We have been to a lot of “National” museums before but who would have guessed one like this existed? The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is dedicated to telling the medical story of the Civil War which laid the foundation for modern medical care. Some of the stories, pictures, and exhibits were quite gruesome but that was an accurate portrayal of the medical care practiced during that era. Anesthetics were primitive, hygiene and germ theory were not understood, disease was rampant, and surgeons were ill trained and equipped.
The museum is divided into different sections that address the medical issues faced on the battlefield. When the war began, very few medical schools and doctors existed and the medical training was very minimal, mostly consisting of hands-on learning. Of the 600,000+ soldiers that died during the Civil War more than 400,000 died from disease – the deadliest being diarrhea and dysentery. Unsanitary conditions, poor diet, tight living quarters, and the sudden exposure of childhood communicable diseases were the culprits. New recruits were given physical exams but they were so superficial that many entered service with chronic diseases and physical defects that made them ineffective soldiers. Some exams were such a joke that the sex of women posing as men so they could fight was never detected!
One of the medical advancements that came during the war was the ability to effectively (I use that term loosely) evacuate the wounded. In 1862, a medical director by the name of Jonathan Letterman created a system of ambulances and stretchers that became the basis for modern military evacuations. The first level of medical care administered to the wounded was at a field dressing station. It was here that wounds were bandaged and whiskey and morphine administered for pain.
For those not mortally wounded, they were moved to a “field hospital” and then a “pavilion hospital” which provided longer hospitalization care Of all the surgeries performed during the war, 75% were amputations – a result of the severe wounds inflicted by the “Minié ball” – which left nearly half a million soldiers disabled. The large number of disabled led to advancements in prosthetics allowing many soldiers to lead productive lives after the war.
Medical technology and knowledge has obviously changed dramatically since the Civil War and this museum makes that quite obvious. The Civil War was a time when doctors performed multiple surgeries without washing their hands much less using gloves or working in a sterile environment. This engaging museum was totally worth our time and makes me glad I live in an era where anesthesia does not constitute a slug of whiskey.