Civil War Medicine: Part 4/4

Today, we’re finishing up with Erin Rainwater’s amazing series on Civil War medicine. You can find Part I, Part II, and Part III by clicking the links.

Civil War Medicine: Hapless or Heroic in Retrospect? 

History has not always been kind to Civil War practitioners of medicine. The methods discussed in the previous posts seem barbaric to us now, and the lack of medical knowledge regarding foundational principles such as asepsis, infection, and sanitation is regarded as tragically antiquated. Their twenty per cent mortality rate is unacceptable by today’s standards. More horror stories abound. From our retrospective and often condescending viewpoint, we smugly judge one century’s standards by the current set. This is not only an unfair but a flawed verdict. The inadequacies of those medical care deliverers have received considerably more attention than their accomplishments, which were many.

If judged by the standards of their day, Civil War doctors and nurses should be hailed as remarkably successful.  With the existence of bacteria still only theoretical, with the available instruments and anesthesia, and with the indescribable numbers of patients inflicted upon them, the fact they saved lives in such unhoped-for numbers is a credit to their skill, creativity, and tenacity.

In the war that preceded this one, the Mexican-American War, ten men died of disease for every one killed in combat. During the Civil War, that ratio was reduced to 2:1. That alone is measurable evidence of an enormous advancement in medical care in the span of under two decades, much of which came about as a result of the war. The creation of frontline field hospitals, ambulance services, and the utilization of female nurses should cause modern historians to conclude that the maligned medical practitioners during the Civil War should be reckoned as heroic, not hapless. Their crude system of triage, setting aside men wounded through the head, chest or abdomen because they would most likely die seems brutal, but with the knowledge and little time available, it allowed surgeons to save those who could be saved. Modern mass casualty triage is not so far removed from this practice.

Aside from medical care administered to the living, advancements in post mortem measures took place as well. Prior to the war, embalming was usually only done to preserve specimens for scientific study. Because many families of killed soldiers desired to bring them home for burial, embalming became more commonplace.

I have only skimmed the surface in relating how the War Between the States necessitated numerous adaptations in the delivery of medical care, and how we benefit even today from some of those changes. These are just some examples of not only medical but also the many moral and social advancements that came as a result of the American Civil War. I truly hope these four posts have been educational and entertaining, and that perhaps this information will help you gain a greater appreciation of our sesquicentennial commemorations over the course of the next four years.


Burns, Stanley B., MD, FACS, “The Naldecon Gallery of Medial History,” Bristol Laboratories, © 1987.

Civil War Manuscripts, Library of Congress.

Downs, Robert B., Books That Changed Amercia.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, ed., The Photographic History of the Civil War, Prisons and Hospitals

Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, and Burns, Ken, The Civil War, An Illustrated History. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., © 1990.

The Day Richmond Died.

*********************************************************************************************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 31, 2011.***

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