Saturday, March 25, 2006

Civil War Medicine

Surfing the web for something interesting, I found these fascinating excerpts from the journal of J. S. Billings, a Civil War surgeon who served the men fighting around Petersburg in 1864. Nothing further need be said. His words speak clearly even from 142 years past.

"... The character of the surgery performed in the field hospitals during the campaign has been unprecedently good. The majority of cases have been properly dressed, and operated on, before being sent to the rear, and, for this reason, the number of primary operations has been very great. The great majority of wounds have been caused by the conoidal ball, but a few wounds from grape or canister have been observed. The treatment of flesh wounds has been simple and uniform, consisting of a small piece of wet lint placed on the wound, or wounds, and retained in position by a turn of bandage, or a slip of plaster ..." - Billings, J.S., Asst. Surg., USA, Army of the Potomac, near Petersburg, VA."

"Setting Up A Hospital
Page #1
June 17, 1864
I do not believe that my work at hospitals will ever end. I almost feel the same about this war. I arrived at City Point on an afternoon in mid-June, as the steamers were being unloaded with medical supplies. The General had moved our army yet again, crossing the James River to target Petersburg. Of course, we moved when the army did, and now we worked to get another hospital ready for the soldiers already fighting near the city.

Page #2
Two days later, the first 500 wounded soldiers arrived at the hospital before we were even ready for them. Before that day was over, more than 3,500 patients were seen by the staff. I think I saw a couple hundred myself. So many faces, I can’t recall. The following days were much the same, so there was little time for us to rest.

Page #3
Hardly a day passed, when we did not hear the roar of the cannons from the Petersburg front. Even when there was no report of battle, soldiers arrived at the hospital by the train load. I tried to help the men who poured into the hospital day after day, many suffering terrible wounds. Under the knife, I operated on so many misshapen bodies, knowing that these men would never be the same again. Afterwards, I rested, while watching the nurses wash the blood-stained floors of the operating room. Even after three years of war, I still found it difficult to deal with the horror of it all.

Page #4
I always felt rewarded when I saw a wounded soldier slowly healing from his surgery and gaining their strength. They were fortunate to be in a hospital that was so well supplied. I was pleased to be finally working in a hospital where the patients had a clean bed to lay their head, good food, and experienced doctors and nurses to care for them. This was not the only change I noticed in hospital care by this time in the war. The Medical Department had made some changes to hospital care, and one was the addition of women nurses, who seemed to take great care with the patients, even so far as hanging colored papers over the walls, the windows, and doors to make this depressing place a bit more cheerful for its occupants. Our patients really appreciated these small gestures of kindness.

Field Station
Page #1
The army was planning a big battle near the end of July, so I was one of the surgeons who volunteered to go to the front line for a few days. I had some experience working in the field dressing stations, so I traveled down to the front line with some assistant surgeons. I had no idea what a disastrous day it would be for our men.

Page #2
How many wounded men passed through my shelter that day, I could not possibly recall. The battle had started before daybreak with the sound of a big explosion followed by artillery fire across our lines. Thankfully, I was safely behind the lines, waiting for the confusion to begin. I prepared my station for all of the wounded that would be arriving once the battle began. The image of the wounded still stands out in my mind.

Page #3
The wounded never stopped coming through my tent, located just a few hundred yards behind the Union lines. Equipped with a pile of bandages and some bottles of medicine, the first aid tent was barely more than shelter with blankets scattered on the ground. Men continually carried the soldiers off the battlefield behind our lines to the dressing station. There it was my job to give these men quick care before they were taken on to the Field Depot Hospital near Grant's Headquarters. There were others there to help me, but there were so many wounded that we could not take care of them all.

Page #4
I gave the men who had been shot in the leg, the arm, or the stomach, opium to numb their pain. I tried to clean and wrap as many wounds as I could, before many of the soldiers took their trip to the hospital. There was little I could do to comfort them. Most of the fighting was up the hill on the other side of our trench. We were behind the dirt walls, where we had pretty good protection, though an occasional bullet sometimes whizzed past. As the hours passed, my hands grew tired from the care I gave to hundreds of wounded that day. Fortunately, most of them would make the trip to City Point, where they would get much better care in our hospital. Still, a few breathed their last under my tent that day.

Page #1
From Battlefield to Hospital
A few days after the terrible battle, I received orders to head back to the main hospital at City Point. I made the trip with the latest group of soldiers wounded on the front lines. There was a lot of confusion, as I watched ambulance workers load the wounded onto the horse and carriages that would carry us the short distance to our railroad.

Page #2
Once the ambulance delivered us to the railroad depot, I boarded the railroad train with the wounded, to try to assist them in some way. We were packed very tightly on these railroad cars, so that the bed of hay offered no comfort. Men screamed in pain as their mangled bodies constantly knocked against one another from the jolting of the railroad car. Blood was everywhere, as I sit among the men and the smells were almost unbearable. Thankfully, the trip to the hospital was a short one. I was quite relieved when the train finally pulled up to the center of the hospital tents, and I worked quickly to help the severely wounded to the operation area.

Page #1
I worked late into the night performing surgery after surgery on the wounded who streamed into the hospital. There was no end to the trainloads of wounded who continued to arrive at the hospital throughout this long day. I really just wanted a few minutes to sit down and rest, to get away from the depressing scene of thousands of young, wounded soldiers whose lives would never be the same again.

Page #2
My tired hands were getting stiff from the chill in the air as the evening slowly passed. I could hardly look at the faces of these men whose bones were splintered by bullets and whose bandages were soaked with blood. I had to block out the shrieks and moans of those who still lay in the field waiting for their turn to come to the surgeon's table. It was how I got through the horror of it all. ‘

Page #3
I ignored the pile of arms and legs that sat in the corner of the operating room. When I became a doctor, I had never imagined performing so many surgeries at once. The truth be told, before the war, I had only operated on one person who was injured from a gunshot wound. I had to learn quickly how to amputate an arm or leg. On nights such as this, I moved from patient to patient hardly washing my hands and instruments I used to perform the amputations.

Page #4
Finally, the last wounded soldier of the day was brought to my table. He had already been given medicine to put him to sleep for his surgery, and he lay on the table white and still. When I looked down at his young face, I hesitated a moment. He looked so much like my own brother who was somewhere else fighting. As I was about to remove his leg, it made me sad to think this young boy would live his life a shattered wreck. I trembled for a moment to think that he could easily have been my brother, and somewhere a family had no idea what was about to happen to him. I picked up my saw and got to work."

To read more excerpts from journals about medical care and other aspects of life during the war, please click here.



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that is really interesting.