Civil War Medicine at Ellwood

Saturday I was out at Ellwood, on the Wilderness battlefield, for a program on Civil War medicine. It was cool and sprinkling rain off and on, so the Designated Dog was Zille, because Tink Doesn’t Do Rain. Or cold. Or staying in the car, which Zille had to do after a walk around the grounds, because the program was inside.

Floyd, the Ellwood volunteer
Floyd was my tour guide for the house, one of the knowledgeable volunteers with Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield. He took a small group of us including visitors from as far away as Minnesota through the restored downstairs of the house.

A section of unrestored wall at the house, showing 4×4 oak studs and the original lathe and plaster construction. The current house was originally built in 1775.

A path in the hedge.
The path leading down to the cemetery and the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s left arm. No, I’m not kidding. His chaplain when he was wounded at Chancellorsville was a member of the family that owned Ellwood at the time. Mr. Lacy saw the arm lying in a pile of severed limbs outside the hospital tent where Gen. Jackson had been taken and carried it off to bury it at the family farm.

John & his medical implements
John, the gentleman giving the program on Civil War medicine. He’s what you might call a free-lance living historian; he doesn’t have a regular re-enactment unit that he’s part of. Instead, he gives presentations on Civil War medicine to any group who invites him: schools, and even a women’s group. He said that it was “really different” for them, “since they usually had someone come talk about flowers or something.”

Civil War medicine chest
The contents of his medicine chest: iodine, oil of turpentine, quinine, paregorie, morphine, opium, and mercurous chloride.

Trepanning tools
Trepanning tools. The two large items in the center are for drilling out and removing relatively large chunks of skull. Just above them is a device for lifting depressed skull fractures; just above that is the edge of a mask for administering chloroform. On the left edge of the photo, you can see part of a small saw for removing the bits of bone you’ve lifted.

It was a really good afternoon and time well-spent, with many little nuggets of fact added to my accumulated store of Things I Know About The Civil War. For example: most of us think of amputation as the first thing a Civil War surgeon resorted to in the case of a wounded limb, but this was not necessarily the case. American doctors had read the literature coming out of the Napoleonic wars and would triage limbs, checking to see if they could feel a pulse below the wound and if they could get the bullet out. If both of these things were true, odds were good you would keep your limb. Also, much has been made of the fact that conditions were filthy because germ theory wasn’t understood yet, but John made a good point: minie balls were known to go through the soft tissue of one man, carrying a plug of his flesh and shreds of his uniform, and lodge themselves in the soldier behind him. Even when that didn’t happen, these massive caliber bullets carried bits of the soldier’s own uniform and gear deep into the wound. The doctors were probably not significantly adding to the germ problem when they then probed the wound with their bare fingers, although sterile post-operative care might have prevented further amputations and deaths due to sepsis.

Also interesting to hear was that sepsis was not an automatic death sentence, but the effectiveness of the treatments was accidental. Septic wounds smelled bad, and things like turpentine and carbolic acid were applied (OW) to make them smell better. The fact that these things also tended to kill the bacteria causing the problem was merely a fortuitous side-effect of the treatment.

At any rate, it was definitely an enjoyable time, although sadly not as well-attended as it could have been. This was probably partly due to the weather and partly due to a lack of publicity, I can’t believe there’s so few Civil War Bores living in this area.


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