Medicine and the American Civil War

Medicine and the American Civil War

It is safe to say that we live in an age of medical advancement. Every day we are making strides to understand things such as genetics, disease development, and patient care. We are able to take organs and tissue from one person and put them in another. We are even able to do remarkable procedures such as face and limb transplants. This is however being always the case. Take for example medicine during the American Civil War. During the 1860s doctors were not aware of the causes of disease. They did not understand that bacteria and viruses caused the spread of diseases such as dysentery or cholera. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. Poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition, insects and vermin, and unclean water were the main causes of disease in Civil War camps. Sterilization was not a common practice during the war and the spread of disease was a major problem.

The requirements for doctors were not as strenuous as they are today. A typical doctor received only two years of schooling and many had no formal training but served with other doctors as apprentices. The majority of surgeons who served in the war did not have any experience treating gunshot would and many had never performed surgery. There were approximately 10,000 surgeons who served in the Union Army and 4,000 in the Confederacy.

The name of the game was speed for surgeons preforming operations such as amputations. The mini-ball added a new level of carnage to the war and for many the only chance of survival was for the affected limb to be amputated. Most surgeons had a medical kit that they carried with them throughout the war. Included in this kit were items such as scalpels, straight forceps, bullet extractor, scissors, probes, tourniquet, amputation knife, and a bone saw among other items. These items were kept in a case, usually with a felt lining. Surgeons did not typically clean their instruments between patients or sometimes at all.  An example of a surgeon’s medical kits can be seen at the museum. This item belonged to Dr. Amos and were donated to the museum by Floyd Elliott.

This item and others will be part of the Military Exhibit at the museum. I would like to take a moment to ask if anyone has any items or picture from the Korean or Vietnam conflicts, we would love to make them part of the exhibit. We are currently lacking in items for these two military conflicts. If you have any questions, please contact Sheena at 419-673-7147 or


Historically yours,

Sheena Striker

Assistant Director

Hardin County Historical Museums, Inc

223 N Main Street Kenton, OH 43326