Civil War Medicine—Not Just About Treating Battle Injuries


This post, which features a brass syringe found in a privy in Baltimore, anticipates April 2021’s Maryland Archeology Month, with its theme of medical care in archaeology. The syringe was found in a mid-nineteenth century context, corresponding nicely with similarly dated examples in museum collections.


Figure 1.  Clyster syringe from the Metro Shot Tower site (18BC66) in Baltimore.  One of the mid-19th century residents at this site was a physician. 

Known as a clyster, this syringe was not used with a needle. Instead, the cylinder would be filled with medicinal powders, which could be injected into wounds (Dammann 1983).  A standard component in Civil War era physicians’ kits, clysters were also used to treat venereal diseases (NPS n.d.). The term clyster comes from an archaic word meaning “enema” and larger versions of these syringes were used to administer enemas.

As the site of numerous battles during the Civil War, including its deadliest one day battle at Antietam, Maryland was the site of a number of Civil War hospitals. These hospitals ranged from large complexes constructed specifically to serve as medical facilities (Figure 2), to barns, homes and other buildings repurposed as needed. When most readers think of Civil War hospitals, they probably envision treating gunshot wounds and performing amputations as being the most common tasks for these medical professionals. Physicians and nursing staff at these facilities, however, had a wider range of challenges facing them.


Figure 2. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md.  Library of Congress.

Deaths from diseases far outnumbered fatalities caused by battle-related injuries. Recent statistical revisions have increased the overall number of war fatalities from 618,000 to 752,000 (Hacker 2011) and some scholars place deaths from diseases as accounting for as many as two thirds of the fatalities (Foote 1958:1040; Dammann 1983). Typhoid, malaria, chronic diarrhea and dysentery (Figure 3), all caused by unsanitary conditions and exposure to disease-carrying insects, were major killers, felling almost 102,000 men (Burns 2021). One of the medical advances made during the Civil War was the use of quinine in treating malaria (Reilly 2016). Many soldiers, particularly from isolated rural areas, encountered childhood diseases like measles and mumps for the first time in the crowded conditions of the camps and trenches (Burns 2021).


Figure 3. Chronic Dysentery, Aaron Parker, Co D 1st Maine Cavalry.  Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive. 

Infections from delayed or improperly cleaned wounds were also a big concern – and development of antimicrobial drugs was still many decades in the future.  Some commonly employed medicines actually caused more harm than good (Reilly 2016).   

In our current public health crisis, many of us have had to practice quarantining as we were either diagnosed with Covid, or were symptomatic.  We can credit Civil War physicians with figuring out the value of isolating patients with communicable diseases; during the war they were able to effectively control yellow fever through the practice of quarantining (Reilly 2016).

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine, located in Frederick, Maryland, is a great place to visit to learn more about medicine and medical practices during this conflict. 

References

Burns, Stanley. 2021.  Diseases.  Behind the Lens:  A History in Pictures.  Mercy Street. Public Broadcasting Service. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/behind-lens/disease/#:~:text=Before%20war%20in%20the%20twentieth,was%20probably%20closer%20to%20750%2C000.

Dammann, Gordon.  1983.  Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment.  Volume I. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.

Foote, Shelby. 1958. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3. New York: Random House,     

Gugliotta, Guy.  2012.  New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.  New York Times, April 2, 2012. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html#:~:text=For%20110%20years%2C%20the%20numbers,any%20war%20in%20American%20history.

Hacker JD. 2011. A census-based count of the Civil War dead. Civil War History. 57:307–348.  

National Park Service. Syringes.  Vicksburg National Military Park. Museum Management Program. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/vick/LifeAboard/medicalEquipment/VICK1147_1146_1148_450_451_1145_syringe.html

Reilly, Robert F. 2016.  Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861–1865. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2016 Apr; 29(2): 138–142. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790547/#B2

E. Sasche & Co. 1864. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md. / Wm. Q. Caldwell, Jun. architect.  E. Sachse & Co., Baltimore.

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