Civil War Medical Staff and the Stories They Tell

August 1864 Petersburg, Va. Surgeons of 3d Division before hospital tent (Library of Congress)

August 1864 Petersburg, Va.
Surgeons of 3rd Division before hospital tent (Library of Congress)

I am working on a couple of projects that involve men and women who provided medical support in the Civil War.  To get a better understanding of what their involvement might have been like, I have been reading first hand accounts of surgeons, assistant surgeons, nurses and Sanitary Commission workers. Even if you do not have ancestors that were in some type of medical service in the Civil War, these resources are informative about what the war was like for anyone who served.  Physicians and nurses were educated, so they may have been more likely to write diaries and letters home about their experiences than many of our ancestors.  They were at hospitals in Washington D.C. and New York and at the battles of Bull Run, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor etc. Reading these accounts might be the only way to know what it was like for our ancestors who were in the same places.  Here are some of the things that might give you insight:

May 1864 Fredericksburg, Va. Nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (Library of Congress

May 1864 Fredericksburg, Va.
Nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (Library of Congress)

Their non-medical experience:

  • Observations of  battles from a non military perspective, where they see the best and worst of human decision-making, as well as kindness and cruelty by both sides.
  • Stories of particular battles –  men faced with the reality of war responding with fear and panic, but more often by remarkable bravery.
  • Details about the rigorous life in between battles – long marches from one location after another, what they did at camp, what food was available etc.
  • Personal reflections – the expectation of a quick and easy war at the beginning quickly changes to the realization that it is going to be a long engagement. It is their own self-discipline that makes them stay with the army  and put one foot in front of the other.
  • Remarks about the politics of the army and hospital administration.
  • Problems with supplies and transporting the injured that organizations like the Sanitary Commission were able to help fulfill.

The medical experience:

  • Wounds and illnesses of ancestors identified in their pension files:
    • Injuries from mini balls, shells and canisters
    • Complications of battle wounds: gangrene and pneumonia
    • Illnesses not related to battles: diarrhea, malaria, dysentery, typhoid, measles – many associated to poor sanitation and food that the physicians tried to address
    • Recruits who came in with undiagnosed illnesses: epilepsy, tuberculosis, syphilis, hernias
  • Surgeons who amputated for days without sleep and who saw their battalion disintegrate with each body coming in through surgery during the battle.
  • The injuries they were able to “heal” and all the men that were released from hospital without arms or legs, with facial injuries and emotional trauma. They are sent home to be taken care of by family or their communities.
  • Types of foods your ancestor would eat depending on their injury and severity
  • Small gifts they would have received that were donated to the soldiers who were convalescing – jams made by local women, paper and stamps for writing home, reading material, small amounts of money, tobacco, fruit.
In Hospital and Camp by Harold Elk Strauburg

In Hospital and Camp by Harold Elk Straubing

I found an excellent collection of 1st hand accounts of the Civil War by medical personnel in the book In Hospital and Camp. The excerpts don’t focus on military strategy or fighting, but rather on the physical and emotional damage of combat and what it was like to face the challenges the battles created. They are mostly from the Union side, with just a few from the Confederate forces. The chapters from Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman and Frederick Law Olmstead were an opportunity to see another side of these well-known public figures.

Here is a bibliography of some of the books I have been reading.  You might be surprised at how many are available at your local library, university library or on-line. Check WorldCat for the closest location near you. If you know of any others books that have been helpful in your research, let me know and I will add them.

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