Civil War Casualties & Hospitals

Read “War Casualties, 1863” and Civil War Hospitals. Examine the photographs.

Scene: You are a wounded soldier in a Civil War field hospital. Write a letter home to your family describing the war and your experience as a wounded soldier.
- Include details that can be shown with evidence from the readings and photographs.
- Include details about the effect of the new weapons on the soldiers.
- Include details about medical knowledge or procedures during the war.

War Casualties, 1863

• Disease was the more deadly enemy of a Civil War soldier. “These big battles,” wrote one soldier, “is not as bad as the fever.” Another soldier observed that sickness was widespread because “the boys had not learned how to cook, nor to take proper care of themselves.” They left garbage and sewage lying about their camps. As long as water looked clean, they drank it. Bad water washed down a bad diet of beans, corn, and salt pork. No wonder one soldier came to believe that “beans killed more than bullets.”

• Many of those killed in battle were victims of two new weapons, the Napoleon cannon and rifled muskets. Of these, the Napoleon cannon was the more terrifying. Besides traditional cannon balls, this weapon could shoot a canister filled with lead shot, iron bolts, or rusty nails. Once fired, the canister blew apart, spraying deadly hail of flying metal over a wide area. It was enough to make even the bravest soldier duck for cover during a bombardment.

• The new weapon of choice for the foot soldier was the rifled musket or rifle. By putting a spin on a bullet, the rifle extended both the range and accuracy of small-arms fire to as far as 500 yards. The bullet used in the new rifle was a heavy, inch-long projectile called the Minie ball after its inventor, a French military officer named Claude E. Minie. The Minie ball slammed into its victims with bone-shattering force, sometimes wrenching off an arm or leg with one shot.

• These new weapons did not, at first, lead to new military tactics. As in earlier wars, battles were still fought by large groups of men marching toward each other over open ground. In the past, few men had been killed by musket fire in such encounters. The guns were simply too inaccurate to be very effective. Most of the fighting and killing had been done with bayonets. When Civil War soldiers marched across open ground against troops armed with the new rifles, they were like ducks in a shooting gallery. Most were picked off long before they closed in to bayonet range.

Civil War Hospitals

• The first women to show up in camp hospitals quickly understood why soldiers tried hard to stay out of them. Most were dark and dirty pest holes from which few wounded men emerged alive. Author Louisa May Alcott recalled being hit by “a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted the human nose” when she began nursing duty. On her first day in a Confederate hospital Kate Cummings wrote that: “Nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest notion of the horrors witnessed here.”

• The nurses attacked these grim hospitals with soap and water. They threw open windows to let in fresh air and sunlight. And they treated the wounded with generous doses of tender care. Even so, the nurses could do little to improve the survival rate of the severely wounded. The Civil War was fought, the Union Surgeon General recalled later, “at the end of the medical middle ages.” Doctors knew nothing yet about the cause of disease and infection. Nor did they understand the need for good nutrition and sanitation. The wounded man’s first stop was often the surgeon’s tent, where the usual treatment for a serious injury was amputation. “We operated in old, blood-stained and often pus-stained coats,” one surgeon remembered. “We used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected pus-lined cases....If a sponge or instrument fell on the floor it was washed and squeezed in a basin of...water as if it were clean.”

Field Hospital

The tools of the surgeon