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Civil War Medicine

By Peter J. D'Onofrio, Ph.D.


January 2008

Generally speaking when you mention medicine during the Civil War period, people think of doctors whacking off arms and legs indiscriminately.

They called the surgeons of the time "butchers" and "sawbones," and other derogatory names. Some learned people, most notably author George Washington Adams in his 1940 article "Confederate Medicine," have said that medicine of the 1860s was considered the "medical middle ages." At least they didn't consider the 1860s the "medical dark ages."

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Doctors who treated the sick and wounded of both sides of this conflict were some of the best-trained physicians, according to the standard of care of the times. We look down upon the medical professionals of the Civil War based on what we expect as care standards of the 21st century. What will the medical professionals 150 years from now call today's doctors?

At present, there are two principle organizations dedicated to studying and preserving the medical and surgical history of the American Civil War. They are the Society of Civil War Surgeons, headquartered in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, located in Frederick, Md. These two organizations are mutually supportive of each other.

There is a growing interest in Civil War medicine as noted by the increasing number of reenactors portraying doctors, stewards and nurses of the War Between the States. Furthermore, every year there are one or two books and numerous articles in a variety of publications that deal with some aspect of the medicine of the period.

Some of the publications written by Society members include, but are certainly not limited to the definitive work on Civil War medicine: Alfred Jay Bollet's Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs; Medical Histories of Confederate Generals and Medical Histories of Union Generals by Jack D. Welsh, M.D.;

Also, Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War by Robert G. Slawson, M.D.; Frank Freemon's annotated bibliography; The Story Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D.; the award winning Tarnished Scalpels: The Court-Martial of Fifty Union Surgeons by Lowry and Welsh; and the soon to be published Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine by Glenna Schroeder-Lein, Ph.D.

The Society of Civil War Surgeons is THE largest international non-profit, educational organization dedicated to the preservation of Civil War era medicine.

With close to 400 members in 40 states and four foreign countries, the Society attempts to educate its members, fellow reenactors, and the general public to the life and times of the medical caregivers during the Civil War. Through reenactments, living histories, articles, conferences, and its quarterly publication, The Journal of Civil War Medicine, the Society accomplishes its goals.

In addition, the Society has worked with or supported the efforts of various preservation groups. Currently, the Society is working with the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association in its attempt to save 16 acres of Camp Letterman in Gettysburg, Pa., from the clutches of Target and S & A Homes.

These developers would not even leave the current Camp Letterman site marker in its present location. They will move it to the back of their property rendering it out of sight, out of mind.

Individual Society members have worked with local organizations to preserve medically related sites, i.e. buildings and fields where hospitals once stood. In addition, a number of members have located the grave sites of Civil War doctors and nurses and have refurbished or had new gravestones erected.

Other members have donated or bequeathed their Civil War medical instruments and books to various libraries and museums so that generations to come may learn of the trials and triumphs of the 1860s medical military professional. Medicine has always been, and will continue to be, an experimental profession. That's why it is called the "Art of Medicine" or the "Practice of Medicine," rather than the "Science of Medicine."

This was also true of the medicine of the Civil War era. There were good and bad doctors; skilled and unskilled; learned and utterly clueless, based on the medical training and standards of care of their time period.

They realized that there were incidents that they could do nothing about, just as today's doctors sometimes find. Some of the procedures and treatments that were used in the 1860s still work in today's modern techno-medico world.

Both the Society of Civil War Surgeons and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine bring to life and light the challenges faced by the doctors and nurses who treated the over 620,00 soldiers who lost their lives and the several million cases of sickness on both sides.

By doing so, we honor those medical professionals, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, for doing what they did best in the most tumultuous of times in the history of our great nation.

For more information on the Society of Civil War Surgeons, visit www.civilwarsurgeons.org or, for the museum, see www.civilwarmed.org.

Peter J. D'Onofrio, Ph.D., joined the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1978 and developed the impression of a regimental surgeon for the unit which disbanded in 1988. He was a founder and is president, chief executive officer and journal editor of the non-profit Society of Civil War Surgeons Inc., He is compiling a bibliography of materials related to Civil War era medicine.

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