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