Odd Medical Facts About The Civil War

Civil War MedicineIt has been one hundred and fifty years since the American Civil War (1861-1865) began.  Over 500,000 Americans died during the conflict between the Union and the Confederates.  In the end, slavery had ended in America, a President had been killed, and medicine finally emerged from the Dark Ages.  Medicine during the Civil War was, at best, sub-standard, at worst, magical superstition.  People believed some of the strangest things when it came to healing others. Here are five oddities that happened during the Civil War.




myfivebest -1This Is Going To Hurt A Bit…
Physical care was pretty archaic during the Civil War.  While 500,000+ people died during the war, only one-third of these deaths were from combat.  The rest of the deaths occurred through disease!  We don’t like to think of our great-grandparents (ok, maybe great, great, GREAT grandparents) like this, but the majority of the disease problems were actually due to sexually transmitted diseases.  In fact, there were over 180,000 cases of STDs amongst our soldiers.  When you consider that most of them were under the age of twenty years old, you can understand why: Lots of anger and hormones going on.


myfivebest - 2Battlefield Wounds
Seventy per cent of soldier who were wounded or killed in combat during the war were hit by infantry small arms fire.  An additional 10% were wounded or killed by artillery fire, which is a number that I thought would be much higher.  The remaining 20% were casualties of Civil-war era (of course) cavalry swords, sabers, pistols, shotguns, bayonets, Greek fire, hand grenades, and land mines.  Yes, you read the last two weapons correctly.  Hand grenades and land mines.  The bullets used during the Civil War were known as “Minié Balls.”  They were made of soft lead and about an inch long.  They got their name from a French captain that came up with the concept.  These bullets ripped up and crushed everything they came in contact with.  The reason there were so many amputations was because there was never anything a doctor could do to heal the injured and dying.  It was amputate or die.


myfivebest - 3Looking At The World Through Rose Colored Glasses
People had some very peculiar ideas about medicine.  This was probably the strangest of Civil War era beliefs.  It was assumed that if you wore glasses with a different colored lens, you could cure diseases and illnesses. Yellow-trimmed glasses were used to treat syphilis, blue for insanity, and pink for depression. Thus we get the term, “To see the world through rose-colored glasses“.  My personal opinion was that it was just a way to identify people with disorders – especially, the syphilis.  Before you completely discredit this way of treating people, try looking up Color Therapy online.  Some doctors feel there might still be some merit in this form of medicine!


myfivebest - 4A General Belief
My grandfather used to follow some wacky medical beliefs, so I sort of understand this.  He’d always be on a “water diet” or a “cabbage diet” or changing his life style to cut down his cholesterol.  During the Civil War, southern general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson walked around with his right hand in the air to balance the blood in his body? Because he was right-handed, he thought that his right hand was getting more blood than his left, and so by raising his hand, he’d allow the excess blood to run into his left hand. He also never ate food that tasted good, because he assumed that anything that tasted good was completely unhealthy.


Time In The Field
During the Civil War, the number of surgeons to care for the wounded was very small.  Most people who were caring for the troops weren’t actually doctors at all!  The majority had been assistants to doctors before the war.  To give you an example, during the Peninsular campaign of 1862, over 5000 men were wounded, yet there was only one doctor and seven assistants to treat them!  The chances of survival from battlefield wounds wasn’t that great either.  For every seven men wounded on the battlefield, it was expected that only one would live.  Compare that to the Korean War where only man died out of every 50 men wounded.  Things got better though.  The doctors started to get more ambulances and during the Battle of Gettysburg medical treatment got to be faster.  In fact, the Northern medical director during the battle claimed that all the wounded were picked up from the field within 12 hours after the battle was over.  This was a far cry from the second battle of Bull Run, when many of the wounded were left on the field in the rain, heat, and sun for three or four days!


Here are some books to read to delve farther into this subject: