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Akshitha Ag

AP US History

Period 4


Medical Revelation

While the Civil War came to an end, it established the rebirth of a new nation as well as

the end of slavery, but it also created a new era in the field of medicine. The destruction of war,

the casualties, and the immense amounts of disease required a more in depth knowledge of

medicine. This period inspired primitive treatments and practices which captivated people in the

field of medicine, aspiring physicians, and the common man and woman to be a part of this new

revelation. This was a time when women emerged as leading heros for many soldiers who, for

them, provided the only hope of seeing their families again or being able to continue to fight.

With the Sanitary Commission created, nurses like the famous Clara Barton found techniques to

care for the wounded and improve the medical environment. Science was advancing with

techniques such as amputations, which had never been thought of before, to help save someone’s

life. Although the Civil War changed the fates of many people with a fortunate stroke of

serendipity, it also created a medical marvel which inspired tremendous growth in healthcare.

The Civil War took many lives, but it sped up the progression of medicine, influencing practices

and techniques that are still being used today. Many of America’s medical accomplishments

have roots from the Civil War.

At the time of the war, the causes of major diseases or infections which affected many

soldiers were not well known. However, conditions were seemingly getting better for patients as
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doctors came in contact with different illnesses which made them learn more information and

techniques to treat patients. People now were using distilled water for drinking, and eventually

with experimentation, people knew boiling water killed bacteria (Gillett, “Achievements and

Failures During the Civil War”). A common condition among the soldiers, diarrhea and

dysentery, was troubling medical officers. Though not much known about this, trial and error

was the only hope for progress, as medical officers realized the sanitation of water was a major

contributor diarrhea. There was little control over the purity of the water that the fighting men

drank, but doctors took immediate care to ensure the purity of the water their patients drank.

Consuming rainwater, distilled water, and boiled water, as mentioned before, were seen as a way

to prevent diarrhea and dysentery (Gillett, “Achievements and Failures During the Civil War”).

In Harper’s Weekly, the Sanitary Commission had published the “Rules for Preserving the

Health of the Soldier,” this document shows the various amounts of injuries and medical

teachings that would help treat the wounded during war. It shows what medical officers should

do to maintain their knowledge and be up-to-date with current diseases and treatments being

used. This was a new advance and today, doctors need to know all the various injuries and

medical treatments to treat their patients. Doctors and physicians were said to read many medical

articles and were advised to know all the signs and conditions of a particular problem to seek a

cure or treatment (“Rules for Preserving the Health of the Soldier”). From the Library of

Congress, a picture, “Wounded soldiers gather outside of a field hospital after Battle of the

Wilderness in May of 1864.” showed how severe health conditions were for some soldiers.

Wounded soldiers gathered around hospitals, the picture greatly showing how inconvenient and

unorganized the medical camps and hospitals were around this time, as it portrayed how the
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injured laid around the ground waiting for doctors to come treat them (“Dixon, Modern

Medicine's Civil War Legacy). There were many causes of injuries, head injuries being the most

terrifying during the Civil War. As doctors did not have the technology that we have today, it

was difficult to treat any head injury since not many doctors knew what was causing soldiers to

act differently after an injury in the head had been incurred. Gunshot wounds to the head

compressed of traumatic wounds in the brain, but localization and anesthesia were not precise,

therefore sometimes causing mistreatment and potentially death. However, as medicine was

evolving, doctors were more skilled at treating and understanding head injuries and anesthesia

was also being tweaked in order to fully help the patient (Kaufman HH1, "Treatment of Head

Injuries in the American Civil War”). During hard times like these, wounded patients would

write letters to their loved ones for comfort. A letter from Robert Ware to his sister recounts

Ware's work as an inspector with the United States Sanitary Commission and a surgeon. He talks

about his injuries and how he became wounded following a battle outside Richmond. His letters

showcase how severe some wounds were and he longs for his family, again, showing how nurses

were needed for support to make patients comfortable in desperate needs (Ware, letter).

Wounds deeply affected not only the soldier's body, but his mind and his heart. Nurses

were needed to take care of psychological problems and accompany the wounded soldiers to

provide comfort. As doctors were familiarizing themselves about the prevention and treatment of

infectious diseases, medicine was transforming into quality care. The United States Sanitary

Commission’s efforts to save ill soldiers set the pattern for future organizations like the

American Red Cross (Dixon, “Modern Medicine's Civil War Legacy”). Anxiety about war and

an increasing number of deaths,and injured soldiers, many of who would most likely not be
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coming home, all required of nursing and practical medical care. Psychological care became a

normal part of treatment, talking to the patient and interacting with them were tricks to helping

them get better. People who had amputated limbs and permanently damaged soldiers required

nursing and often constant attention for the rest of their lives. (Baker, "The Civilian Experience

in the Civil War"). However, when efforts failed and soldiers died, mourning was certain.

Sometimes, bodies were not available for ritual burial, and funerals occurred so often, it was

difficult for families, doctors and nurses to handle (Faust, "Death and Dying"). Due to the high

number of deaths, many soldiers had to be buried, which led to disease from the decomposition

of bodies. This would cause more diseases to spread so doctors had to keep the environment

around the patient clean and sanitary.

Care by men and women was as simple as standing with the soldiers who were injured

until their last minute. Caring for patients during the war focused on the palliation of a

chronically ill, or seriously ill, patient's pain and symptoms, and attending to their emotional and

spiritual needs (“Our women and the war”, newspaper). The conditions of war and medical help

brought people together to care for others, not only for their family, but for strangers as well. A

picture from Harper’s Weekly shows a woman aiding a soldier at her house with her own

materials, a simple deed, but an immense amount of help for the soldier. Acts like these were

quite common around this time as people got together to help save as many lives as they could

which was another accomplishment as desire to save lives grew (Alcott, “Hospital sketches”).

Nurses were trained clearly to learn to help a soldier at any cost. The Civil War gave nurses an

official introduction to medicine and helped them establish a medical system. (Burns, "Behind

the Lens: A History in Pictures"). Kate Cumming, who was born in Scotland, volunteered as a
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nurse in America at a time when many male doctors did not want women in their hospitals. Her

writing showcased the horror encountered by some women in caring for the wounded, but this

did not stop her from pursuing her career as a nurse, as she continued to save people. Nursing in

the Civil War was a rough experience for women as the industry was originally dominated by

men, but women made tremendous contributions to the care for the sick and injured soldiers

(Burns, "Behind the Lens: A History in Pictures") They ventured into unsanitary hospitals to

provide care to their men. At the beginning of the war, women saw the need for occupations such

as nursing, famous nurses, including Kate Cumming, kept a written record of their experiences

which was significant because it showed how strong nurses had to be which is how doctors and

physicians attitudes are now. (MacLean, "Diaries of Civil War Nurses"). The medal of honor was

created due to the Civil War. The immense amount of fierce fighting and deadly wounds as well

as major death was recognized and the medal of honor was established. Women nurses

volunteered for many reasons, patriotism being the main one. Some nurses worked for particular

regiments; others became involved through relief organizations like the United States Sanitary

Commission. Medicine for women, greatly impacted their lives, women were becoming more

respected as they took on professions such as nursing to help save lives of many soldiers.

Medical supplies were scarce, and people would usually make their own

equipment when needed in an emergency. Usually when injured in the head, stomach or heart,

surgeons would just put those who suffered these injuries off to the side because death was

almost a certainty. Although this sounds morbid, it spared time for emergency cases that could

be fixed, such as injuries to the arm or the leg, both of which could be amputated (Tooker,

“Antietam: Aspects of Medicine, Nursing and the Civil War”) . For soldiers on the battlefield,
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quick and available care was difficult to get access to. 1st Lieut. Alfred R. Glover had a

travelling kit which he used over the course of his battles. It was used as his backup when he or a

friend injured himself, his pharmaceutical kit was considered a first aid tool for immediate help

(Unknown, “Traveling homeopathic pharmaceutical kit). Many surgeons were either highly

qualified or not at all qualified. This outraged many soldiers, thinking they were not receiving

accurate care for their wounds. Eventually, this stressed many qualified surgeons to further teach

rising doctors and physicians to perfect their treatment (Thompson, "Eyewitness to Battle").

After the Civil War as well as throughout the course of the war, field commanders were urged to

actually take care of patients that were injured. Contract surgeons were hired during war to care

for injured soldiers. Charles Henry’s biography shows how medicine changed his life. He went

to a Pennsylvania medical college and went into the medical corps, and soon he joined as a

contract surgeon (Phalen, "U.S. Army Medical Corps Biographies: Brigadier General Charles

Henry Alden"). Major changes occured to the medical service in the Union Army because

wounded soldiers were constantly left behind on the field of battle and received inadequate care

and supplies (Bateson, Catherine, “Under the fascinating charm of the clear bugle notes”) . So

the ambulance was made as a form of transportation to move the soldiers from one place to

another (“Dixon, Modern Medicine's Civil War Legacy). This was a significant accomplishment

because moving a soldier from one place to another required more than one person to carry the

injured soldier, the ambulance made it easier and more efficient for transportation (Wynn, Jake.

"“Don’t Be Afraid Boys”.")

Amputations were a new process which saved many people's lives. Before amputations,

wounded soldiers would usually live with their injured body part, however, most would die due
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to infection so doctors needed a way to stop them from dying and created the technique of

amputations. While doing amputations, anesthesia was used. Nurses were called "sawbones."

While doing an amputation, the doctor would take a flap of skin from another part of the

soldier’s body and cover up the wound or the amputated section. Then they would tie off any

limbs or arteries with horsehair (unknown, Civil War Battlefield Surgery”). Amputations

depended on the efficiency of the surgeon. Civil War surgeons were more interested in speed

rather than the cleanliness of the hospital environment, not knowing about the danger of disease

spreading to others. An example of successful amputation was John B. Gordon’s amputation. He

survived through the aid of his wife who nursed him. He spent the most time with his wife, who

offered him tea, food, and comfort. Eventually, he returned to work with the rest of his arm

functioning. A “‘How To’ Guide for Civil War Surgeons” was an official guide for all surgeons

who were new to this practice and showed many techniques and allowed many descriptions for

surgeons to fully understand new methods (unknown, Civil War Battlefield Surgery”).

The famous and courageous Stonewall Jackson had a few physical and health conditions.

Jackson was often clumsy on the battlefield this was due to sleep deprivation on Jackson's battle

decisions in light of experimental data driving current calls for limiting the duty hours of

physicians (Reinhart, "Historical Implications of a Failing Heart" ). The illness of General

Robert E. Lee. was a hot topic for physicians. They were unfamiliar with this particular disease

and used pediatrics on him, which kept him functioning. After more was learned about this

disease, treatments were advanced with particular treatments and drugs such as antidepressants

(Reinhart, Richard A. "Historical Implications of a Failing Heart.").

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Clara Barton, who was born in Massachusetts, was greatly influenced by her parents who

favored abolition and championed women's rights. She was a teacher, nurse, Civil War heroine,

and founder of the American Red Cross. Clara Barton wrote down challenges the medical

professionals faced in these ghastly surroundings. Out of all the medical professionals on the

field and in the hospitals, surgeons had to be the most brave and the most trained ("Clara Barton:

teacher, nurse, Civil War heroine, founder of the American Red Cross."). Chloroform was used

during the Civil War when it was available. The use of chloroform as an anesthetic greatly

reduced the torture and trauma of the procedure. The chloroform was applied to a cloth and held

over the soldier's nose and mouth until the man was unconscious. Medicine inspired many to

write books, poems, and many forms of literature during and after the Civil War (Haushofer,

Lisa. "EXAMINATION."). Nurses saving soldiers from almost dying and soldiers courageous

acts in the battlefield created the Medal of Honor. The immense amount of fierce fighting,

deadly wounds, significant number of deaths were recognized, and the Medal of Honor was

established. This was an accomplishment as it recognized people and their strengths which

inspired many (unknown, "The Medal of Honor.")

The Civil War caused countless deaths from wounds, injuries, and mistreatment, and so

many other reasons-both medical and non medical, but the Civil War was also a learning and

growing experience for the medical field. The various injuries of the soldiers required doctors

and physicians to gain accurate knowledge in order to treat them. Clara Barton and the Sanitary

Commision placed the primary focus on improving the medical system, and from there, advances

in the treatment of soldiers, more sanitary hospitals, and new advances, such as the ambulance,

further established the beginnings of improvement in medicine. In conclusion, the War

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influenced practices, techniques, and treatments that are still being used today. Most of

America’s medical history had its starting roots from the Civil War.
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Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May, excerpt from “Hospital sketches,” Digital Public Library of America,


Baker, Jean. “The Civilian Experience in the Civil War.” Goucher College,

www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm%3Fid%3D249. Accessed 6 Jan. 2018. Working paper.

Bateson, Catherine. ““Under the fascinating charm of the clear bugle notes” Medicinal Civil


www.civilwarmed.org/medicinal-music/. Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.

Burns, Stanley B. “Behind the Lens: A History in Pictures.” ​Nursing in the Civil War​,

www.pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/behind-lens/nursing-civil-war/. Accessed 10

Jan. 2018.

“Civil War Battlefield Surgery.” ​A Description of Civil War Field Surgery​,

ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/amputations. Accessed 4 Jan. 2018.

“Clara Barton: teacher, nurse, Civil War heroine, founder of the American Red Cross.”

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12710385/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018. Manuscript.

Dixon, Ina. “Modern Medicine’s Civil War Legacy.” ​Civil War Trust​, 29 Oct. 2013,

www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/civil-war-medicine. Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.

Faust, Drew. “Death and Dying.” ​National Park Service​,

www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/death.html. Accessed 14 Jan. 2018.

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Gillett, Mary C. “The Army Medical Department, 1818-1865.” chapter 13. ​Achievements and

Failures During the Civil War​, edited by David F. Trask, CENTER OF MILITARY





Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.

Haushofer, Lisa. “EXAMINATION.”


war-drew-faust-at-the-countway-library-of-medicine/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.


Kaufman HH1. “Treatment of Head Injuries in the American Civil War.” ​Journal of

Neurosurgery​, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8468618. Accessed 19 Jan. 2018.

Originally published in ​National Center for Biotechnology Information​.

MacLean, Maggie, editor. “Diaries of Civil War Nurses.” ​Civil War Women WOMEN OF THE


www.civilwarwomenblog.com/diaries-of-civil-war-nurses/. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

“The Medal of Honor.” ​Army Medical Department Regiment​,

ameddregiment.amedd.army.mil/moh/mohhistory.html. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018. Originally

published in ​History of the Medal of Honor​.

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Our Women and the War, from Harper’s Weekly, September 6, 1862​. 1862. ​Smithsonian



Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.

Phalen, James M., Colonel, U. S. Army, Retired. “U.S. Army Medical Corps Biographies:

Brigadier General Charles Henry Alden.” ​U.S. Army Medical Department Office of

Medical History website.​, THE ARMY MEDICAL BULLETIN, NUMBER 51

(JANUARY 1940) Published on the U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical

History website., history.amedd.army.mil/biographies/alden.html. Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.

Reinhart, Richard A. “Historical Implications of a Failing Heart.” 19 june 2017,

www.civilwarmed.org/surgeons-call/lee/. Accessed 12 Jan. 2018. Manuscript.

“Rules for Preserving the Health of the Soldier.” ​Soldier’s Health​,


Accessed 4 Jan. 2018.

Thompson, David L. “Eyewitness to Battle.” Triage: Napoleon to the present day. Accessed 10

Jan. 2018. Manuscript.

Tooker, John. “Antietam: Aspects of Medicine, Nursing and the Civil War.” ​Transactions of the

American Clinical and Climatological Association​ 118 (2007): 215–223. Print.

Unknown, “Traveling homeopathic pharmaceutical kit,” ​Center for the History of Medicine:

OnView​, accessed January 23, 2018,

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Ware, Robert, “Autograph letter signed : Whitehouse Landing, Va., to Fanny [Ware].,” ​Center

for the History of Medicine: OnView​, accessed January 20, 2018,


Wynn, Jake. ““Don’t Be Afraid Boys”.” 12 Feb. 2017, www.civilwarmed.org/evacuation/.

Accessed 17 Dec. 2017. Manuscript.