Medicine was comparatively rudimentary during the era in which the Civil War occurred. Doctors did not understand many of the fundamentals that are a part of basic medicine of today. The causes of disease were yet unknown, and the doctors and nursing staff in charge of caring for wounded and sick soldiers were woefully under qualified. In many cases, there simply were not enough workers on hand to care for the soldiers who needed help. Doctors and nurses didn’t understand the importance of sterility and sanitation, either, so they did not know to take proper precautions while caring for the sick and wounded. Both the North and the South were ill-prepared to handle the medical needs of the soldiers who were casualties of this unprecedented war.
Common Nursing and Medical Practices
Overall, the military surgeons working on both sides did not have sufficient training to enable them to handle the influx of injuries that poured in as a result of the battles and from just serving as soldiers in general. Many had never been faced with gunshot injuries, and they were unfamiliar with the typical injuries that occurred in war. Performing amputations was a common practice, especially for battlefield surgeons. Both sides built military hospitals in large cities designed to house and treat general casualties. Sanitation practices were virtually nonexistent. Patients regularly got blood poisoning or system-wide infections as a result of the lack of sanitation. Disease was rampant. In fact, soldiers were more likely to die of disease than from a battle injury. Eventually, medical care improved and physicians were able to use anesthesia for surgeries, which enabled them to perform more complicated procedures. Hospitals also began keeping better records of their patients over time.
Influential People of the Era
One important advancement during the Civil War was the development of an ambulance corps. Jonathan Letterman was a medical director for the Union, and under his leadership, Letterman created a system for managing mass casualties. The system began on the battlefield. First aid attendants were stationed near battlefields. These workers would assess the wounded and move them away from the battlefield using wagons and mules, transporting them to mobile field hospitals where nursing staff and surgeons would care for their injuries. Some wounded would eventually be transferred to the permanent military hospitals for continuing care.
Clara Barton was another influential person who worked in the medical field during the Civil War. Raised in a family that believed strongly in women’s rights, Barton pursued teaching before she redirected her focus to public service. When the Civil War broke out, Barton became involved with caring for wounded Union soldiers. She also worked diligently to gather supplies and transport them to battlefields and field hospitals. Barton was personally present at some notable battles, including Antietam and Fredericksburg, where she worked to move supplies where they were needed. She also assisted surgeons on the battlefields. Later, President Abraham Lincoln asked Barton to help with finding and identifying soldiers who were missing in action. Barton also founded the American Red Cross after seeing the activities of the International Red Cross.
Dorothea Dix worked as an administrator in Union military hospitals during the Civil War. She worked tirelessly as an advocate for female nursing staff. Medical supplies were donated to the military hospitals during the war, and Dix was in charge of managing and allocating the supplies so the nurses and physicians could use them. Although Dix had no nursing training or education, she used her exceptional organizational skills to manage the nursing corps and supplies. She also instituted strict requirements for people wishing to join the corps. The nurses had to be between the ages of 35 and 50, matronly, obedient, healthy, and of good character. The nurses were paid 40 cents per day, and they had to commit to at least three months of service.