Myths of Civil War Medicine

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

One of the things we try to do through the exhibits at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is to dispel some common myths about medical practices during the Civil War.  Probably the most common misconception regards the surgeons as being uneducated butchers who indiscriminately amputated limbs from wounded soldiers.  In fact, though the term “sawbones” does predate the Civil War, it is most strongly associated with Civil War surgeons. 

     The truth is that the surgeons were educated.  The majority of Civil War surgeons attended medical school or trained with an established doctor.  Additionally, they were required to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve as a surgeon in the army.  This is an admission card for a medical class at the University of New York, dated 1850.  Medical students purchased these cards for admissions into the lectures.  Note that it signed by the student, Jacob Ebersole, and the professor, Elisha Bartlett.       The staggering number of amputations performed was not due to incompetence.  That can mostly be blamed on the new rifled musket technology and the Minié ball.  The severe tissue and bone damage done by the Minié ball made it necessary for surgeons to perform amputations.  Repairing the damage was simply not possible at that time, and amputation was the best way to save the life of the wounded soldier. An amputation saw is the instrument which comes to mind for most people when Civil War medicine is mentioned.  This saw has an ebony wood handle with a cross-hatching design which provided a bit more grip.  Notice that the blade of this saw can be replaced.      Another myth which has been reinforced in some old movies, is that many amputations were done without anesthesia.  Patients undergoing amputations were reportedly were given bullets to bite on for the pain, hence the expression, “to bite the bullet.”  I can tell you that is one expression which is not used at my museum!       The truth here is that before the Civil War, the anesthetic qualities of both chloroform and ether were known.  The first surgery using ether as an anesthetic was performed in 1846, well before the start of the Civil War.  The fact is that some form of anesthesia was used in 95% of Civil War surgeries.  This medical tin contained chloroform, and was part of a U.S.A. Medical Department hospital kit from the Civil War.      Another myth is that there were no effective drugs available during the Civil War.  Admittedly, there were some remedies which were ineffective, and others which were downright dangerous.  However, there were many medications available which were quite effective.  Morphine and opium were used in the Civil War, and opiates continue to be used as painkillers.  Civil War soldiers were often successfully vaccinated against smallpox, and we continue to use vaccines to protect us from many diseases.  This medical tin contained quinine, which was (and still is) used to combat malaria.       One more myth is that the Civil War surgeons did not have to deal with the amount of paperwork which is common today.  However, in addition to their other duties, they actually had quite a bit of time-consuming paperwork to complete.  Surgeons had to keep records of the daily sick call, patient rosters from the hospitals, their surgical case notes, lists of the discharged and deceased soldiers, records of the medicines and hospital stores they received, and sometimes even weather data.  They also had to send requisitions for medical supplies, as well as monthly reports to the Surgeon General's Office. This is a “Form for Examining a Recruit” which was filled out by Inspecting Surgeon John H. Mackie on October 16th, 1862.  The subject was a 25-year-old recruit named James Smith from Biddeford, Maine, who listed his occupation as a laborer.  The only area of concern listed is where it is noted that he is missing one upper incisor.  He was approved.   Here is a surgeon’s Morning Report book.  Take a closer look at the line near the bottom which reads, “Put up by Edward R. Squibb, M.D.”  Does that name sound familiar?  If you’ve heard of the pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, you now know one of its founders!      This all makes me wonder if the fellows from the Mythbusters television show would ever tackle any of these myths! Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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