Contents of this page: Surgery, Diseases, Sanitary Commission, [[ and Field Hospitals|Regimental and Field Hospitals]].

Medicine in the Civil War


During surgery, Civil War doctors did not wash their hands. They also did not wash their instruments. Sometimes, the doctors just wiped the instruments on their clothing before operating on the next soldier. Not only did soldiers die from unwashed instruments, they also died from many diseases lurking around the camp.

Many soldiers had to receive amputations. They feared them because most of the time the soldiers would witness an amputation being done right in front of them. Total amputations done during the Civil War was about 49,981 soldiers. There was another procedure besides amputation. It was called resection. Resection was when a doctor cut only part of the injured bone. Doctors preferred to amputate instead of resection because amputations were faster and easier. Most doctors amputated everything from fingers to toes. Doctors tried to do an almost pain-free job by using cholorform or putting the men to sleep with ether while the surgery was being done.

One of the biggest problems with injuries was infection. Many doctors were not even trained to treat bullet wounds and infected body parts so a lot of soldiers went through a lot of pain.

To become a doctor, a man would attend a medical school for two terms of six-month lectures. Usually, the second term was a repeat of the first. Another way of becoming a doctor was to serve as an apprentice to another physician. There were over 40 medical schools in the United States before the war, but they didn't teach about germs or antiseptic practices because those theories hadn't been discovered yet.


Soldiers had gotten a variety of diseases including: Dysentery (44,558), Typhoid Fever (34,833), Ague, Yellow Fever, Malaria (10,063), Scurvy, Pneumonia (19,971), Tuberculosis (6,946), Smallpox (7,000), chicken pox,Scarlet Fever, Measels (10,063), Mumps, and a Whooping cough. These diseases killed more soldiers then battle wounds did. In the Union Army, nearly three out of every five soldiers died as a result of disease and the in the Confederate Army, nearly two out of every three soldiers died from disease. The number one killer of the Civil War was Dysentery. The dieases killed so many because doctors did not know what caused each of them; therefore, they could not treat them correctly. Many of the diseases occured as a result of the close-living conditions in the camp and lack of sanitation. There were no innoculations like today, so soldiers carried diseases and unknowingly passed them to other soldiers.

As you could guess there was a lack of doctors in the Civil War. However, the Union army had a lot more doctors than the Confederates. Another problem was infection. They used a patient's bad pus and gave it to other patients, thinking it would help other patients, but instead got the other patient even worse than they currently were.

At prisons many diseases were caught by soldiers if they had been captured. The soldiers would be given very little food and water, which wouldn't help. The reasons that the soldiers got all of these diseases in the first place was because of bad hygiene, garbage in camp, filth from camp sinks, overcrowding, exposure to all types of weather, improper and inadequate diet, bugs, lack of surgeon, and inclement weather.

Sanitary Commission

The Sanitary Commission was formed in 1861 to teach cleanliness and other healthful habits to help prevent diseases in the Union Army.In 1862 President Lincoln appointed a surgeon general and camps were inspected to see if they followed the required regulations for cleanliness and health. The Sanitary Commission was also responsible for inspecting hospitals and training women volunteers to care for the sick.

Regimental and Field Hospitals

Musicians and cooks served as stretcher bearers. Wounded soldiers were cared for at field hospitals. Surgeons performed surgery in homes, barns or near the battlefield. Arms and limbs that were amputated were piled near the buildings were surgery was performed. After surgery, the soldiers were moved to hospitals by ambulance. Many soldiers died from shock or infection or gangrene. Soldiers who recieved an amputation had a 75% survival rate.

When the war began, there was not an esatablished method to treating soldiers, especially soldiers that were wounded on the front lines and that needed to be taken to the field hospitals. In 1862, Jonathan Letterman, the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, established procedures for quickly evacuating the wounded soldiers. He trained stretcher bearers and established the ambulance corps, horse drawn wagons that would carry the wounded to hospitals The Confederates also established a similar system. Letterman's procedures are still used today.

There were several levels of care. Field dressing stations were located near the fighting and would be used for bandanging wounds. If the soldiers were unable to return to the battle, they would be sent to the field hospital in an ambulance or stretcher.

At the field hospital, the soldiers were seperated into three groups, depending upon their need for care. The groups were mortally wounded (would not survive), slightly wounded, and surgical cases. The field hospitals were usually barns or tents behind the lines of battle. Of all the surgeries performed during the Civil War, 95% of them were done with some form of anesthesia, usually choloroform or ether.

Because there were so many wounded needing long-term care, general hospitals were established in both the North and the South. In the beginning of the war, any building that could house large numbers of soldiers were used, but eventually both armies built pavilion-style hospitals. These hospitals were clean and efficient and were staffed by surgeons, male and female nurses, matrons, laudressess and civilian volunteers.

Also needing medical care were the many animals used to haul wagons and cannons, as well as the personal mounts of the calvary and other officers. Veterinary medicine was part of the Civil War and infirmaries treated mules and horses that were sick or of little use. An estimated 1 million horses died during the Civil War.