Civil War Medicine

When the Civil War started in the United States in the 1860s, doctors were not prepared to deal with the devastating injuries and illnesses that occurred.

In our country at that time, most doctors did not own a stethoscope, and many had never treated a gun shot wound.  Doctors at that time attended medical school for only two years.  There was no knowledge of germ theory, sterile dressings, or the importance of sanitation such as hand-washing.

In the Civil War, the biggest cause of death was not battle, it was disease.  For every soldier who died on the battlefield, two died of diseases such as dysentery, measles, small pox, malaria, or pneumonia.

Troops were crowded together in muddy, filthy camps where mosquitos bred and spread malaria, and there was a lack of healthy food and clean water for the troops.

At the time of the Civil War, diarrhea was treated with opium.  Constipation was treated with something called “blue mass”, a mixture of mercury and chalk.

Pneumonia was also treated with opium.  They did have quinine for malaria, but sometimes used turpentine if they ran out.  Whiskey was often used as pain control.

Surgeries such as amputations were performed in settings such as houses, schools or even barns, using chloroform as the anesthetic.  Of all patients who had to undergo amputations, 75% did not survive.

Over 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War.  One in four soldiers who went to battle never returned home.

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