Civil War Medicine

by USHistoryI
Last updated 9 months ago

Discipline:
Social Studies
Subject:
American History

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Civil War Medicine

Diseases, Causes, and TreatmentsMany people died from the diseases thatplagued the Civil War camp sites. Among these were malaria, typhoid fever, measles, small pox, scurvy, pneumonia, dysentery, and infections in wounds. Measles and small pox spread wildly throughout the camps, and even though doctors thought these diseases were caused by "miasms," they understood the fact that these diseases were contagious. They tried to isolate infected soldiers if possible, but most hospitals were overcrowded with the ill. Doctors believed miasms, small pockets of bad air made by nature, were to blame for these diseases. In reality, many were caused by poor conditions at camp sites, malnutrition, bacteria, or viruses. Diseases like typhoid fever and dysentery were caused by contaminated water supplies and food. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes, and measles and small pox are caused by viruses. Scurvy was due to a lack of vitamin C in many soldiers diets, and pneumonia was caused by the wet and cold environments. Infections after surgery were almost certain, and so frequent that they were considered part of the natural healing process of wounds. Doctors had no way of knowing that they were spreading infections by not cleaning their supplies or washing their hands after every patient. They would go hours without cleaning their equipment, their white coats were always stained with the blood of soldiers and dirt, and hospital floors were covered in dirty bandages and amputated limbs. Antiseptics were not created yet, and disinfecting things by using heat was not discovered. Therefore, bacteria was almost guaranteed to infect soldiers. However, they performed these amputations, because they lacked enough skill and knowledge to reconstruct bones and these types of procedures in this time period would most likely be deadly. Also, if they did not do amputations many of the troops would have died. Doctors thought that infections were the natural way of healing, however, they knew the signs that an infection had turned deadly. Symptoms like a higher fever, dry tongue, and increased pain and restlessness were signs of these infections. The most deadly and feared were gangrene, pyemia, and tetanus. Gangrene slowly ate away skin, pyemia goes through the blood stream and hurts vital organs, and tetanus causes painful muscle spasms and leads to death. The only way gangrene could be effectively treated was to amputate that limb, and there were no antibiotics to treat other infections. Doctors tried to cure pyemia with tonics, stimulants, and a healthy diet. If a patient was restless, they would give him opium. Opium is very addictive, and at the time is was widely available to everyday people. Opium was also used to treat diarrhea with astringents, which is a medicine that constricts muscle tissue. Most medicines were only effective in relieving the symptoms, and some treatments, like bleeding, hurt the patients instead of helping them. Doctors believed that when patients vomited or pus came out their wounds, their bodies were trying to get rid of infections and encouraged the body to do these. Also, calomel and tartar emetic, a drug used for typhoid fever, had mercury in it. In large doses it could cause mercury poisoning. However, a Union surgeon banned the use of this drug. Although when he left office, doctors could continue using them. Some treatments were successful in treating diseases, like quinine, that stopped the fevers and chills caused by Malaria. Vaccinations were created for small pox. Scurvy could be stopped by implementing some fruits and vegetables in their diets, but sometimes these foods were hard to come by. Some doctors even made the soldiers clean up their camps, which lead to the prevention of many illnesses.

Advancements in Medical Care- Chloroform was used to make people unconscious before surgery. Previously, doctors could only give patients whisky or something to bite on to help them get through surgery. There was also ether, but it was flammable. -Plastic surgery began with the reconstruction of many Union and Confederate soldiers.-Brain surgery was practiced and could be successful. Some doctors cut small holes in a patient's skull, which relieved pressure caused by head trauma.-People started to understand and investigate the nervous system.-Chest injuries could be better treated. Before, if a soldier was struck in the chest, the pressure in their lungs would drop. This caused their lungs to collapse. Then one assistant surgeon tested a method of dressing the wounds. This involved metal structures and layers of gauze with collodion. When the collodion dried, it hardened the bandages to create a seal. -Both the Confederates and the Union handled and transported the wounded and sick soldiers on the field better.- There was a better system of hospitals.-First time women could be involved with the war, because both armies desperately needed nurses.

Civil War Medicine

Getting the Wounded off the Battle Fields & HospitalsIn the beginning of the Civil War, ambulances weren't used, and the severely wounded would most likely die were they fell on the battle field. Many military camps had terrible hygiene. Then the Union made the United States Sanitary Commission dedicated to performing investigations on military camps and providing advice when needed. They reported the horrible conditions of the camps, and convinced congress to fix them. Jonathon Letterman was put as medical director of the Army of the Potomac. He also helped create the Army Medical Department that lasted until WWII. Letterman also gave a medicine wagon to each brigade to help transport troops that were hurt off of the battle field. The ambulance corps also helped in this. Dr. Samuel Moore was the equivalent to Letterman for the Confederates. He cultivated medicine from the confederacy, drafted nurses and helped prepare them, created a way of treating the wounded in an orderly fashion, tested medical devices, and setup a structure of taking the sick and wounded off of the battle field and putting them in hospitals. Hospitals were made from any shelter they could find, tents, but many times hospitals would be so overcrowded the wounded would just rest were it was comfortable.

Diarrhea killed more people in the Civil War than wounds from the battles.

An estimated total number of 388,000 people died from disease in the Civil War.


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