Death and Injury on the Civil War Battlefield Part 2

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Continuing from the post Death and Injury on the Battlefield Part I here, this post deals with battlefield injuries.

Civil War Wounded on Field

Civil War Wounded on Field

Confederate Wounded at Smith’s Barn with Dr Anson Hurd 14th Indiana Volunteers in Attendance after the Battle of Antietam – Near Keedysville, MD, September 1862

Those who were injured on the battlefield first had to either remove themselves or hope they would be helped to a field hospital, usually a tent, house, barn or shed marked by a red flag and located as close to the line of battle as possible.[i] There they might find a surgeon and one assistant surgeon, although there was only one of each per regiment. Getting the large number of wounded to the field hospital was challenging. “Three days after the second battle of Manassas, in August 1862, 3,000 men still lay where they had fallen. The first casualties were not moved until September 9th.”[ii] It wasn’t until after the Battle of Antietam that the Union Army established an ambulance corps for removing the wounded from the field.[iii]

If shot by a Minie ball, a soft lead bullet fired from a rifle musket, a soldier’s wound was likely to be large because these .58 [caliber] bullets would deform and tunnel on impact.[iv] “Dr. E. I. Howard of the Army of Northern Virginia described the effects of Minie Ball on bone: ‘… wounds of bony structure inflicted by this missile are characterized by extensive fissuring and comminution such as was rarely, if ever, seen when the old smooth Bore musket was the weapon of the soldier.”[v] Amputation was the rule for gunshot or shrapnel wounds that involved major blood vessels or large bones. “Roughly 50,000 amputations were performed by both sides during the Civil War, compared to around 4,000 in the First World War.”[vi] Men shot or severely injured in the abdomen or chest wounds almost always died and so were rarely treated.

Amputation by Civil War Doctors

Cropped image of Amputation Being Performed in a Hospital Tent – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863. LOC.

Erysipelas, pyaemia (clots in the veins) septicemia and hospital gangrene were the four major hospital diseases. Erysipelas, or St Anthony’s Fire, was a common problem. This was several years before Lister’s discovery of germ theory. Surgeons operated in unsanitary and unsterile conditions. The lower incidence of wound suppuration in destitute Confederate hospitals has been attributed to the fact that they closed wounds with horse-tail hair which was first boiled, whereas the Northern Army used surgical silk which, although a better product, was not sterile.[vii]

Those who worked in military hospitals did so at great personal risk. Many of them contracted diseases themselves and perished. Common in the literature is record of the absolute despair that existed there. This would, no doubt, make for a great story in and of itself at some point in the future.

Further reading:

  • For more on weapons carried during the American Civil War, see the previous post Civil War Weapons Carried by Soldiers here.
  • For good coverage of how amputations were performed during the Civil War, click here.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Penny Johnston, “A Healing History of North and South,” History Today, January 1997 [database on-line]; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000399106; Internet; accessed 29 September 2007. [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid.

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Staff Ride Guide – Battle of Antietam

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Informative read about the Battle of Antietam prepared as a “Staff Ride Guide” by Ted Ballard, CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY, UNITED STATES ARMY. This assisted, among other things, with my understanding of artillery and particularly how units were organized who supported the guns. Interesting factoids from page 83 -84 (note this entire book is available online by clicking on the book image above):

“The artillery of both armies was generally organized into batteries of four or six guns. Regulations prescribed a captain as battery commander, while lieutenants commanded two-gun “sections.” Each gun made up a platoon, under a sergeant (“chief of the piece”) with eight crewmen and six drivers.

For transport, each gun was attached to a two-wheeled cart, known as a limber and drawn by a six-horse team. The limber chest carried thirty to fifty rounds of ammunition, depending on the size of guns in the battery. In addition to the limbers, each gun had at least one caisson, also drawn by a six-horse team. The caisson carried additional ammunition in two chests, as well as a spare wheel and tools. A horse-drawn forge and a battery wagon with tools accompanied each battery. A battery at full regulation strength included all officers, noncommissioned officers, buglers, drivers, cannoneers, and other specialized functions and might exceed 100 officers and men. With spare horses included, a typical six-gun battery might have 100-150 horses.

A battery could unlimber and fire an initial volley in about one minute, and each gun could continue firing two aimed shots a minute. A battery could “limber up” in about one minute as well. The battery practiced “direct fire”: the target was in view of the gun. The prescribed distance between guns was fourteen yards from hub to hub. Therefore, a six-gun battery would represent a front of about 100 yards. Depth of the battery position from the gun muzzle, passing the limber, to the rear of the caisson was prescribed as forty-seven yards. In practice, these measurements might be altered by terrain.”

Posted via web from Rene Tyree’s Lifestream

American Civil War Artillery Demonstration, Antietam National Park

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Excellent demonstration of how a gun crew handled artillery during the American Civil War can be seen below.

Antietam Artillery Demonstration

Antietam Artillery Demonstration

Ranger Mannie Gentile has become an excellent film maker. His blog, My year of living Rangerously, remains one of my favorites.

Posted via web from Rene Tyree’s Lifestream

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