- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

The Washington-Baltimore area has a firm hold on Civil War history. Battlefield sites such as Manassas and Antietam tell the story of the War Between the States and the 620,000 who died during it.

But helping to keep the death toll from climbing any higher were dedicated doctors and nurses who were brave, skilled and quick on their feet, working to save soldiers on the battlefield.

The role of the medical professionals is paid tribute at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which is in a historic building in downtown Frederick, Md. The 7,000-square-foot museum is an informative stop for anyone interested in Civil War history or the history of medicine.

"There is a perception that there was no medicine in the time of the Civil War," says George Wunderlich, education director for the museum. "Not only was there medicine, but if you go to a hospital today, many of the procedures and practices are based on those that developed during the Civil War. The Civil War was a pivotal point in medicine. Prior to the war, medicine had not advanced much since Roman times."

Visitors to the museum walk through several rooms that contain different facets of medicine during the era. The exhibit begins with medical education, explaining how doctors were trained before and after the war. The next room features the recruiting and enlisting of medical personnel. Camp life is next, with an explanation of how soldiers and surgeons lived. Along the way, there are artifacts and dioramas depicting the soldiers. The camp life scene includes the only surviving surgeon's tent from the war.

Even when a battle was not under way, that tent was a busy place, Mr. Wunderlich says.

"When the regimens went off to war, many of the men had never been exposed to childhood disease like chicken pox, mumps or measles," he says.

Combine disease with poor sanitary conditions, little knowledge of germs and a poor diet, and many men died in camp. Two-thirds of the 620,000 war casualties died from disease, not enemy bullets, Mr. Wunderlich says.

The artillery injuries, however, were a major responsibility for the war's medical personnel. The next section depicts the evacuation of the wounded. Before the Civil War, there was no established system to transport wounded soldiers from the front lines to the field hospitals. In 1862, Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Union Army, created a highly organized system of ambulances and stretchers. The Confederates soon adopted a similar plan.

The exhibit's evacuation room gives credit to the war's veterinary corps, as well. Horses and mules played an integral part on the battlefield and in evacuating injured soldiers. About 1 million horses died of injuries during the war; thousands more recovered at convalescent facilities.

The next three rooms show what would happen to the soldier when he left the battlefield. Given the nature of war injury and surgery, some of the scenes may not be appropriate for very young children. The museum has taken care to keep blood and gore to a minimum, but visitors should keep in mind their own child's comfort level when passing through the next few rooms.

The first level of care for a wounded soldier was at a field dressing station near the battlefield, where medical personnel bandaged wounds and administered whiskey for shock and morphine for pain. It was common for doctors from both the North and South to treat soldiers from the other side.

The soldier would then be transported to a field hospital, usually in a barn or tent in the rear of the fighting. This is where doctors developed the idea of triage sorting patients by the degree of their injuries. It was in the field hospitals that most of the amputations took place.

The field hospital exhibit explains why so many amputations were performed. A look at Civil War-era bullets on the wall shows part of the problem.

"There is a common theory that so many doctors were drunk or cowards or didn't have a clue," Mr. Wunderlich says. "But the bullet was the problem. The bullet was made of soft lead and it moved at high velocity. The power of the Civil War bullet was equal to a modern M-16 round. There was also no X-ray equipment, antibiotics or a sterile surgical suite.

"In many cases, if they didn't cut the limb off, the man would die," Mr. Wunderlich says.

Mr. Wunderlich points out that, contrary to popular belief, anesthesia usually chloroform or ether was used in three-quarters of the amputations performed and it was used in 95 percent of other operations.

The final stop for the wounded solider was at a pavilion hospital, where he could get long-term care. Both armies constructed hospitals to care for the injured, and the modern hospital system is largely based on practices learned during the war, Mr. Wunderlich says.

The end of the museum tour includes miscellaneous artifacts, such as a hospital gown, dental supplies and an apothecary cart. Visitors can pick up a list of the pharmacy cart's inventory for a look at how far medicine has advanced since the days of quinine, turpentine, brandy and syrup of squill.


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