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Civil War medicine is focus of presentation at Antietam

September 15, 2007|By DAN DEARTH

A common misconception about the Civil War is that wounded soldiers didn't receive proper anesthesia before they underwent surgery, said Dr. Robert Slawson, an associate of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

Slawson and other Civil War re-enactors gathered Saturday at the Pry House at Antietam National Battlefield as part of this weekend's festivities leading up to Monday's 145th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

The Pry House served as Union commander Gen. George B. McClellan's headquarters and a hospital to treat the wounded.

Slawson said the common anesthetics - ether and chloroform - were used extensively by the Confederate and Union armies during the war so soldiers wouldn't feel pain while they were under the knife.

"They weren't interested in making people suffer without cause," Slawson said. "Hollywood developed bite the bullet."

Civil War medicine was fairly advanced for its time, Slawson said. Although 95 percent of soldiers who suffered abdominal, chest and head wounds died, the overall mortality rate from being wounded only was 17 percent.

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Two-thirds of the roughly 630,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War died of disease, particularly dysentery and diarrhea, Slawson said. Simply treating the drinking water would have decreased casualties significantly, he said.

Unfortunately, Slawson said Civil War medicine wasn't up to speed on the dangers of bacteria.

The cause of the remaining one-third of Civil War deaths can be attributed to battlefield wounds, he said.

If a projectile shattered a limb, doctors often would have to amputate, Slawson said. Such an operation took an experienced doctor about five minutes to perform.

Mark Quattrock, a Civil War re-enactor who performs mock surgeries, said doctors would slice the flesh in a circular fashion above the wound, then use a saw to cut the bone.

Once the tip of the bone was filed off, the doctor would suture the wound, leaving an opening for drainage, Quattrock said.

To help soldiers with amputations readjust, Slawson said the federal government gave Union amputees artificial limbs.

Confederate soldiers weren't as lucky. But in many cases, Southern states provided their soldiers who lost limbs with artificial ones, he said.

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