Medical Challenges of the Civil War

Confederate and Union armies both experienced many, many injuries and casualties of their soldiers during the Civil War.  Medical supplies were minimal and medical advancements were slow.  However, medical personnel learned many things during the Civil War and new techniques emerged throughout the years during the Civil War.

Following individual battles of the Civil War, medical personnel were greatly challenged with the huge numbers of injured soldiers.  Knowledge concerning sanitation and hygiene was not commonplace prior to the Civil War.  Doctors reportedly used the same medical instruments on multiple patients and would simply wipe the instruments off with a towel between procedures, such as amputations.  Doctors, also, did not yet recognize the importance of washing their hands between patients.  Due to this lack of sanitation, diseases and infections spread rapidly among soldiers.  During the early years of the Civil War, medical personnel learned to improve their sanitation standards in order to slow down the spread of diseases and infections.

Another issue that became increasingly apparent throughout the Civil War was the need for immediate attention to patients following injuries sustained during battles.  Many soldiers died on the battlefields, not just from injuries they received during battle, but instead died slowly afterward because they did not receive quick medical attention.  They could have died from bleeding, starvation, or a subsequent attack in the same location.  As the war proceeded, medical personnel attempted to get injured soldiers off the battlefields as quickly as they could.  The Union army even began to use “ambulances”, which was really just wagons pulled by horses.  This was a move in a positive direction as it allowed wounded soldiers the chance to get medical help more quickly than before, which could have been a difference between life and death.

 One of the most common surgeries during the Civil War was amputations.  Many, many soldiers acquired shattered limbs from guns or muskets, and the best way to save their lives was to amputate the injured area.  Throughout the war years, doctors became more proficient at performing amputations.  They learned to perform the procedure as quickly as possible in order to prevent the patient from having an extended, painful time.  Some amputations were completed in just a few minutes.  They also learned to amputate as far away from the patients’ heart as possible and to not cut the limb through joints.  All of these practices gave the patient a chance at the best outcome possible.

Although many of the medical techniques seem archaic to us today, at the time of the Civil War, the military doctors did the best they could in order to help the huge number of injured soldiers they had to care for.  The amount of people injured in the Civil War was unprecedented and doctors scrambled to do what they could for the injured soldiers.