You may think that some Civil War soldiers were glad to get wounded. After all, they would be able to relax in a nice clean hospital and get looked after by expert doctors instead of fighting. However, this was not the case at all during the Civil War. The last place any soldier wanted to end up was in a Civil War field hospital.
What were the hospitals like?
Civil War field hospitals were horrible places. They were typically set up in barns or homes nearby the battlefield. They quickly became dirty places full of disease and suffering. Sometimes there wasn't enough room for all the wounded and they were just lined up on the ground outside.
Were the doctors trained?
Many of the doctors serving during the Civil War had very little training and the training they did receive wasn't very good. Doctors were unaware of how diseases spread. They didn't wash their hands or clean their medical instruments between surgeries.
The biggest concern for the wounded was infection. Due to the poor sanitary conditions of the hospitals and the doctors, many wounds became horribly infected. There were no antibiotics like Penicillin at the time, either. Many soldiers became sick and died from infections.
Because there weren't any antibiotics to help cure infections, the only real treatment for wounds was amputation. The wounded arm, leg, or finger would just be cut off. This was the main type of surgery that doctors performed. They became very proficient at amputation.
Was there anesthetic during surgery?
Fortunately, there were some forms of anesthesia at the time. Doctors generally used drugs such as chloroform or ether to sedate patients before amputation.
Women as Nurses
Thousands of women on both sides of the war volunteered to work as nurses in the hospitals. They assisted the doctors, dressed wounds, and helped to feed the wounded.
Of the 620,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, around 400,000 of them died from disease and not from fighting. They died from a variety of diseases including dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis.
Weapons Over Medicine
The era of the Civil War was a time when weapons were far more advanced than medicine. While medicine had not advanced much since the middle ages, weapons had become very proficient at killing and causing horrible wounds. Medicine would advance significantly over the next several years, but it was too late for those wounded during the Civil War.
Interesting Facts about Civil War Medicine
Because they were so good at performing amputations, doctors were nicknamed "sawbones".
Around 75% of amputee soldiers survived the operation.
The only woman to work as a doctor during the war was Mary Walker. She became the first woman to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In 1886, twenty years after the Civil War, the U.S. Army established the Hospital Corps.