Hospitals, Surgeons, and Nurses
The story of Civil War medicine is only less depressing than the story of Civil War prisons; if the first is lighted by flashes of heroism, the second is ameliorated by generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of doctors and nurses. As we have seen, one reason for the high mortality rate in prisons was the low state of medical and nursing services and the primitive standards of sanitation that obtained generally. This situation reflected in part conditions in civil life, in part the wholly inadequate preparation for war, in part the conditions of medicine and public health at mid-century.
At the outbreak of the war the United States Surgeon General's office consisted of a total of 115 surgeons; 24 of these resigned to form the nucleus of the Confederate medical services. Eventually both services were vastly-but quite inadequately-expanded. Nursing services, too, were primitive. The army still relied on male nurses, most of them quite untrained. At the outbreak of the war the famous humanitarian, Dorothea Dix, hurried to Washington to offer her services; she was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses, but never allowed any real independence. Most of the nursing service on both sides was voluntary; the United States Sanitary Commission did invaluable work in nursing and relief both at the front and in hospitals behind the line. Hospitals were mostly hastily improvised and inadequate. It is sobering to read that inspection of hospitals in the Union Army at the mid war period (November 1862 to March 1863) reported a total Of 589 as good and no less than 303 as bad or very bad, while inspections of medical officers from the beginning of the war to March 1863 found 2,727 good and 851 bad! It is to be remembered, too, when we read of the work of the surgeons and contemplate the mortality figures, that antiseptics were unknown, the relation of dirt to infection was generally not understood, anesthesia was just coming into general use, and drugs were inadequate.
It is not surprising in the light of all this that mortality from disease and wounds was far higher than from bullets, and that hospitalization was often regarded as equivalent to a death sentence. While no statistics are satisfactory and those for the Confederacy in a state of total confusion, it is a safe generalization that deaths from wounds were as numerous as deaths on the battlefield and that deaths from disease were more than twice both these combined. Perhaps the least unreliable statistics for the Union armies give 67,000 killed in action, 43,000 died of wounds, and 224,000 died of disease; an additional 24,000 are listed as dead from other causes-doubtless either wounds Or disease. Confederate statistics indicate a comparable situation. Fortunately most of the soldiers were young-the largest single age group was eighteen-and from the country, and had therefore high powers of resistance and recuperation; otherwise the situation would have been even more appalling.
Note: In the original document the following were "subsets" of the chapter which began with the above paragraphs. For ease of reading on the internet I have put these subsets on separate pages.
Source: Henry Steele Commager's "The Blue and The Gray," Volume II, Chapter XXII
This Page last updated 02/10/02
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