HI 378_Towns_Week 3
Why was disease the major killer of soldiers in the civil war?
In the early years of the Civil War it became apparent that disease would be the greatest killer. Twice as many Civil War soldiers died of disease as were killed in combat. This was due to unsanitary and filthy conditions, untrained Medical personnel and sloppy medical examination of new recruits.
One alarming fact from the Civil War was 315,000 soldiers died from illnesses that included: 44,558 from diarrhea/dysentery, 10,063 from malaria, 34,833 from typhoid, 958 from typhus and 436 from yellow fever (http://www.unl.edu/ianr/entomol/history_bug/civil_war_disease_table.htm). ).
The sanitary conditions that existed during the civil war were shocking by modern standards. Unsanitary hospitals and camps kept the wounded soldiers in large groups, which were ideal places for infection, fevers and disease to spread. Soldiers were not immune to childhood diseases like the measles and small pox.(www.geocities.com/athens/academy/2063/ginac/html) and McPherson pg. 285 and 487). Medical science had not yet discovered the importance of antiseptics in preventing infection. Water was contaminated and soldiers sometimes ate unripened or spoiled food. There weren’t always clean rags available to clean wounds. Because of frequent shortages of water, surgeons often went days without washing their hands or instruments, thereby passing germs from one patient to another as he treated them. (www.civivwarhome.com/civilwarmedicine.htm.
However, the most characteristic creation of disease during the Civil War was the Medical Services, which represented one of the Civil War’s most dismal failures. The Civil War was fought at the end of the Middle Ages; therefore the Medical Corps was unqualified in all aspects of medical care. Little was known about what caused disease, how to stop it from spreading, or how to cure it. Surgical techniques ranged from the barbaric to the barely competent. The men in the Civil War were cared for by underqualified, understaffed, and undersupplied medical corps, who were often referred to as quacks and butchers by the press. . (McPherson pg. 486). During this period a physician received minimal training. Nearly all the older doctors served as apprentices in lieu of formal education. Even those who attended one of the few medical schools were poorly trained. The average medical student trained for two years or less, received no clinical experience, and was given virtually no laboratory instruction. (www.civivwarhome.com/civilwarmedicine.htm
Still, another reason for disease being the greatest killer in the Civil War was the superficial medical examinations of recruits. The recruiting process allowed underage, overage men and those in noticeably poor health to join the army on both sides. Two hundred thousand recruits originally accepted for service were judged physically unfit and discharged, either because they had fallen ill or because a routine examination revealed their frail condition. (McPherson pg. 326).
Throughout the war, both the South and the North struggled to improve the level of medicine care given to their men. In many ways, their efforts assisted in the birth of modern medicine in the United States. More complete records on medical and surgical activities were kept during the war than ever before, doctors became more adept at surgery and at the use of anesthesia, and most importantly, a greater understanding of the relationship between cleanliness, diet and disease was gained not only by the medical establishment but by the public at large. (www.civivwarhome.com/civilwarmedicine.htm)
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