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History of Medicine

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Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War home

The Horrors of War Banner Header with backdrop of a field strewn with bodies

Horrors of War

"No tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen
portray the horrible sights I witnessed."

Recollections of a soldier wounded at Antietam, 1862

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Sepia-toned stereograph of decaying corpses on a battleground. Three men are gathering the remains for burial.

Collecting the remains of the dead, 1860s
Courtesy Library of Congress

Most soldiers, many of whom were as young as eighteen when they reported for duty, were unprepared for the realities of wartime and the scale of the carnage. They were usually marshaled for service without training, and often stationed miles from where they had grown up. Both sides had predicted a swift resolution to the conflict, and morale plummeted as the fighting dragged on.

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Wounds of War

Color illustration of a segement of bone with a bullet wound and an infection.

Infection in bullet wound, Surgical Memoirs of the War of the Rebellion, Vol 1, 1870
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

New technologies increased both the risk of injury and its severity to soldiers. Rifled muskets fired farther and more accurately than older weapons and could be quickly reloaded with the minié ball, a bullet of soft lead invented in the 1840s. The ammunition caused extensive damage as it changed shape on impact, shattering two to three inches of bone and dragging skin and clothing into the wound. The scale of the damage and risk of infection was a major cause of amputations.

Black and white photograph a large group of men, some injured, sitting and lying on the ground in front of hospital tents.

Union Field Hospital, Savage Station, VA, after the battle of 27 June 1862
Courtesy Library of Congress

Color photograph of a Civil War-era musket.

Musket, 1850s
Courtesy Harper's Ferry National Park

Color photograph of Civil War-era ammunition.

Ammunition, ca. 1850
Courtesy Harper's Ferry National Park

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Deadly Diseases

Black and white photograph of the inside of a hospital ward with injured soliders laying on beds.

Hospital ward in a convalescent camp at Alexandria, VA, 1860s
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Soldiers were vulnerable to infectious diseases that spread rampantly in crowded camp conditions. In fact, yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, and diarrheal diseases took more lives than battlefield injuries. Among those who had not been previously exposed to them, childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps, and diphtheria became a serious threat. Some men never even saw combat, falling so ill as to require immediate hospital care. They perished or recovered alongside the rising numbers of wounded swelling the wards after every battle.

Color photograph of a white ceramic pot with a spout and a handle.

Invalid feeding cup, 1800s
Courtesy of National Museum of Civil War Medicine

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Digital Documents

Front page of the November 19th, 1864 issue of the hospital newspaper, The Cripple. The newspaper has three columns of text below the newspaper header.

The Cripple,
hospital newspaper, 1864
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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Last Reviewed: February 21, 2014