Civil War Medicine – Advances and the Rise of the Amputee

The Civil War saw a great number of casualties and as doctors struggled to keep up with the number of wounded soldiers they slowly learned better ways to deal with injuries from experience and need.  The Civil War saw the beginnings of reconstructive and plastic surgery as well as advances in the treatment of chest wounds which became standard medical practice.  Battlefield surgeons learned the hard way and many advances came out of the horrors of war.

According to Chip Rowe in an article entitled 5 Medical Innovations of the Civil War, it was the shortage of supplies for the Confederates that led to the invention of an anaesthetic inhaler that allowed surgeons to use much less chloroform per patient.

Battlefield wounds were often very complex with canons and Minnie balls fragmenting bones and leaving irregular wounds in flesh that were subject to infection.  And lying unattended, sometimes for hours, on a dirty battlefield was not conducive to keeping wounds clean.  This is where amputations came in.

A soldier with a leg mangled by a canon shot had a much better chance of surviving if his leg was amputated right away before infection set in.  Battlefield surgeons did not have time to deal with complex injuries in mangled limbs and even if they performed what was termed a resection the risk of infection for this sort of injury was very high.  If infection set in and they were forced to amputate later the risk of the infection spreading was much higher.  According to Terry L. Jones in his article on Civil War medicine, Under the Knife, amputations performed right away, or primary amputations, had a mortality rate of only 25% whereas amputating later when a limb became infected had mortality rates twice as high.

So, amputation became a life-saving procedure on Civil War battlefields with experienced surgeons learning the best way to perform an amputation.  They made the cut as far from the heart as possible. The lower on a limb the amputation was made the more likely the patient was to survive.  Surgeons then tried to remove the nerves as high up as possible to avoid pain in the remaining portion of the limb.  This meant that transportation of the wounded patient was less torturous and the amputee had a better chance of feeling less pain wearing a prosthetic.

Due to the large increase in amputees during and after the war, better prosthetics became a huge concern.  From generals to poor foot soldiers nobody was safe from wounds or amputations.  Major General Richard S. Ewell lost his leg at the Battle of Groveton and after his recovery he returned to command with a wooden leg.  For others the loss of a leg changed their lives.

Major General Daniel E. Sickles lost his leg to a canon at Gettysburg in a fierce assault by the Confederates on his line.  Although there is some controversy over the strategy of Sickles who disobeyed orders in his placement of troops at Gettysburg, many Union generals with worse track records were kept around.  Civil War Historian, Craig Wilson, expressed in an interview his belief that the loss of Sickles’ leg, and the other injuries sustained, helped him avoid a court martial for his controversial tactics.  It is impossible to tell what the outcome of such a court martial would have been, whether he would have been branded insubordinate or exonerated for his actions.  What is certain is that Grant would not allow Sickles to return to command and some combination of the controversial tactics and serious injuries saw the end of his military career.  Sickles entered the world of politics and among a number of fascinating exploits he decided to donate his leg to a museum.  For several years after the donation he would return to visit his leg there on the anniversary of the amputation.

Less well-known than Sickles, yet equally important is the first amputee of the Civil War, James E. Hanger.  It would seem that James was simply not destined to fight.  He was too young to join the Confederate Army when the war started so he joined an ambulance group to follow a unit and try to join later.  He enlisted at Phillipi on June 2, 1861 and according to an article by Martha M. Boltz in the Washington Times, he was injured the very next day in his first skirmish.  He lost his leg on June 3 becoming the first amputee of the Civil War.  That in itself is interesting but James is even more remarkable because of his response to the amputation.

James was given a wooden leg but since his amputation had been above the knee he had very limited mobility with the wooden prosthetic.  After a stint as a prisoner he was exchanged and allowed to return home.  There he locked himself in his room and refused to come out.  His patient and worried mother brought him food and the materials he occasionally asked for and he left empty plates and wood shavings outside of his door.  As the weeks passed James’ family worried that he was falling into a deep depression.  However, James was not depressed; he was single-mindedly fashioning a more workable prosthetic.  He shaved barrel staves and willow wood to form a double jointed prosthetic.  It took about three months but when he was finished he opened the door to his room, walked down the stairs and amazed his family with a workable leg that restored both his balance and movement.

James filed for a number of patents for his first prosthetic leg as well as his subsequently improved models.  The boy who was not destined to fight in the Civil War spent the rest of the war dedicated to creating better and better prosthetics.  Thanks to James E. Hanger and many other talented and dedicated inventors the Civil War saw great advancements towards the first truly functioning prosthetics.

Now with technology continuing to advance in leaps and bounds there are some amazing possibilities for prosthetics for modern wounded soldiers.  As soldiers continue to return home from recent wars with missing limbs the need for advanced prosthetics is only growing.  With recent technology it is now possible to have a prosthetic leg 3-d printed for you.  Bespoke Innovations is a company that custom prints legs for amputees out of any material they wish and in a variety of custom designs.  You can take a look at their amazing gallery here.

Technology seems to be moving us closer and closer to having truly bionic body parts.  Computer technology has allowed us to create The Michelangelo Microprocessor Hand.  It uses a microprocessor chip that picks up the electrical impulses from your muscles and translates it into motion working very similarly to a real hand.  It allows people missing a hand to use a knife and fork, turn pages, and pick up small objects again.  Recently bionics have been all over the news with Rex, the bionic man, who is made entirely of bionic organ systems and parts.  The hope is that Rex will be the model for creating such systems to help people with failing organs.

Modern scientists and inventors are following in James E. Hanger’s footsteps and trying to restore as much movement and ability to amputees as possible.  While learning to adjust to a missing limb is always going to be difficult hopefully the modern advances in prosthetics will help.  There was nothing nice about losing a limb during the Civil War but modern technology has made some of the bionic parts and prosthetic replacements exciting in their own right.  Hopefully these and further advancements will restore a dignity and pride to amputees that previous prosthetics could not.

Review of the film “Gettysburg” that premiered on History tonight

Well, my attempt at live blogging was interrupted by the weather, but I wanted to try to sum up my feelings on the movie, some of which were covered here and here.

Overall, I felt that the program was quite interesting and a stark departure from recent Civil War films of the silver screen. Naturally, the best comparison for this film is Gettysburg (1993). In this History special, there is no Sam Elliott, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, or Jeff Daniels. It does not discuss Buford’s cavalry, the death of John Reynolds, or Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top. While the elements chosen for this film were not as much a focus of the theatrical movie, I was looking forward to see how the Scott brothers would cover those parts of the battle. There is less rich drama, mostly gritty emotional turmoil that illustrates the sheer horror of the battle and the larger war. It has some solid educational qualities to it, though.

The coverage of the first day centered around the story of the Iron Brigade’s role in the battle and the fighting inside the town. The coverage of the second day revolved around the Wheat Field and Culp’s Hill, while the third day focused on Pickett’s Charge, but lacking the sweeping dramatic panoramic shots of Confederate troops marching out, or Union forces behind the stone wall. The main difference was showing the horrors of the weaponry used against the troops on the charge. The scenes showing the charge lacked some of the power due to a lack of numbers used, but the idea the producers attempted to show seemed to be met.

The film pulled back to cover broader subjects of medicine, civilian involvement, and African Americans as they all related to the battle and war, which was a nice touch. Personal stories relating to soldiers involved did an excellent job of providing an intimate view of the battle, making the viewer feel as if they are next to the person. The live action scenes were one of the most detailed features of the film and truly gripping, with some fairly violent scenes demonstrating the carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

In addition, the film utilized computer generated graphics and images to discuss the technology used in the battle, specifically weapons and the effects on the soldiers, as well as illustrate the lay of the land in and around Gettysburg. This effective blending of graphics and live action adds to the films’ educational qualities.

One thing that separates this production from the theatrical version is a lack of focus on the major players (Generals Lee, Longstreet, Hancock, Buford, and Meade), except for Dan Sickles. Most of the characters focused on in the film are common soldiers, or brigade commanders, placing the battle around the actions involving their own individual units.

The Scott brothers created a production that illustrated a gruesome war, deviating from a largely romanticized and glorified portrayal of the war, even on History. While I hoped to see their portrayal of Joshua Chamberlain, I was generally pleased with the effort. I do hope that this is the beginning of more productions of this nature on other major battles of the war, especially from the Western Theater.

This film is part of a week-long series of programs on History on the war, including a program Tuesday evening called Grant and Lee. In addition, special episodes of Pawn Stars and American Pickers will deal with Civil War items, so be sure to check them out. Finally, thank you all for making today our busiest day with over 350 hits.

Still here

Fear not, I am still here. I have been a bit busy wrapping up my thesis and hope to get approval and defend it soon and graduate in August. After that, I will begin my doctoral work in the fall. With that I have not had the time to really write this last week. What I will say is that I hope to have something this next week and can always use some suggestions.

I do have a bit of sad news to report. Civil War Interactive is discontinuing its This Week in Blogs service for good reasons. I have emailed them and stressed that they appeal to Civil War bloggers to keep it going, but have not heard back. This is sad, as it was one of the motivators for my weekly postings. Fear not, as I will keep posting and will be finishing up reviews of Civil War books soon and will post them here.

Now, with regard to my thesis, I plan to explore posting it in some format here when it is completed. When that happens, I will let you all know. Have a great weekend and take care.

Welcome to our newest writer

Civil War History would like to welcome Billy Whyte as our newest writer. Whyte is a graduate student at East Stroudsburg University studying history. He is currently working on his thesis, which is on City-class Ironclads on the Mississippi River. We look forward to his posts.

Researching your Civil War ancestor

As a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), I thought I would take time to talk about genealogy, specifically relating to the Civil War. There are many great resources available to those seeking to find their Civil War ancestor, but you must know the easy way to start. I will share with you the example of my research on my Civil War ancestor, my great-great-great grandfather, Robert Alexander Montgomery.

My search began out of innocent curiosity. I had been interested in joining SUVCW for some time and figured that I would end up being an Associate member (member with no descendant serving the Union cause in the Civil War). I had an possible ancestor on my dad’s side, Private Philip Eglehoff (spelling sometimes varies between records), who was killed at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads in Tennessee (the battle occurred on Dec. 31, 1862 and he died of wounds on Jan. 01, 1863). The problem with trying to use Philip as my ancestor for membership was that I can prove his service to the Union, but can not prove his relation to myself. I am still searching out how I am related to Philip Eglehoff and will someday explore Sauerwein connections to the war.

I was looking at records on my mother’s maternal side of the family one day and noticed the date of birth (1845) for Robert Montgomery and that he was born in Pennsylvania and when I saw that he was sixteen in 1861, I knew that there may be a possibility of him serving in the Union army during the war. I decided to go online and check available sources on Pennsylvania Civil War veterans and hit the jackpot. I found via the online Pennsylvania State Archives that Robert Montgomery enlisted in Company G, 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment at age 16.

With this online knowledge, I took the next step and sent in a request form to the National Archives for his service record and, once I paid the $18 (this fee has increased to my knowledge), I had his service record, which I promptly sent a copy of along with my application for membership in SUVCW. Unlike Philip Eglehoff, I had records proving my lineage, but needed to prove service. I found my ancestor and now want to help you find yours.

There are two ways to start: one for those with family tree records and another for those with neither record, but a name. For those with family records proving lineage, all you need to do is prove that a relative served in the war. First, go online and search for Civil War veteran databases for the state that your ancestor likely served from, in terms of units, or look the name up on the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website. Many states have great online tools for searching for a veteran who served in that state. Pennsylvania State Archives has digitized their veterans’ index cards, which allow for printing, Illinois provides listings through the Secretary of State’s office, and independent sites provide digital copies of various state adjutant general reports, which are very helpful resources that provide demographic data on Civil War soldiers in a particular state.

Once you have information on your ancestor(s) via the online records (you can also search local historical archives if you desire, but distance may necessitate online searching, as it did for my case), you may want to obtain two sets of records from the National Archives (you may have to request through a state archive depending). The two sets of records provide different information and cost different amounts. The cheaper set of records is the service record, which will usually provide a discharge certificate, mustering records, and any other pertinent service information. The service record is the easier of the two to acquire as well, as some veterans do not have a pension record if they were killed during the war and left no survivors. A service record will run you $25.00.

The National Archives website states the following about pension records:

Pension Records

Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls) which is also available online at Ancestry.com (for a fee).

The pension file will often contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the CMSR, and it may contain much medical information if he lived for a number of years afterwards. For example, in his pension file, Seth Combs of Company C, 2d Ohio Cavalry, reported: “…my left eye was injured while tearing down a building…and in pulling off a board a splinter or piece struck my eye and injured it badly…it was hurt while in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Va. about Christmas 1864–a comrade who stood by me name Jim Beach is dead.” In another affidavit, Seth said he “also got the Rheumatism while on duty as a dispatch bearer on detached duty.”

To obtain a widow’s pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier’s minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier’s marriage and proof of the children’s birth.

A pension record will cost $75.00, but it may be worth the money if you are looking for more family record detail. Once you have either of these records, you are finished and can either keep searching further back, or for other Civil War ancestors, or, you can relax and take pride in your research.

For those of you that do not have a name or family records, your search will be a bit more difficult, as before you can begin the steps described above, you will need to find a name, unit information, and other relevant information to provide the Archive staff member that will research your request something to work with. That information will be placed on the request form available from the Archives (or you can order records online). To find this information, particularly name, birth year, and birthplace, you will either need to speak with older relatives (this is the best bet to find names and start your journey, as they may remember the ancestor in question from childhood), or visit your local archives, or archive of where your family resided for most of its history.

There, you will find, depending on the facility, a potential wealth of documents from ship’s records, to marriage and birth records. The marriage and birth records are key, as they are going to be the base for your family tree. You may need to go online and request census records from the National Archives, as the census records will provide household information every ten years, including surname, spouse, and children (including name and ages). Once you have traced your lineage back to between 1800-1850 (you will need to go this far back to establish the possibility of Civil War service based on age, with a minimum age being 15 with an 1865 enlistment), start searching the online and other Civil War veteran databases with all possible names and then once you have found some, send in the requests to the appropriate archival sites to obtain records.

Now, you have the tools needed to research your Civil War ancestors. Go out and search, and include your kids or parents, as they will likely (especially the kids) have as much fun with this as you. Once you have the records proving lineage and service, you may then apply for membership in one of the hereditary organizations for descendants of Civil War veterans. The two more well-known groups are Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is for descendants of Union veterans, and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), for those with Confederate ancestry. If you are descended from an officer, you are also entitled to membership in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) for Union officers, or Military Order of the Stars and Bars for Confederate officers. Good luck to everyone searching their lineage and I hope that you find a Civil War veteran in your family, and if they were Union, then please consider joining the SUVCW.

More interesting Civil War related videos

I stumbled across these interesting videos. The first is a really nice slide show by a high school teacher. The second is another nice slide show, set to “Ashokan Farewell”. The third is the strangest of the three, which is why I included it. The third video is a myriad of Civil War images set to the song “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses. The song is an anti-Vietnam War song and is not as good as the “Gettysburg” video I posted several months ago. In any event, I hope you enjoy these videos.

The internment of J. Allison Eyster

Call me strange, but I really enjoy doing hours of research on random people I find whilst reading Civil War-related materials. It’s my idea of a good time.

Browsing on the Valley of the Shadow site late this afternoon brought to my attention one J. Allison Eyster. Chambersburg’s wealthiest merchant during the war, Eyster possessed about $82,000 in assets (today equivilent to approximately $1,776,000.)

The man obviously had a knack for business, as he was quickly awarded the contract to supply provisions to the soldiers at Camp Slifer. Besides the contract, Eyster also did what we can infer to be well over $11,000 of sutlering to Patterson’s army. And this is apparently what got him into trouble.

Eyster was taken prisoner near Winchester, Virginia on the day after First Manassas without any discernable cause. He was first imprisoned in a Richmond tobacco warehouse with several other civilian prisoners, men from Waynesboro, and then detained in the County Prison until his release in early October.

From the reports of commissioners on various political arrests in the official records of the Confederate Army:
“He [J. Allison Eyster] is a Pennsylvania [sic] and a resident of Chambersburg. He is a wealthy merchant, well known in Baltimore; addicted sometimes to intemperance. He voted for Lincoln, but declares that he was entirely opposed to the war. He acted as a sutler in some sort to Patterson’s army, selling it a large amount of goods on account of which there is still due to him he says about $11,000, to collect which he says he followed that army into Virginia, where he was arrested at the instance of his connection, Jonas Chamberlain, of Frederick County, whose affidavit is herewith returned. Chamberlain says that Eyster came to his house very drunk, and came into Virginia in a drunken frolic under Patterson’s pass. I see no reason to detain Eyster unless as a hostage for the safety of our people who are in the bands of the enemy.”

While doing the research on Eyster, I noticed that a great many of the prisoners in the other reports had been arrested for basically no reason. This caused me to do some research on habeas corpus during the war. I’d known that Lincoln had suspended it in response to riots and whatnot, but I never realized (or really even thought about it for that matter) that Davis had suspended it as well.

New York Times (Oct 7 1861)
The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (p. 1427)
Valley Spirit (May 1, Jul 31, Oct 9 1861)

Crossposted to my blog, Ten Roads.

The Civil War vs. The War: Comparing Ken Burns

I must confess that I am somewhat at a loss for a topic to write about this week.  This is due to not having a Civil War book to review (although I can always make a dent in my library) and getting ready for the Northern Great Plains History Conference next week in Duluth, MN (if you are in that area, I invite you to come here my panel, as two of my colleagues and I are presenting on Civil War related topics).  With that said, I would like to turn my attention to the latest project by Ken Burns called The War, which is currently airing on PBS.  Now this documentary deals with World War II, and I know you are thinking, what does this have to do with the Civil War.  Well, having seen most of the episodes of The Civil War at one time or another, I thought I would offer my initial thoughts on Burns’ new project and how it compares to his earlier one.

Overall, both are in the same general style, but with The War containing obviously more film footage and being broken down differently (episodes of The War run about two hours).  Both use photographs and voice overs very well, as well as interviews.  The main difference between the two programs is the ability to interview veterans, which brings a whole new dimension to Burns’ film.  Though I have only watched part of one episode, I find myself wanting more and hoping that the release of this new project will result in a re-airing of The Civil War on PBS (it’s time to do this, as it has been a few years).  The only thing I miss with this new endeavor is the narrator from his first two series, as the narrator for The War is good, but it is just not the same.  The use of animation is a bit better, which may owe to improved technology, as the battlefield maps used in The War are more animated than they were in The Civil War.  It is my hope that Civil War historians will write about Ken Burns latest work because it would be interesting to see how their interpretations of the project compare to scholars of World War II.  One thing that is interesting with this new project is that Burns is looking at the period of World War II in which the US was involved and while this may be because his focus is on America, it would be interesting to see how he would have presented the first year and a half of the war and the years leading up to it.

All in all, I commend Ken Burns for his latest work.  I hope that he may one day tackle the Vietnam War as well, but I would really like to see a remake of The Civil War to update for recent scholarship and new primary sources that may have surfaced since original production.  I encourage all of you to watch The War even if you are not into the World War II period, as you should enjoy it.  Until next time, have a great week, keep researching, and if you would like a topic to be covered on this site, please contact me.

Seeking new writers

I am putting out a call for new writers for my site.  This is in response to increased attention as a result of joining the site Civil War Top 100 (you may notice the small icon on the right).  That said, if you are visiting and have knowledge of the war (i.e. if you are a historian, professor who teaches the Civil War, reenactor, or history buff) and would be interested in writing for this site, please email me with the following:

Name

Preferred email

Website (if you have one relating to the Civil War, as it will be linked)

Institutional affiliation (if you teach for a college)

A biography telling me and our readers a bit about yourself, which will be included on the Authors page.  You will have your own page like mine for example.  Your biography does not have to be as long as mine, but just enough to give readers a good idea about you.

I hope that you will consider writing for this site as I am always looking for new writers to contribute their knowledge.  If this is something that interests you, please consider emailing me.

Daniel Sauerwein

Civil War History creator