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.

“Heading” for Trouble in the Maryland Colony?


One of the more intriguing 17th-century artifacts found in Maryland is this ceramic figurine of a king (Figure 1). The broken artifact measures around 6 inches tall; originally the figurine would have stood about 10 inches in height (Grulich 2008).  The headless monarch is clad in armor, holds a sword in his right hand and an orb topped with a cross in his left. The figurine, broken into two pieces, was found in 1998 at the Charles’ Gift Site (18ST704), on Naval Air Station Patuxent River. It had been deposited in a large trash midden containing ceramics dating its filling between 1682 and 1700 (Polglase 2001:179). The Charles Gift property was home at this time to Nicholas Sewall, stepson of Charles Calvert, governor of the Maryland colony. Cecil Calvert (1605-1675), the 2nd Lord Baltimore, established the Maryland colony, ruling it as its First Proprietor. His son Charles (1637-1715) was the 3rd Lord Baltimore and, unlike his father, lived in the colony that he governed.

Figure 1. Headless king figurine from the Charles’ Gift site (18ST704). Courtesy Naval District Washington, Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Why would this figurine have found its way to the Maryland colony? There is some evidence that these figurines were produced as souvenirs of coronations and sold at fairs in England (Grulich 2008). It is possible that the Sewall family either purchased the figurine themselves, or had it shipped from England for display in their home. It may have been displayed in a room used for formal entertaining and signaled to visitors Sewall’s allegiance to the British throne.

Maryland prides itself on having been an early pioneer in the principles of religious toleration, welcoming Catholics, Puritans, Anglicans and Quakers.  The colony’s proprietary government was often led by Roman Catholic governors closely tied to the Calvert family from 1634 to 1689.  This religious tolerance marked the colony for the first five decades of settlement. But as the 17th century drew to a close, political events in England led to turbulent times in the Maryland colony. The 1689 Protestant Uprising sparked by the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, which replaced the Catholic king with Protestant monarchs King William III and Queen Mary II, ended Catholic governance in Maryland. For the next two and a half decades, the Maryland colony was governed directly by the British crown.

Nicholas Sewall retained his loyalty to the Calvert family during the rebellion and fled from his home at Charles’ Gift to refuge in Virginia. He returned to his plantation only sporadically in the ensuing years. It is tempting to hypothesize that the headless king figurine may have been a victim of the political and religious turmoil.  Is it possible that Sewall, after Catholic King James was deposed and replaced by Protestant monarchs, destroyed and discarded this depiction of the new royal authority?  Or, was it damage and discard just the result of an unintended household accident?  We will never know, but it is interesting to consider this object in light of the tumultuous early history of the colony.

There are several other 17th-century sites in southern Maryland where artifacts containing depictions of kingly figures have been recovered.  Another broken white clay kingly figurine was found at the Middle Plantation site in Ann Arundel County (Grulich 2008).  A fragment of a tin-glazed earthenware charger with a painted depiction of an unidentified royal figure was found at the Angelica Knoll site (18CV60) in Calvert County (Figure 2) and a complete German Hohrware jug with a portrait of England’s King William III was found at Westwood Manor in Charles County (Figure 3).  Archaeologists who studied this site speculated that property resident John Bayne used this object, as well as stoneware tankards bearing the king’s initials and a set of framed likenesses of William and Mary listed in his estate inventory, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Protestant monarch and the Church of England at a time when the King had just supported the overthrow of the colony’s Catholic-run government (King, Arnold-Lourie, and Shaffer 2008; Alexander et al. 2010).  

Figure 2. Fragments of a tin-glazed charger with a royal figure similar to the one depicted on the complete example shown to the right. These fragments were recovered from a cellar at the Angelica Knoll Site (18CV60), whose artifacts date from c. 1650 to 1770. Photographs courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.
Figure 3. Hohrware jug from the Westwood Manor site (18CH621), depicting King William III. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Julia A. King, St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

These kingly artifacts may be emblematic of the power struggles between Protestant and Catholic political factions in early Maryland. After the Protestant uprisings of 1689, religious toleration would not be regained in Maryland until the end of the 18th century. Regardless of their political and religious meanings, they hold a fascination for us today as enigmatic objects.  In fact, the headless king figurine was the subject of Maryland’s 2005 Archeology Month poster – an entry which won a prize in the 2006 poster contest of the Society for American Archaeology.

Figure 4. The headless monarch figurine featured on the 2005 Maryland Archeology Month poster. Poster image courtesy of the Archeological Society of Maryland.

References

Alexander, Allison, Skylar A. Bauer, Patricia H. Byers, Seth Farber, Alex J. Flick, Juliana Franck, Ben Garbart, Grace Gutowski, Julianna Jackson, Mark R. Koppel, Amy Publicover, Maria Tolbert, Verioska Torres, Alexandra Unger, Jerry S. Warner, Justin Warrenfeltz, Julia A. King, editor and Scott M. Strickland, researcher.

2010. The Westwood Manor Archaeological Collection: Preliminary Interpretations. Report prepared by the Archaeology Practicum Class, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Anne Dowling Grulich. 

2008. An Enigmatic Monarch:  The Biography of a Headless, Mold-made, White Pipe Clay King Recovered in 17th-Century Maryland.  Website accessed May 12, 2020 at https://jefpat.maryland.gov/Documents/mac-lab/grulich-anne-dowling-enigmatic-monarch-biography-headless-mold-made-white-pipe-clay-king-recovered-in-17th-century-md.pdf.

King, Julia, Christine Arnold-Lourie, and Susan Shaffer

2008. Pathways to History; Charles County Maryland, 1658-2008. Smallwood Foundation, Inc., Mt. Victoria, Md.

Christopher Polglase. 

2001. Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery at Site 18ST704 Naval Air Station Patuxent River, St. Mary’s County, MD.  Final report by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc., Frederick, MD.  On file at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.