Re-enactment includes 'amputation'

August 08, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - A re-enactment of a Civil War skirmish left three Union soldiers and one Confederate soldier "dead," and two Confederates "wounded" Saturday at the Tayamentasachta Environmental Center.

One of the wounded, William Howard of Waynesboro, Pa., was taken to the Antietam-Sharpsburg Army Hospital, which was little more than a tent, a wooden operating table covered by a red-stained sheet and an array of medical tools. A pile of amputated "limbs" lay near the operating table.

Held on the Walnut Plantation at the center, the re-enactments were part of the weeklong Old Home Week celebration.

George King of Waynesboro used a funnel to administer chloroform to render the patient unconscious, then the "doctor," Peter Vandervegt of Clarksburg, Md., removed the "bullet" with forceps. He determined that the bone was shattered and the leg would have to be amputated.


Vandervegt explained his actions to several observers.

"I'm doing a common circular amputation, which was used at the beginning of the Civil War. But they discovered that the skin shrunk, so later in the war the flap cut was used," he said while "sawing" the bone. He and King wiped the tools on their aprons.

Alum was used to cauterize the small blood vessels, King said, and opium powder for was used for localized pain killing. He applied both to Howard's leg.

Near the end of the operation, Vandervegt asked King, "Is he still with us?"

King checked Howard's pulse, and determined that he was still alive.

"I didn't sew the end of the stump closed," Vandervegt said. "A surgeon would finish the job later at a general hospital."

Either at the hospital or during transport, disease and infection often set in and killed the patient, King said. An injured soldier had a 12 percent to 15 percent chance of surviving a leg amputation.

Arm and leg wounds had priority over head and chest wounds at that time, King said.

"There was not much knowledge or time to deal with head and chest wounds in a field hospital," King said. Those cases were set aside and tended to later if they were still alive.

Field doctors could perform an amputation in 15 minutes or less, Vandervegt said.

"By the end of the war, it was down to about seven minutes," he said.

King said he started researching Civil War-era medicine seven years ago and now gives talks at Gettysburg (Pa.) National Military Park and at schools and camps.

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