Medical Practices of the Civil War The medical practices used during the Civil War era were not very advanced and took a big toll on the war itself. Many of the soldiers, both Union and Confederate, returned home with missing body parts, were shell shocked, or were psychologically traumatized. These medical practices during this time did not do much to help the lives of the soldiers other than doing the bare minimum to keep them alive, which in many cases, resulted in infection and disease.
All of this consequented in the soldiers being affected both mentally and physically, as well as the lives of a tremendous amount of men were ruined. Many of the field surgeons during the Civil War had little experience and knowledge. This is as a result of the demand of medical personnel in the battle field. According to historian Bryan Bock, “Many schools were all over during the Civil War period. Most of these were just diploma factories, providing very little real training” (Medical Technology).
In fact, many of the medical personnel were only required to complete a short term of study in their area. Additionally, Bock explains, “The good medical schools were established in colleges, i. e. Princeton, Yale, etc. These schools’ programs were only 1 year programs, although 2 years was recommended. ” (Medical Technology) This also caused physicians to be uneducated about a wide range of bacterial infections and disease. Another contribution to unnecessary soldier fatalities was the poor medical treatment given to soldiers by Civil War doctors.
One situation explained by Bock – “After and operation, they thought it good if pus formed. They called it ‘laudable pus,’ when really the pus was a sign of massive bacterial infection that could eventually kill the soldier” (Medical Technology) -and many others alike made for very traumatic experiences for soldiers. In most instances, when an injured soldier had just returned from battle, surgery was the only option. Expert Bryan Bock also has insight on this situation: “Amputation was the most common surgery performed during the
Civil War. 3 out of 4 operations were amputations” (Amputations), as well as the quickest. According to another historian, Ira Rutkow, “Even more grim was the fact that bone exsection or resection, the formal name of Fisk’s operation, was a technically demanding feat and more difficult to perform than a straight forward amputation. As a result, exsection carried an extraordinary risk of infection, tissue neceisis, blood poisoning, hemmoege and death,” which Rutkow stated in Bleeding Blue and Gray (150-151).
Another factual statement by Gordon E. Damman was “Civil War surgeons knew that if amputation was necessary, it had to be done within 48 hours, and the sooner the procedure was performed, the better the likely outcome”(Images of Civil War: A Photographic History 175). These practices were most widely used due to the risk factor and time expense that experimentation of other methods would have taken. This also could not be done because, at the time, there was very little know about the human anatomy.
Therefore, the different methods would have created a risky and timely business, which would have been far beyond possible with the amount of injured soldiers anticipating their need for medical attention. “It was also believed that the need for early amputation in the pre-antibiotic Civil War era outweighed the risk of not performing an amputation” (Bleeding Blue and Gray 239). This explains that there could be a possible negative outcome with that kind of trial. The most influential part of the medical practices during the Civil War would have to be the way many of the soldiers had been changed.
This deals with the psychological state that soldiers were in due to the medical treatment given to each. Amputation was one of the most traumatic of the medical procedures that soldiers underwent. After amputation, a great deal of the soldiers believed that their lives had already been ruined and returned to the battle field. “Though the primary amputation is a violence, it is one the patient is likely to submit to without resignation, knowing that it is performed to remove parts, which if removed, will destroy life” (Bleeding Blue and Gray 219).
These soldiers most likely faced their deaths in this psychological state. Another way in which soldiers had been traumatized was in the anticipation of surgery. Many of these soldiers could not stand the images of others undergoing surgery before them, knowing that they would be next to go. A lot of men were driven mad by these images that were so easily burned into their minds for life. Surgery was also very unsanitary during this time. As a Civil War prospective, “in the Civil War, weapons technology overtook medical technology” (The Americans 355).
Often tools had been used repeatedly with little cleansing. “As the effects of bacteria were not yet known, surgeons never sterilized instruments, making infection one of the soldiers’ worst enemies” (The Americans 355). A seen, this kind of negligence allowed for increased probability of infection taking over the bodies of many of the patients. This would be due to the little time that field surgeons had in between each procedure. This may be seen in Brave Men in Desperate Times by John McKay, as it states “Those needing surgical intervention were rapidly moved to the operating theater, where the ore experienced surgeons would quickly apply anesthetics before wiping their often reused, seldom cleaned amputation knife once or twice across their apron before diving into their grisly work”(147). Also relevant to the unsanitary preparation of these operations, it was stated in the Amputations web article, “He usually had a rag soaked with chloroform, which was liberally doused. Today it is recognized as a dangerous procedure,” which made it easier for bacteria to settle in materials and risk the cause infection.
Another yet relevant fact is that “The most dangerous infection, known as ‘hospital gangrene,’ could be treated only by doing a further amputation of the affected limb and had an extremely high mortality rate” ( Brave Men in Desperate Times 149). In modern day, this kind of negligence would be considered unsanitary in almost every way possible, causing a buildup of bacteria and disease. In most instances, the surgeons thought they were helping the injured soldiers, but in essence they were really taking them close to their own deaths with such things as infection and disease.
In response and to help make these situations better for the soldiers and medical personnel, “the federal government set up the United States Sanitary Commission” (The Americans 355). This helped keep the field hospitals as clean as possible. The set many standards for these hospitals and tried to provide more help to the military aid. This can be seen in The Americans as it states “Its task was twofold: to improve the hygienic conditions of army camps and to recruit and train nurses”(355).
This commissions also did many other things as to get their soldiers as far away from the battle field as soon as possible in some situations, as the commission “developed hospital trains and hospital ships to transport wounded form the battle field” (The Americans 355). This commission proved to have an exemplary positive outcome. This is most definitely the one thing that had a dramatic change in the way that medical practices were organized on the battle field today. The medical practices during the Civil War were one of the biggest enemies of the war itself.
The medical personnel enrolled into the battlefield medical aid were very untrained and uneducated. These places also proved to be a very unsanitary environment for the soldiers and had a big toll on the war as well. Also, away from the war was not the best environment for the soldiers either, as many of them were psychologically traumatized by the images of amputation needed in many of cases for these soldiers’ injuries. All of this can very possibly conclude the possible cause of the high casualty rate that the war had.