Museum chronicles the grim aftermath of Civil War battles

August 13, 1999

FREDERICK, Md. - Novelist E.L. Doctorow once depicted a turn-of-the-century, New York City street scene notable, and probably historically accurate, for the sidewalks that were clustered with rows of aging, tattered Civil War veterans, all clutching tin cups begging for coins - and all missing a limb or two.

Historians say a half million men dragged themselves home from the war with "permanent disabilities," meaning in most cases amputations. That's the equivalent of Camden Yards filled to capacity 10 times over.

In 1866, the year after the war ended, one-fifth of the entire Mississippi state budget was spent on artificial limbs. Special "orthopedic hospitals" were built throughout the land solely to treat men deformed in the war.

The National Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick begins with the premise that the much maligned Civil War surgeons "were not butchers." Perhaps there is another word for someone who removes limbs at a rate of one every eight minutes and stacks them alongside the tent like cord wood, but one isn't brought to mind in the ensuing displays.


Skilled, the surgeons may have been. But in the typical Civil War field hospital there was little time for creativity. Knowledgeable, yes, but limited by the times. In that day even the brightest surgeon in the land had little inkling that cleanliness mattered beyond swiping a bloody knife back and forth across a blood-matted apron.

An ocean away those nutty quacks Pasteur and Listor were dabbling in antiseptic surgery and the notion germs, but none of that reached the battlefields, where screaming men were dragged one after the other in efficient, macabre dessebly lines onto wooden surgical tables soaked with the blood from the last victim.

The Frederick museum located just behind Harry Grove Stadium is in an incubator stage, awaiting a downtown home funded by $1 million grants from both the Delaplaine family and the Maryland Historic Trust. With museums in the news this week - the Washington County Commissioners joined the city in funding study for a possible Smithsonian-affiliated Civil War museum here - it seemed an opportune time to visit.

Visitors may not yet be knocked over by the number of exhibits, but the story is certainly compelling. As museum staff members say, so much energy and attention have been given to schematic battlefield moves and interpretations, the medical side is often lost.

In truth, the injuries were broken down into two basic varieties. Those who had been struck in the abdomen or chest by the heavy, slow and destructive minieballs were laid aside with the sincere and charitable wish that death would occur as soon as possible. Before loading their rifles, soldiers ripped the bullet out of the paper powder pack with their teeth - effectively although unwittingly contaminating the projectile with any manner of bacteria. If a body blow didn't kill you, an insuing infection likely would finish the job.

Those struck in the extremities were entitled to the most common Civil War surgical treatment: Amputation. Three of every four operations involved the lopping of a limb. The museum provides a nice little how-to on amputations, if the need should ever arise.

It's of some limited comfort to know that the stereotype of a man biting a bullet, face grossly distorted by pain as his bone is sawed in half, is something of a myth. Bullets were too easy to lodge themselves in the windpipe; and injured soldiers were generally knocked out with ether before the surgeon would ring the arm or leg with a knife and roll back the skin and then the muscle, not unlike rolling up a sleeve, before sawing through the bone.

Then arteries were closed, the flesh was unrolled and sewed leaving the man to be carried off and the surgeon to holler "Next!"

The full impact of the National Medical Museum won't be realized until it can spread out in its new digs in a more convenient and visible location. Right now its visitor rolls indicate it's only attracting a handful of people a day. But the people come from Michigan, New Jersey, Ottawa, Iowa, Arizona - all over. Most indicate they're on vacation and have made the effort to seek the museum out.

Washington County Commissioners Bert Iseminger and Bill Wivell - who voted against the local museum project this week, probably would see nothing in Frederick to change their minds. Neither, probably, are they the sort who return those teasers suggesting you may already have won $10 million, because the slim chances aren't worth the postage.

Fair enough. I don't know of anyone, myself included, who is thoroughly convinced Wall Street profiteers will hang their capitalization hats on a museum.

But that said, Commissioners Greg Snook, John Schnebly and Paul Swartz were right to join the city in studying the project. Museums that can properly tell a story, as Frederick's National Civil War Medical Museum does, can be fascinating things. And people will come from across the country to check them out.

There's a chance, however long the odds, that the Antietam Coalition's museum could work. In a day when Commissioners find ways to spend more than $100 million a year; when there's a possibility a Smithsonian Civil War collection could land here, and when downtown could potentially be turned around in one dramatic swoop, it's worth a $37,500 stamp to find out.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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