Civil War Medicine: Part 3/4

We’re continuing Erin Rainwater’s four part series on Civil War Medicine. You can find Part I and Part II by clicking the links.

Conditions and Treatment

Unlike today, the majority of soldier deaths during the Civil War were attributed to disease. Unsanitary and close-quarter living conditions in the camps led to outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, measles, smallpox, chicken pox, throat distemper (diphtheria), and other diseases. Scurvy and other nutritional disorders were prevalent, as was typhus from lice and fleas.

Mosquito-borne illnesses such as yellow fever and “ague” (malaria) also posed a threat, although they were believed due to “miasmic vapors” from stagnant waters. Minor wounds such as from a splinter, a scratched mosquito bite, or the rub of a boot could become infected and ultimately lead to septicemia and death. Lacking scientific knowledge regarding the causes of disease, physicians depended on a few standard remedies, such as quinine, calomel, ipecac and opium to cure most symptoms. Mercury was used to treat venereal disease, although it only cleared the symptoms and was not a cure. Nitric acid was poured on open wounds to kill infection. It also seared the flesh.

The physiology of some conditions, such as the gastrointestinal system, was surprisingly well known back then. The digestive process was understood, as well as the length of time for various foods to be digested. Much of this knowledge came from Dr. William Beaumont’s experiments and studies, including the observation of an open stomach wound in a man who’d been shot.

Gastrostomy tubes were used for feeding patients with such wounds, and drains were placed to remove infectious drainage and gastric juices. Cardiopulmonary-wise, physicians used stethoscopes to discern crepitant rales and rhonchi, heart murmurs, and friction rubs. They used percussion techniques in the physical exam to appreciate dullness and diminished resonance of the chest and abdomen. Mercury thermometers were available but rarely used. Fever was considered a disease, and temperatures were taken only to investigate unusual maladies or those of special concern. Doctors then were faced with some of the same frustrations of today: addicts pilfering drugs and alcohol, and well-intentioned family members offering food to patients with serious stomach and intestinal ailments and wounds.

Wounds, of course, were the other consideration in this war of inconceivable casualties. As bullet manufacturing changed during the war so did the wounds they left. The small- caliber round balls shot from a smooth bore musket often produced a different type of wound than the newer, faster velocity, conical-shaped slugs later produced. All had the capacity to incur catastrophic injuries beyond repair. In battlefront hospitals, there were few alternatives to amputation of limb wounds, and an experienced surgeon could perform the procedure in under ten minutes.

Later in the war, some surgeons experimented with blood vessel resection, but amputation remained far more common. Soldiers with head and chest wounds were given a poor prognosis, and often not considered treatable. Bullet wounds were the most common by far, but those from canister, cannonballs, shells, sword and saber had to be reckoned with as well.

It was considered routine that combat wounds become infected. Pus was considered “laudable” because the body was discharging poisons, a necessary adjunct to proper healing. In the rare instances pus did not appear, it was called “union by first intention” and considered an utter mystery. Yet there were five types of infections acknowledged as abnormal.

A triad of infections referred to as “hospitalism” included gangrene, erysipelas (a skin infection we now know is caused by strep), and pyemia (septicemia, or “blood poisoning.”) The mortality rate from these hospital-acquired infections reached ninety-five per cent. The survivor of a “routine” infection often became the victim of osteomyelitis, a chronic bone infection, and was doomed to a slow and painful death from a festering wound where entire sections of bone would be eaten away. Tetanus was present, though less common than other diseases, because most battles were fought on virgin soil unfouled by the manure that carries the tetanus spores.

Wet dressings could be applied utilizing a siphoning technique. One end of a strip of cotton or linen was placed in a container of water suspended over a wound. The other end of the material hung just above the wound but below the level of the water, thus providing a continuous drip. The nurse was freed up from having to return for frequent remoistening of the bandage. Oilcloths were placed to catch the excess water and drain it into a vessel on the floor.

With flies rampant, so were their eggs, or maggots. Although the critters caused no pain, female nurses were disgusted by them and their wiggling bothered the wounded men. Yet some discerning surgeons detected that wounds infested by maggots healed more rapidly, and that the little vermin actually cleansed wounds, digesting and removing dead tissue while leaving healthy tissue uninjured. Rats reportedly tendered similar results. Some modern day physicians have accepted maggot therapy as useful for debridement, although I’ve yet to see where rat therapy has become part of standard treatment.

Without the benefit of x-ray equipment, sometimes the only way to hit upon the location of a bullet was to take “soundings.” In my novel True Colors Cassie Golden, who at this point thinks she’s seen everything, watches in awe as a Confederate surgeon inserts a porcelain-tipped probe into a wound and taps it against various obstacles. She observes that the sound of tapping bone versus lead is distinguishable. Additionally, when the doctor rubs the white-tipped probe against lead it comes out streaked with gray—a sign it has detected its quarry. Like all nurses, she realizes that the learning process is never over.

Erin Rainwater is a Pennsylvania native whose trip to Gettysburg when she was twelve enhanced her already deep interest in the Civil War. She attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and entered the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation.  Serving during the Vietnam War era, she cared for the bodies and spirits of soldiers and veterans, including repatriated POWs and MIAs. Now living in Colorado, she is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has been deployed to disaster areas around the country. True Colors is partly based on her military and nursing experiences as well as extensive research. She also authored The Arrow That Flieth By Day, a historical love story set in 1860s Colorado, and Refining Fires, a uniquely written love story that was released in July, 2010. Erin invites you to visit her “virtual fireside”.

***Content reposted from January 24, 2011.***

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