To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds

Medicine During the Civil War

      minie ball was conoidal in shape and
       weighed about an ounce. Its speed and accuracy produced horrible wounds.
      round ball was slower and less accurate than the minie ball, but it still
      produced great damage. Shrapnel, ordnance, and cannonballs also caused
      injuries. The spring of 1861 saw the opening shots of the Civil War fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Years of disagreement between the Northern and Southern states over the issues of state's rights, slavery, and the cultural differences dividing industrial and agrarian economies culminated in war. From 1861 until 1865, Union and Confederate armies and navies drew weapons in hundreds of battles from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. Nearly 200,000 men lost their lives from enemy fire during the four years of the war. However, more than 400,000 soldiers were killed by an enemy that took no side-disease.

   Army surgeons were issued
      surgical kits. This kit contains the instruments needed to perform a
      variety of
      surgical procedures. Tiemann and Company, New York,  circa. 1864 (M-129
      00072). From our modern perspective, medicine during the Civil War seems primitive. Doctors received limited medical education. Most surgeons lacked familiarity with gunshot wounds. The newly-developed minie ball produced grisly wounds that were difficult to treat. The Northern and Southern medical departments were ill-prepared for removing wounded men from the battlefield and transporting them to hospitals. Systems to provide hospital care for the sick and wounded had not been developed. Blood typing, X-rays, antibiotics, and modern medical tests and procedures were nonexistent.

Open latrines, decomposing food, and unclean water were the rule in the camps. Diarrheal diseases affected nearly every soldier and killed hundreds of thousands of men. Although surgeons used ether and chloroform routinely as anesthetics, surgery was performed with unwashed hands and unclean instruments, resulting in infected wounds. The most effective drugs were the pain-killers opium and morphine, while many of the other available drugs were useless or harmful. Despite these limitations, Civil War doctors achieved some remarkable successes in treating the wounded and comforting the sick.

The staff of the Army Medical Museum, the predecessor of this museum, measured the effectiveness of the Union medical response. Founded in 1862 by Surgeon General William Hammond of the Union Army, the Army Medical Museum was a clearinghouse for medical information collected from Union surgeons. After the war, the staff of the museum collected information on Union and Confederate medical care and patient information. This collecting program culminated in the publication of the "Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion." These volumes provided information on the state of medicine and documented the medical histories of tens of thousands of sick and injured soldiers. Our collection of pathological specimens, medical artifacts, and medical illustrations and photographs comprise an incomparable resource for the study of Civil War medicine.