Friday, March 30, 2012
The 19th century was the end of the middle ages for the medical sciences as the implications of germ theory were just being explored. However, rusty instruments, amputations without anesthesia and lack of concern for the patient are common misconceptions about battlefield medicine. Undoubtedly, there were incidents of all these horrors, but it is unfair to say this was the standard treatment of the wounded by physicians on either side. Although field surgeons typically had quality instruments, they seldom had the opportunity, facility or training to sterilize them. Due to the scarcity of fresh water, the surgeons sometimes went several days without changing clothes or washing their hands. There were periodic shortages of medicines and supplies due to overwhelming demand, and the proximity to regular hospital care was a continuing problem. It is said that one crowded steamboat full of wounded soldiers was dispatched from Fort Donelson to St. Louis with no physicians or nurses on board.
On the other hand, it is generally accepted that two thirds of the soldiers that perished during the war did so as the result of common diseases that were epidemic in every camp. Deaths from disease were equally divided between the digestive (diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid fever) and the respiratory (tuberculosis and pneumonia) systems. Common contagious diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough were also prevalent because many of the men were from rural areas and had limited exposure during childhood. Infections from insect, snake and other animal bites as well as from minor wounds also took their toll. And finally, deaths at home or in hospitals following treatment of battle wounds were generally under reported. Those men who died from the above and other natural causes are not included in the battlefield casualty reports cited by historians.
As an example of the toll this lack of health care had on the fighting armies, consider the Seventeenth. Of the 692 men mustered into service at Calhoun on January 4th, only 250 were available for duty three months later. Among those no longer present, 19 were listed as battlefield fatalities at Fort Donelson.*
* Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972. Self Published.