Debunking myths about medicine during Civil War

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HARRISONBURG, Va. – On three blistering days in July 1863, more than 50,000 men fell dead or wounded in the fields and forests of Gettysburg, Pa.

The carnage was unlike anything America had ever seen, and presented medical care providers with their first chance to test newly developed techniques, such as triage.

“Before Gettysburg, when a guy got shot, five of his best friends helped carry him off the battlefield,” said Steven Frysinger, a James Madison University professor of integrated science and technology. “That could clean out your army pretty fast, leaving you with no one to do the fighting.”

Gettysburg medicine.

As re-enactors prepare to celebrate the 138th anniversary of the July 1-3, 1863, battle – considered by many to be the turning point of the Civil War – Frysinger notes it also signaled the turning point in the way huge numbers of wounded were cared for.

“Instead of allowing a wounded soldier’s buddies to get him back to the rear, both armies appointed litter-bearers and established ambulance corps,” Frysinger said.

Quick response.

“As soon as possible, the wounded were taken from the field and treated in a series of hospitals, from triage units all the way up to the major hospitals. That system got its first real trial at Gettysburg.”

It worked, he said. In the past, soldiers could lie in agony on the battlefield for as long as 48 hours. At Gettysburg, even wounded Confederates – abandoned by their army, which retreated into Virginia – were taken care of in a timely manner.

But for Frysinger, who was a re-enactor for the 135th anniversary of Gettysburg, one of the greatest pleasures of portraying a Civil War doctor is debunking the myths about how medicine was practiced in 1861-65.

Common misconceptions.

Among the most common fallacies:

* Civil War surgeons were butchers. Some were, Frysinger said, but the majority of surgeons fought hard to save the lives of soldiers.

Amputations were common, though not because of a lack of technology – it took only six minutes to remove a limb but as much as an hour to repair a limb.

“When you had hundreds of wounded men,” he said, “it simply became a matter of saving as many lives as you could.”

* There were no painkillers. Frysinger said both armies had copious quantities of chloroform, ether, morphine, laudanum and opium.

* Doctors didn’t carry weapons. Civil War surgeons on both sides were required to carry sidearms. In addition to swords, surgeons carried pistols – not to fight with, but to guard against theft of precious supplies.

Frysinger said a surgeon’s own men, given a chance, would waylay him for the drugs and whiskey (used to raise blood pressure) in his saddlebags.

* Doctors didn’t fight. Many surgeons “got caught up in the moment,” drew their weapons and joined the battle.

Neither side smiled on this practice, since the loss of a surgeon could mean the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of men.

One good thing.

“Despite the carnage, something positive definitely came out of it,” Frysinger said. “We developed the notion of triage, nursing and the various stages of hospitals. Many surgical techniques were developed, particularly bullet extractions.

“We learned a lot,” he continued. “Not how to stay out of wars, but how to better cope with them from a medical standpoint.”

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