The Practice

Prior to the war, hospitals had been charities, places that the ill of America were housed. The Civil War hospitals acquainted many Americans with the need for places of refuge in times of illness and the importance of high quality nursing care. (12)

Even before the first battle at Bull Run in Northern Virginia, a private organization called the United States Sanitary Commission, formed as the leaders in medical reform. This commission was formed based off the British organization of the Crimean campaigns. The Union army’s medical department didn’t welcome the help. For the Union, their medical team was originally organized by women in 1861 as a limited charity to promote health and cleanliness in Union army camps and hospitals. It was taken over by men who expanded its medical and political roles in military matters. These committees mobilized the existing medical profession by providing tools, transportation, and expertise. (6)

The general hospitals early in the conflict were unorganized arrangements in whatever building could be found, an approach that was seriously flawed. The medical department then elaborated upon the sanitary idea of fresh air as a disease preventative, based on the work of European sanitary and hospital reformers. As a direct result of the Civil War, the pavilion hospital, with emphasis on vents, space, and disinfection, became the main form of hospital architecture for the next two generations. (7)

Many of the medical techniques that were performed during the Civil War evolved each year. For instance, at the beginning of the war, the doctor would give the soldier a dose of whiskey to put the soldier in a lackadaisical state when performing painful operations. The use of chloroform was finally discovered to replace this method. The doctor would place chloroform on a cloth over his nose to put him in an unconscious state for the amputation or procedure. (12)

The medical ideas of the Civil War were recognizably a shift to modern medical practice. What started out as primarily “at-home-remedies” shifted to useful techniques that is used today. Raw cotton and horse hair were used to soak up blood in patients. Some doctors discovered that horse hair could be used to clean wounds by eating the dead tissue to allow healthy tissue underneath to flourish. In this day and age, this method is not used but we do see that hospitals still use cotton in their common practice. Mercurous chloride (calomel), blue mass (mercury with honey and licorice), lead acetate, silver nitrate, castor oil, and Epsom salts (magnesium chloride) were used to clean the bowels. In the case of diarrhea or dysentery, there was not much that physicians could do because the treatment required was an extremely dangerous procedure, which was hit-or-miss in nature and could ultimately make things worse. Repeated use of calomel or blue mass resulted in mercurial gangrene, which resulted in the loss of teeth and damage to gums, palate, and the soft tissues of the mouth. (6)

Many doctors believed disease was caused by “ill humours” within the body and in an attempt to purge these humours, physicians would prescribe emetics or purgatives to relieve excess intestinal irritation. Much of the medicine practiced during the Civil War was trial and error, with an emphasis on natural cures. (6)

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