Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War

More than three million soldiers fought in the American Civil War from 1861-1865. More than half a million died, and almost as many were wounded but survived. Hundreds of thousands were permanently disabled by battlefield injuries or surgery. Although tragic, these injuries and the resulting medical needs revolutionized battlefield medicine, surgical amputations, and prosthetic technology. You can learn about the costs of the American Civil War, the advances in medicine that resulted, and the plight of the injured and disabled veterans at the Health Sciences Library with Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War, the traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine. Read on to learn some highlights from the exhibit plus other ways to dive deeper into this fascinating topic!

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Five disabled veterans of the American Civil War. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

One of the reasons that the American Civil War resulted in so many injuries was the new technologies used on the battlefield. For example, rifled muskets fired farther and more accurately than older weapons and could be quickly reloaded with the minié ball, a bullet of soft lead invented in the 1840s. The ammunition caused extensive damage as it changed shape on impact, shattering two to three inches of bone and dragging skin and clothing into the wound. The scale of the damage and risk of infection was a major cause of amputations. Infectious disease was also a source of threat to soldiers – in fact, yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, and diarrheal diseases took more lives than battlefield injuries. These factors resulted in a call for improved conditions and medical care for the soldiers who were fighting.


Amputation being performed in front of a hospital tent, Gettysburg, July 1863. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

Of course, during the war, a trip to the doctor was sometimes a worse experience than the injury itself. At this time, the vast numbers of wounded men made it impossible for surgeons to undertake more delicate and time-consuming procedures such as building splints for limbs or carefully removing only part of the broken bone or damaged flesh. As a result, three quarters of all of the operations performed during the war were full-limb amputations. Further, most physicians had a very limited understanding of the importance of sterilization and the risks of infection, and little practice treating the kinds of major cases seen during the war.

Private George W. Lemon, from George A. Otis, Drawings, Photographs and Lithographs Illustrating the Histories of Seven Survivors of the Operation of Amputation at the Hipjoint, During the War of the Rebellion, Together with Abstracts of these Seven Successful Cases, 1867. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

To learn more about the advances in medication and the lives of the soldiers treated during the war, be sure to stop by the Library Atrium before September 8th, 2016 to catch the full exhibit. You can also join us for a Lunch & Learn session on Thursday, August 25th at noon led by veteran and surgeon, Jose Borrero, MD. In this session, he will discuss the history of amputations from the Civil War, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars up to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’ll also discuss how these surgeries have changed since the Civil War with the advent of vascular surgery and microsurgery.

Veterans John J. Long, Walter H. French, E. P. Robinson, and an unidentified companion, 1860s. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.



2 thoughts on “Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War

  1. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such excellent info being shared freely out there.


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