Back to Top Skip to main content

NMHM documents military medicine advancements during the Civil War

Old-time photo of soldiers with crutches, canes, and missing limbs. Group of Civil War era Army officers who have undergone amputations due to gunshot injuries pose for a photo. Circa 1865. (Photo from the NMHM Communications Office.)

Recommended Content:

Combat Support

“The first battles of the Civil War [were] a wake-up call to the U.S. Medical Department,” said Kristen Pearlstein during a virtual science café presented by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. “Over the next three years, we see a number of innovations put into place that will permanently alter and improve the course of military medicine,” Pearlstein concluded.

Pearlstein, the museum’s Anatomical Collections manager, gave a brief history of the challenges military medicine faced at the onset of the American Civil War in April 1861, and how the military adapted and responded during the course of the war.

Initial challenges to military medicine stemmed from limited medical knowledge and lack of organization in the medical corps. With no established medical evacuation or military hospital system, the wounded could remain on the battlefield for days with little or no care. When men were finally removed from the field, they often received inadequate medical care as military surgeons had insufficient training and experience with combat injuries, most never having treated a gunshot wound.

Slower and less-damaging round musket balls from previous conflicts were used less frequently in favor of larger, heavier conical-shaped Minié balls that spun faster. This and other ‘advancements’ in weapons technology created more injuries, crushing bone and leaving large wounds.

Some of the biggest medical challenges stemmed from the lack of proper sanitation and sterilization. Germ theory had not been widely adopted, so medical environments were plagued with dirty hands, unsterile equipment, and overcrowded unhygienic camps where the spread of disease was hard to control.

By August 1862, things changed; an organized system of medical care and evacuation was established through the use of triage, ambulance support, field and general hospitals, and transportation via hospital trains and ships. Pearlstein noted by the end of the war, more than 1 million soldiers had received care in a federal military hospital.

Wound infections were prevalent and surgical interventions were increasingly used to address contamination, as military surgeons performed a large number of successful amputations and excisions (partial removal of a bone or joint). With advances in the administration of anesthesia, new types of surgery, like facial reconstruction surgery, were also developed. After the war, the large number of amputees led to improvements in prosthetics.

Perhaps one of the most significant responses to Civil War military medical challenges was the compilation of medical knowledge.

Founded in May 1862, the Army Medical Museum (known today as the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate) was established for collection purposes. Tasked with the gathering of reports, documents, artifacts, and specimens that showed examples of wartime injuries and diseases, the Army Medical Museum sought to understand and improve prognoses for soldiers. This culminated in development of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, a six-volume account that documents lessons learned from the battlefield. According to Pearlstein, Medical and Surgical History is, to this day, one of the most extensive data collection efforts in the history of wartime medicine.

For more information on the museum’s collection of Civil War materials, visit the museum website.

You also may be interested in...

Weed ACH hosted breast cancer awareness event

Article
10/28/2020
Woman in pink hat and shirt, wearing a racing number, speaking to an audience

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about the importance of early detection of breast cancer.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Combat Support | Women's Health | Health Literacy Month 2020

WRNMMC expands innovation and opens new, permanent drive-thru pharmacy

Article
10/23/2020
Military pharmacist, wearing a mask, looking at bags of prescriptions

The new Prescription Drive-Thru Pick-up will operate similarly as the curbside pharmacy pick-up.

Recommended Content:

Research and Innovation | Combat Support | Public Health | Coronavirus | Health Literacy Month 2020

Army Social Worker for the Year: Lt. Col. Etheridge

Article
10/22/2020
Two military personnel, wearing masks, holding a crystal award

The award is presented annually to active duty social workers in the field of 73A (Social Worker).

Recommended Content:

Combat Support

Fort Irwin DENTAC strives to reach readiness perfection

Article
10/21/2020
Image of patient getting a dental exam

To accommodate an entire installation, the dental clinic extended its hours.

Recommended Content:

Public Health | Coronavirus | MHS GENESIS | Combat Support

Multinational trauma course aims to standardize battlefield care

Article
10/20/2020
Two soldiers, one laying on the ground and the other giving him medical attention

The international course...was aimed at providing unit-level health care providers life-saving instruction to increase survivability at the point of injury.

Recommended Content:

Combat Support | Global Health Engagement

Navy pharmacy techs support COVID-19 and MHS GENESIS efforts

Article
10/20/2020
Navy personnel in a pharmacy

Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Aaron Souders is highlighted for his work as a Navy pharmacy technician.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | MHS GENESIS | Combat Support

Navy tele-health supports Guam civilian hospital during COVID-19

Article
10/19/2020
Woman sitting in front of several computer monitors

[T]his is the first-ever DoD tasking for telemedicine support in response to a request from civil authorities for aid.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Combat Support | Global Health Engagement

Military pharmacy teams continue dedicated legacy of service

Article
10/19/2020
Black and white image of soldiers on the battlefield

Seven military pharmacy professionals have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Recommended Content:

Combat Support

NH Bremerton relies on experienced nurse to help new moms

Article
10/16/2020
Military personnel gives nurse an award

"Navy Medicine has taken me from novice to expert over a 20 year career..."

Recommended Content:

Combat Support | Women's Health | Patient Safety

Air Force Unit provides worldwide medical response capability

Article
10/15/2020
Two military personnel loading equipment onto an aircraft

The 379th EAES crews provide time sensitive in-flight patient care.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Combat Support

DHA’s new Joint Operations Center serves as essential integration hub

Article
10/14/2020
Three military personnel looking at a document

From conference rooms to one location, DHA’s JOC gets an upgrade.

Recommended Content:

Combat Support

DHA priorities focused on readiness, patients, outcomes

Article
10/7/2020
Defense Health Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place speaks at a podium.

Adaptation key to providing outstanding care to beneficiaries.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Combat Support | Access to Health Care | Coronavirus | Convalescent Plasma Collection Program

Army Medical Service Officers achieve Quartermaster School first

Article
9/29/2020
Two military personnel in masks pose for picture

The curriculum covers airdrop planning, leadership, supervision, and management.

Recommended Content:

Combat Support

Who’s got YOUR six?

Article
9/25/2020
Military husband hugging his wife

Social support is critical for performance and well-being, but your vast sources of support might not be fully obvious.

Recommended Content:

Mental Health Care | Combat Support

DoD pharmacy innovation improves patient safety and convenience

Article
9/22/2020
A pharmacy technician opens a locker holding prescription medication

Pick up your prescription when it’s convenient for you

Recommended Content:

Combat Support | Technology
<< < 1 2 3 4 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 4

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.