Local News

November 4, 2012

Civil War medicine not as primitive as popular image

Forget the image of a Civil War surgeon giving some soldier a bullet to bite on while he operated on him

Dr. Anthony Hodges says that rarely, if ever, happened.

For one thing, he says, there’s a lack of contemporary references to the practice. For another, he says, it makes little sense.

“You put something that small in a man’s mouth and then stick a knife in his leg. What’s going to happen?” he said.

Hodges said that rather than bite down harder the patient is likely to scream in pain.

“At best, he’s going to swallow that bullet. At worst, it’s going to get stuck in his windpipe,” he said.

Hodges, a dentist and a member of the Friends of the Chickamuaga-Chattanooga National Military Park, spoke Saturday at Dalton State College as part of a symposium on “Exploring the Confederate Military Service.” His lecture was “Bite the Bullet: Myths and Realities of Civil War Medicine.”

Hodges noted that physicians and dentists had begun experimenting with anesthesia in the 1830s and by the time of Civil War it had become standard practice to anesthetize patients during major surgeries. That was true even in battlefield hospitals.

Hodges said the anesthetic of choice was chloroform, which was relatively easy to make. He noted one Confederate doctor who wrote numerous letters to his wife during his four years of service as an army surgeon.

“He only mentioned one surgery where he had to operate on someone without anesthetic. That indicates that shortages of chloroform were real. It also indicates that they were rare,” Hodges said.

Hodges said the image of doctors rushing to amputate wounded arms and legs does match the reality of the times. But those doctors, he noted, had no antibiotics. The first one would not be invented until almost 80 years after the Civil War ended. So amputating arms and legs gave those soldiers the best chance of recovery.

“A good surgeon could amputate an arm or a leg in two to five minutes, and the survival rate was more than 70 percent,” he said. “The survival rate for an untreated limb wound was 10 to 15 percent.”

Hodges said the problem was that injured limbs tended to become infected and without antibiotics the doctors could do little to save those soldiers.

Both the Confederate and Union armies moved wounded soldiers from battlefield hospitals to general hospitals some 50 to 100 miles from the battle lines to recuperate.

That would be the first time many of those men ever encountered a female nurse.

At the outbreak of the war, hundreds of women in both the North and the South volunteered to be nurses. But Hodges said a large segment of the public and military and elected officials opposed letting women serve as nurses.

“One of the major reasons was that they would see men in various stages of undress,” he said. “The opposition was less intense in the South, probably because they were more hard-pressed.”

Hodges said that officials on both sides wanted only “homely” women to serve as nurses so that the soldiers they treated would not develop any undue affection for them.

In addition to Hodges, the symposium featured Glenna Schroeder-Lein from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library speaking on “Samuel Stout and the Confederate Medical Service,” Marvin Sowder of the Dalton Civil War Roundtable talking about “Dalton’s Civil War Hospitals” and John Fowler, director of Dalton State College’s Bandy Heritage Center, speaking on the “Medical History of the 19th Tennessee Infantry Regiment (CSA).” The Dalton Civil War 150th Commission sponsored the event.

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