The work of the doctors, on the battlefield and off, during the Civil War is hardly known. A few can recognize the term “biting the bullet.” In a sense this statement is true (patients, when being treated, would be given to bite on as their wounds were treated or limbs amputated without anesthesia) as the Battle of  Iuka, Mississippi, had 254 soldiers operated on without anesthesia, but fortunately anesthesia was introduced in 1846 allowing many surgeries to happen with the patient experiencing little-to-no pain. During the Civil War alone, over 30,000 limbs were amputated just on the Union side and it’s estimated close to the same amount on the Confederate side.

As wounded soldiers kept appearing, amputations kept happening. Many blamed the surgeons for unnecessary amputations, but the fact of the matter is that without needed amputation, infection would occur. One of the well known infections was gangrene. This happened when bone was exposed outside the skin– and almost always resulted in infection of the marrow which could spread into the bloodstream and kill the patient. These types of wounds were usually caused by artillery fire and usually needed treatment right away.

Excision was a type of treatment used on artillery wounds and would prevent the need for amputation. However, the result ended with a shorter leg or arm as the damaged bone would have to be removed creating a gap in the limb. Excisions were done less and less as the years went by because it’s easier to walk on a prosthetic leg that one with the bone removed.

Many of the doctors during the Civil War were labeled “sawbones”, as they usually amputated the bone with a saw, or “butchers”. Yet, many improvements within the field of medicine occurred throughout the Civil War they go unnoticed and many myths were created. The myth that there was absolutely no anesthesia was due to the fact that the soldiers being treated could still see the surgery happening, but even as they felt no pain they let out horrific cries that passerby’s often thought it was due to the pain.


The following is an account from Augustus Brown, captain in the 4th New York Heavy Artillery:


        Tuesday, May 10th [1864]. Heavy cannonading from 8 A.M. to 1 P.M. The Pontoon train has been sent back to Fredericksburg, apparently to get it out of the way, and the army horses are put on half-rations, that is, five pounds of food. Ambulances and army wagons with two tiers of flooring, loaded with wounded and drawn by four and six mule teams, pass along the plank, or rather, corduroy road to Fredericksburg, the teamsters lashing their teams to keep up with the train, and the wounded screaming with pain as the wagons go jolting over the corduroy. Many of the wounds are full of maggots. I saw one man with an arm off at the shoulder, with maggots half an inch long crawling in the sloughing flesh, and several poor fellows were holding stumps of legs and arms straight up in the air so as to ease the pain the rough road and the heartless drivers subjected them to. These men had been suffering in temporary field hospitals, as no opportunity had been afforded to send them to the rear until we got within reach of the road running to Fredericksburg.
And this reminds me of a scene I witnessed a day or two since which seemed to me to cap the climax of the horrors of war. Passing along a little in the rear of the lines when a battle was raging in which in battalion was not engaged, I came upon a field-hospital to which the stretcher-bearers were bringing the men wounded in the conflict. Under three large “tent flies,” the center one the largest of all, stood three heavy wooden tables, around which were grouped a number of surgeons and their assistants, the former bareheaded and clad in long linen dusters reaching nearly to the ground, which ‘were covered with blood from top to bottom and had the arms cut off or rolled to the shoulders. The stretcher-bearers deposited their ghastly freight side by side in a winrow on the ground in front of the table under the first tent fly. Here a number of assistants took charge of the poor fellows, and as some of them lifted a man on to the first table others moved up the winrow so that no time nor space should be lost. Then some of the surgeons administered an anaesthetic to the groaning and writhing patient, exposed his wound and passed him to the center table. There the surgeons who were operating made a hasty examination and determined what was to be done and did it, and more often than not, in a very few moments an arm or a leg or some other portion of the subject’s anatomy was flung out upon a pile of similar fragments behind the hospital, which was then more than six feet wide and three feet high, and what remained of the man was passed on to the third table, where other surgeons finished the bandaging, resuscitated him and posted him off with others in an ambulance. Heaven forbid that I should ever again witness such a sight!

Published in: Uncategorized on December 13, 2011 at10:22 pm Comments (1)

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  1. on December 13, 2011 at 10:22 pmAnonymous Said:


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