When the Civil War began in 1861, medical science knew nothing about pathogens, antibiotics, or the causes of many diseases; surgeons at field hospitals reused surgical tools without sterilization, and many of the medications used contained toxic compounds. Yet against this backdrop, many wounded soldiers were successfully treated and went on to live productive lives. The exhibits at The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland show how soldiers were treated and how medical science advanced during this time of thousands of battlefield casualties and widespread suffering from diseases.
The exhibits in the National Museum of Civil War Medicine are not of the high tech variety; audio tapes at some of the exhibits are about as flashy as it gets. Instead, the exhibits include medical equipment of the time, photographs, written accounts, and nicely designed scenes complete with full sized mannequins, landscaping, camp equipment, and so on. These scenes depict various aspects of Civil War medicine, including hospitals, medical care in camp and on the battlefield, and battlefield evacuation procedures.
The first exhibit deals with medical schools and training at the outbreak of the war. In some schools, students paid for tickets to attend the lectures, and the medical school instructors were paid from these ticket fees. After completion of medical school, many students worked with an established doctor to gain more knowledge and experience. Those who could afford the cost studied in Europe, considered at the time to be the best place for medical training.
At the battlefield evacuation exhibit, one learns that under the Union Army of the Potomac’s Dr. Jonathan Letterman, procedures for the evacuation of the wounded became highly organized and systematic. Letterman was so far ahead of his time that his basic concepts of medical evacuation are still used in today’s military.
The hospital exhibit shows the typical layout for a ward in a Civil War hospital. As the war progressed, improvements were made in ventilation and cleanliness in hospitals. This had a positive effect on patients recoveries, and these practices were incorporated into other hospitals as well. The role of nursing is also covered with photos and biographical sketches of nurses from both north and south. Perhaps the best known nurse from the Civil War is Clara Barton, who would go on to found the American Red Cross after the war. Authors Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott also served as a volunteer nurses for a time.
More soldiers died from diseases than from battle wounds. Considering the lack of understanding of pathogens and the types of medications administered, the remarkable thing may be that anyone survived the rampant dysentery, malaria, and other diseases present in the camps. Medications with toxic substances like mercury were in widespread use as treatments and no doubt hastened the demise of many an ill soldier.
Some “before” and “after” photos show examples of reconstructive surgery. Some of those pictured suffered wounds to the face or jaws, and the results of the reconstructive surgeries were quite remarkable. Often, patients were able to resume their lives with a more or less normal facial appearance.
There is also an exhibit an embalming. This procedure began to come into widespread use during the war as a means to preserve bodies for shipment home for burial. The building that houses the museum was used as an undertaker and furniture maker business during the war.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is located at 48 East Patrick Street in downtown Frederick, Maryland. The Museum is open year round except for major holidays.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is also affiliated with the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield, about 25 miles away. The Pry House, which served as Major General George McClellan’s headquarters during the Battle of Antietam, houses exhibits on battlefield medicine and surgery. The Pry House is owned and administered by the National Park Service and is open June to October. Another Civil War site of interest near Frederick is Monocacy National Battlefield, about 5 miles south of town.
For more information, visit the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s website.