Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Civil War Medicine / Part # 1

National Museum of Civil War Medicine
Frederick, Maryland / Part # 1
Museum Building / Frederick, MD
The dawn of the approaching Civil War would bring battlefield causalities never before seen on American soil. The last major conflict had been the War of 1812, a war that ended in a stalemate and the loss of 20,000 American lives.  The American Civil war would generate the loss of over 600,000 lives in a short four-year span.  The weapon technology had advanced a great deal but the tactics remained basically unchanged.  Increased accuracy of rifles and artillery devastated long lines of men marching in the military tradition of long straight rows over open and exposed terrain.  Horrific casualty statistics on the battlefield would accumulate quickly, but as in every war that had occurred before, more would die of disease and infection in the calm of camp.  The resulting catastrophe would eventually change the field of medical science forever.  The shear volume of people effected would give birth to new procedures and practices that would bring about an end to the Medical Dark Ages.
Market Street / Frederick, MD
The story of medical evolution during the Civil War is well documented at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine located in historic Frederick, Maryland.  The town was beautiful with many tree-lined streets and colonial era townhouses that helped create a historic atmosphere.  I was once again on a bus trip with my educational colleagues, retracing the violent steps of the tragic saga of the American Civil War.  Today we would look beyond the hollow statistics of causalities and death tolls found in books and instead, look directly into the face of personal stories of tragedy and resiliency.  The museum shows the ugly reality of war but also the medical innovations that the war helped spawn out of necessity.  

Surgeon's Amputation Kit
The museum is quite large, despite its location right in the middle of downtown Frederick.  The displays are very informative with many artifacts and several realistic scenes portrayed in life-size dioramas.  It was a nice balance of exhibits, photographs, and interactive displays as you twisted your way around the two floors of the unique museum.  The staff did a great job of representing both the Union and Confederacy concerning their medical needs, methods, and eventual discoveries.  It was a totally different type of museum experience, one dedicated solely to a single theme that affected both sides during the long war.  Although I am a history buff, I am not big on traditional museums and prefer to visit actual sites rather than interior representations of events.  However, this was a really interesting collection of artifacts and information that you don't come across everyday.  The contents of the museum seemed to really impress the members of our tour group.

Union Forces at Camp Millington, TN
The first danger every new recruit faced was training camp, where young men from isolated farms in rural America would suddenly come together in close quarters.  The benefits of good personal hygiene was yet to be widely known or practiced by the general population.  Germs and bacteria were freely exchanged and sickness soon followed.  Many would die from childhood diseases we are now safe from catching thanks to the required inoculations we get during our infancy.  Country boys and city slickers shared tents and equally came down with devastating cases of mumps, chicken pox, measles, smallpox, and countless other diseases that were collectively called camp fever.  The close quarters of the camps and the lack of sanitation would create breeding grounds for disease that would plague both armies throughout their campaigns. 

Reconstructed Femur Bone / Minie Ball Damage
(Photo Credit / Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)
Articles of War were a set of rules of warfare that European countries had followed for generations.  The straight lines of men had purpose with the inaccurate musket ball firearms of the past.  Now rifling technology had become a standard in the arms industry, increasing the accuracy of the average soldier's firearm from 50 yards up to 500 yards.  The accuracy was also complimented by the invention of the Minie ball, which was the first ammunition shaped like the modern bullet.  The cone shaped tip enhanced the spin effect created by the spiral grooves inside the barrel.  Technology advanced but battlefield tactics remained mostly unchanged with long lines of men that provided easy targets.  The one tactic that changed was the proximity of the fighting, which was now mostly from a distance rather than face to face and hand to hand with the bayonet, previously practiced in 17th Century warfare.

 Union Ambulance Crew / Practice Drill
(Photo Credit / Library of Congress)
The new Enfield and Springfield rifled muskets were now deadly accurate at a distance but still needed to be top loaded, which often required soldiers to stand up and become targets during the process.  The Minie ball was most often made of soft lead and would create horrific wounds that were often impossible for field surgeons to repair.  The large 57 caliber round would shatter bone and tumble through the body, causing extensive injuries that were often fatal.  Men wounded were often left on the field until the fighting ceased, which could be until nightfall.  Time was of the essence as infection loomed more of a possibility with each passing minute.  The Union was the first to create a more efficient way of removing the wounded from the field of battle with wagon ambulance corps.  These units would drill recovery procedures and would enter the field as soon as possible to retrieve the wounded men for treatment behind the lines.  The Confederate Army soon followed suit, helping to increase survival rates for both sides.

 Awaiting Treatment / Virginia Field Hospital 1862
(Photo Credit / James Gibson / Library of Congress)
The field hospital was created when necessary in any location that was determined to be appropriate.  Many times barns and farm houses were quickly transformed into crude hospital wards where operations were performed with haste in an attempt to save as many lives as possible. Medical staffs were quickly overwhelmed with complex cases and amputation was the chosen method to mend wounds that could become infected.  The amputation process was a fifteen minute procedure, where the patient was unconscious through the use of chloroform anesthesia.  However, surgeons went from limb to limb using the same surgical instruments, which spread bacteria from one patient to the next.  Sadly, antiseptic would be invented in Europe by Joseph Lister in 1867, a few years after the Civil War ended. Two thirds of all operations were amputations and some estimates put the survival rates at up to 75%. This is where doctors obtained the nickname of sawbones.

Patient Rail Transport Car / Interior
(Illustration Credit / Harper's Weekly)
When the post battle atmosphere began to calm, the most serious cases were transported by railroads to eastern cities where major hospitals could tend to their needs.  One of the interesting inventions shown in one of the museum displays, was the addition of large rubber bands to the stretcher handles to add shock absorbing protection to soldiers with painful wounds.  The newly cushioned system eased the pain and prevented the patient from developing fatal cases of shock during the journey.  A simple, cost effective idea that had an immediate impact on wounded veterans hopefully making their way toward recovery.  On our next episode of Camp Martin Travels we will to continue to explore the museum and the evolution of the medical profession amid the terrible violence of the Civil War.  Please stay tuned for Part # 2 of our journey next week. 

Walt Whitman / Portrait 1860
(Photo Credit / Mathew Brady Collection)
Did You Know...

Poet Walt Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in Washington D.C. following a stressful journey looking for his brother George, who served in the Union Army.  Whitman believed his brother might be wounded and unable to get accurate information on his condition, he went south to find him.  He found his brother George with only a superficial facial wound but was so moved by the wounded soldiers he had seen along the way, he decided to stay in Washington D.C. to volunteer part time in an army hospital.  He wrote about his experiences in an article published in northern newspapers in 1863 entitled Army of the Sick.


Civil War Medicine / Part # 2



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