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Park manager speaks about Civil War medical practices, tools

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POSTED: May 9, 2012 12:52 p.m.
Caitlyn Boza/

Armed with lancets, bone saws and lice combs, Fort McAllister Historic Park manager Danny Brown taught park visitors a thing or two about Civil War-era medical practices — and malpractices.

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Armed with lancets, bone saws and lice combs, Fort McAllister Historic Park manager Danny Brown taught park visitors a thing or two about Civil War-era medical practices — and malpractices — Thursday evening.

The demonstration, which was part of the Richmond Hill Historical Society’s monthly lecture series, painted a gruesome picture of disease and illness brought about by poor living conditions and ignorance of germs and bacteria.

“When most people think of medicine during the Civil War, they think of open wounds and amputation. But epidemic diseases caused twice the amount of casualties during the war as actual bayonets, rifles and cannons,” said Brown.

According to Brown, dysentery was the primary cause of death for Civil War soldiers, killing more than 16,000 during the first 19 months of the war.

“All of that could have been avoided by cleanliness and good hygiene on the battlefield, but they didn’t know that,” he said. “They didn’t have any clue about bacteria and germs, about how disease spreads.”

Brown recounted one story about soldiers who believed the fog that rose over the river at night was the cause of malaria.

“They thought the miasma — or night gases — made them sick. So what they did was board up the windows at night to keep the gases from coming in, which also kept the mosquitoes from coming in,” he explained. “So the malaria didn’t spread, but not because they kept the gases out, but because they kept the mosquitoes out.”

Similarly, soldiers knew that drinking coffee was less likely to cause illness than drinking water, but they didn’t know it was because the coffee had been heated to a temperature high enough to kill bacteria.

In a macabre twist on show-and-tell, Brown also discussed surgical techniques and tools used in Confederate field hospitals.

He demonstrated how doctors would have used the assortment of forceps, hooks, knives and saws to remove lead bullets and amputate shattered limbs.

Attendees said they found the lecture informative and interesting — if a little unsettling.

“Kids these days,” joked Richmond Hill Historical Society board member Denise Isacson, “We don’t know how good we have it.”

“But seriously,” she continued. “I think Danny did a great job. You always hear about the fighting during the Civil War, but you don’t always hear about the day-to-day living conditions and hardship they faced. Makes you think.”

The historical society’s next lecture will be at 7 p.m. Jun. 7 in the Richmond Hill Museum. The guest lecturer will be Sharon Varn of the Pin Point Heritage Museum in Savannah.

 

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