Civil War healing talks dispel myths

January 13, 2003|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

FREDERICK - Historian George Wunderlich helped set the record straight about medical practices during the Civil War with a lecture series on Saturday at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in downtown Frederick.

"Civil War medicine was much more sophisticated and much more humane than we've been led to believe," said Wunderlich, the museum's executive director.

Myth: Civil War soldiers bit bullets to help deal with pain during wartime surgeries.

"It didn't happen," Wunderlich said. "Forensic studies conducted at three dental schools have determined that it is not possible to make an indentation in a bullet without dislocating your jaw or breaking your teeth."


Myth: Most Civil War surgeries were performed without anesthetic.

In fact, 95 percent of all documented surgeries in Union and Confederate general and field hospitals involved the use of chloroform and/or ether, Wunderlich said.

"Civil War surgeons would not have even thought about removing a leg without using chloroform or ether. They usually used a combination of both," he said.

Myth: Women commonly nursed soldiers on battlefields.

"No commander in his right mind would have allowed it. If the men saw a woman get shot it would destroy morale and all control would be lost because the men would be out for blood," Wunderlich said. "Typically, what the women were doing was trying to get off the field."

Women often served as volunteers in homes and churches that doubled as makeshift hospitals during the war, Wunderlich said. And white and black women - free and slave - worked side by side as nurses in Confederate hospitals, he said.

Truth: Serious infection plagued about 80 percent of post-surgery patients during the Civil War.

Since surgeons often used barns as operating rooms due to their size, sanitation was a big issue, Wunderlich said.

"The hospitals, not the doctors, were the problem when it came to surgery," he said. "Barns have horse manure and flies. It's not unthinkable that 80 percent of all operations are going to end up with serious infection."

Truth: Amputation was the most common surgical procedure due to Civil War-era bullets' crushing effect on human bones, Wunderlich said.

Truth: Injured war prisoners were not treated well.

The Confederates didn't have the resources to give quality medical care to Union prisoners, and the Union was "too cheap" to devote much money to Confederate care, Wunderlich said.

Truth: Most churches were used as hospitals following Civil War battles.

In Frederick alone, 26 churches doubled as hospitals, treating more than 10,000 patients after the Battle of Antietam, Wunderlich said.

He also discussed the similarities and differences between Union and Confederate medical practices. He emphasized the Union's role in establishing a triage system starting at the Battle of South Mountain, but said the Confederate Army was the first to use triage on the front lines.

The Union Army of the Potomac had the most organized ambulance services and stretcher corps, but the Confederates were the first to circulate journals with the findings of experimental medical techniques, Wunderlich said.

The Confederates used 80 percent to 90 percent less chloroform than their Union counterparts due to a less wasteful delivery system, he said.

Several people who attended the lecture said they left with a much better understanding of medical practices during the Civil War.

"It was fascinating," said Constance Getzov of Lutherville, Md. "I never knew they had chloroform."

Suzanne Horn and Richard Anderson, both teachers in Baltimore, Md., said they departed the museum more knowledgeable. Horn plans to share her newfound knowledge with her history students, and Anderson said he will teach his science pupils about Civil War medicine.

If you go

What: The National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

When: Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: 48 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.

For more information, call 301-695-1864.

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