusiasts to better understand this amazing medical saga. Clearly organized, authoritative, and readable
Sabine Pass Texas Civil War
Sabine Pass
The Confederacy's Thermopylae

Sabine Pass was the site of one of the most decisive Civil War battles

The Civil War Catalog
More than 200 illustrations and restored photographs, all the weapons, uniforms, and implements of battle. Packed with color photos of insignia, medals, kits, paper ephemera, rare uniforms, and personal equipment for all enlisted ranks.
Kindle Available
Civil War Firearms

Standard Catalog of
Civil War Firearms

Over 700 photographs and a rarity scale for each gun, this comprehensive guide to the thousands of weapons used by Billy Yank and Johnny Reb will be indispensable for historians and collectors.

The Confederacy's Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville
John Bell Hood rallied his demoralized troops and marched them off the Tennessee, desperately hoping to draw Sherman after him and forestall the Confederacy's defeat

Civil War Nurse Barbie
Civil War Nurse Barbie

Part of the American Stories Collection.
Cavalry Sabre
Cavalry Saber
This fine replica is 39 inches overall and features a highly polished 33 inch carbon steel blade. Its leather wrapped handle fits the hand perfectly and sports decorative brass accents and a shiny brass pommel.
Civil War Revolver Pistol
Civil War Model 1851 Naval Pistol
Engraved Silver Tone / Gold Tone Finish and Wooden Grips - Replica of Revolver Used by Both USA / Union and CSA / Confederate Forces
Enfield Rifle
1860 Enfield Civil War Musketoon
This piece is a full-size non-firing reproduction of the rifle used in the Civil War. The body is made of European hardwood
Civil War soldier toys 102 pieces
Civil War Soldier 102 Piece Playset
 
  • 25 Union and 25 Confederate Soldier Figures, 18 Horses, 10 Cannon
  • 2 Covered Wagons, 2 Tents, 2 Canoes, 2 Flags, 16 Fences
  • Size: Figures Stand up to 2-1/8 inches tall
  • Scale: 1/32nd, Wagons and Horses slightly smaller
 
Nation Divided
History Channel
Civil War A Nation Divided

Rally the troops and organize a counterattack -- Your strategic decision and talent as a commander will decide if the Union is preserved or if Dixie wins its independence
Sid Meiers
Sid Meier's Civil War Collection
Take command of either Confederate or Union troops and command them to attack from the trees, rally around the general, or do any number of other realistic military actions. The AI reacts to your commands as if it was a real Civil War general, and offers infinite replayability. The random-scenario generator provides endless variations on the battles
video game
Campaign Gettysburg:
Civil War Battles

Campaign Gettysburg is simply the best of all the HPS Civil War games. While all of those are very good in their own right they simply do not compete with the level of detail presented here.
Hundreds of scenarios and multiple OOBs are only the start, the best thing is the campaign game

National Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
97 Taneytown Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325


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