5 Myths About Civil War Medicine

Eight years ago the words “Civil War Medicine” sent me running the opposite direction. Those books weren’t touched with a 3 foot pole, and doctors at re-enactments were avoided like the plague. (I’m so glad I’ve been enlightened!)

Civil War Hospital Flag (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park, 2015)

Civil War Hospital Flag (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park, 2015)

Why am I telling you this? Because I have a pretty good guess that this topic might not be “interesting” to you. And I’d like to change your mind.

In the last two weeks, we’ve learned that one of the Gettysburg civilians’ main roles during the battle was taking care of the wounded, and we’ve learned how the injured soldiers arrived at the field hospital in the parlor. Today, I’m going to discuss five myths surrounding Civil War medicine that I’ve heard or addressed during the last few years while doing presentations on the subject.

1. There Was No Painkiller (Other Than Whiskey)


Real anesthetics – primarily chloroform and ether – were used routinely during surgical operations. However, doctors were not precisely certain when unconsciousness became death, therefore they only gave enough anesthetic so the patient would’t feel the pain; often times the soldier was semi-awake and might struggle if he didn’t want the operation.

In all the medical books I’ve read (no, I don’t need that 3 foot pole anymore; I actually buy the books by myself, horror!) I’ve never seen any references to “bite on this bullet while I cut off your arm.” Other historians’ findings agree with this.

After the surgery, if the supplies were available, there were other painkillers with names like laudanum or morphine. The former was usually administered orally, but morphine was often put directly in/on the wound. The scary thing: these medicines were highly addictive and some soldiers suffered the consequences for the rest of their lives. Safer herbal remedy were sometimes used when “traditional” supplies were not available, particularly in the South.

Civil War Minie Balls (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

Civil War Minie Balls (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

2. Amputation Was The Only Choice


Many people have this idea that every wounded soldier landing on an operating table was going to have an amputation. (I’m reminded of my brother’s “helpful” comment: what do you do for a head injury?) Most of the surgeons actually performing operations were highly skilled. They would evaluate a patient’s injuries and make a decision from there.

Now, it must be admitted that most field hospital surgeries were amputations. Why? Because the weaponry had changed. During the Civil War, the troops were using rifles and Minie Balls – those bullet would come out of the rifle spinning at a high velocity and when they hit bone, that bone was shattered beyond repair.

Perhaps you’re thinking: I’ll revise my myth – all injuries to limbs resulted in amputation. Again, FALSE. At Gettysburg, there were injuries from falling off rocks or tripping on uneven ground; those soldiers’ limbs got splinted, not amputated.

3. A Soldier Was Most Likely To Die From A Battlefield Injury


More soldiers died of disease during the Civil War than from bullets. Dysentery and malaria were the top culprits, followed by typhoid, measles, and other a host of other illnesses.

While doctors lectured the troops about keep the drinking water clean (I’m leaving that to your imagination; no details today), they had no idea what really caused illness. In fact, the illness Malaria comes from “Mal – Air” or “bad air.” Huh?

The medical field was still in the dark ages during the Civil War. Way back in Ancient Greece, Aristotle had theorized that humans got sick because A) there was bad air or B) something was out of balance in the body. Thus, the cures were get away from the bad air…or bleed, blister, or purge the body to get the fluids back in balance. This is what the Civil War doctors believed and were practicing.

Ugh – you might be thinking you’d like to be the “lucky” soldier who gets a bullet wound, especially since there’s primitive anesthetic? Well, read on to the next myth…

4. Doctors Were Careful Not To Pass Germs From Patient To Patient


Civil War Surgical Instruments (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

Civil War Surgical Instruments (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

Civil War doctors had no idea what germs were. Remember, according to their knowledge, people get sick because of bad air or improperly balanced body fluids.

While they did have an idea that wounds must be keep clean (sort of), they’d use the same sponge on multiple patients, pile on the unsterilized bandages, and give medicine from the same unwashed spoon. Surgical operating procedures were worse; the operating table wasn’t cleansed, the instruments were wiped hastily on already used cloth, and hands weren’t washed.

Often, the wounded soldier had a good chance of surviving an operation, but then he faced a new enemy: infection. Infection came in many disgusting forms in a hospital, and many soldiers who originally seemed to be recovering died from its effects. (I’ll spare you the details.)

Union Surgeon's Coat (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

Union Surgeon’s Coat (Photo by Miss Sarah, Prado Park 2015)

5. Doctors Were Unkind


At an initial glance from a Civil War soldier or a modern day historian, the doctors do look like butchers. But, digging deeper into primary sources by soldiers and doctors, reveals that these surgeons and other medical personnel had compassion and were doing the best they could in terrible situations. Of course amputating a limb or probing for a bullet was horribly disgusting, but these surgeons were doing the best they could to save their patient’s life. Sure, if you look hard enough, you’ll find an example of a terrible army surgeon, but the vast majority I’ve read about were strong, dedicated men.

The Union army left only 106 doctors in the Gettysburg area to care for approximately 21,000 men. Those doctors worked to the point of exhaustion. Some died after weeks of fighting to safe lives.

In the decades after the war, some doctors saw the advancement in the medical field and greatly regretted their limited knowledge during the Civil War. But, still, they did the best they could, and I believe they deserve a better legacy and more honor than they typically receive in general history books and popular perspective.


Well, I hope our myth-busting has been enlightening and not too graphic. I’m sure you’ll appreciate our modern medical skills, medicines, and facilities a little more. But, mostly, I hope you’ll have a new appreciation for the soldiers who were injured fighting for the heritage of our country and a greater respect for the surgeons who tried to heal them.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Which topic was most surprising to you? Any un-answered questions? I’d be happy to chat in the comments.


8 thoughts on “5 Myths About Civil War Medicine

  1. Informative and interesting. It is was always my belief that doctors were careful about spreading germs but of they did not know of the concept, then what can I say?

    • Glad to hear there was some new information for you! Thanks for commenting.
      Germs are such an interesting subject in CW medicine. The doctors didn’t know about them yet, but they were definitely starting to recognize that some “ailments” spread mysteriously and must be “contained”. For example, in the large base hospitals they purposely keep patients suffering gangrene away from the other injured men, trying to reduce disease spread. So the doctors were certainly starting to notice patterns which would make perfect sense after the discovery of the nasty micro-organisms in the 1880’s.

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