Civil War Medicine

By Nicole Tull

Mansfield State Historic Site presented “Civil War Medicine” on Saturday, January 15. Aaron Gates, resident park ranger, spoke on the historic aspect of the injured and ill from the Battle of Mansfield that happened on April 8, 1864. About 2,100 were injured on that fateful day. North and South alike needed medical attention. Triaged soldiers were separated into categories according to their wounds. Churches and homes in nearby Mansfield were converted into makeshift field hospitals to attend the wounded. Churches became surgery theaters while other locations tended to the less injured. Any able-bodied person was recruited for nursing duties. There was much an untrained person could do for an injured soldier. Basic human care is innate even when medical training is absent.

Park Ranger Gates offered comforting knowledge that there were anesthetics widely used for surgeries. Chloroform or ether would have been administered before an amputation would have been performed. Amputation was the most common surgery because the 58-caliber ammunition shattered bones upon impact. Also, surgeons needed to move quickly through the maimed soldiers, so amputation would be the quickest assessment. Gates further explained anesthesia was not an exact science at that time and there are a few known cases of accidental overdosing that happened in the War as a whole. Doctors also had other drugs at their disposal for minor ailments. Opium, mercury, and laudanum would have been used in much the same way we use OTC pain relievers today.

While injury was certainly a concern, illness was just as likely to kill you during the war. Gates mentioned several ailments that soldiers succumbed to over the course of their time in service. What we now know as tuberculosis, then known as consumption, was a sure death sentence. It was neither known how it was contracted nor how to treat it. Influenza and pneumonia were also widespread killers.

At the end of the presentation, it was mentioned that Christ Memorial Episcopal Church in Mansfield was hospital to the soldiers of the battle. There are still marble memorial plaques for both Union and Confederate inside the church on either side of the altar.

Inside the museum a diorama display offers information on the First Baptist Church that was also used. A couple of days after the battle, a recovering soldier knocked a candle out of an attendant’s hand and ignited the cotton bedding. The building was destroyed, but due to quick work most of the soldiers were saved. Elsewhere in the museum you can view actual surgical and medical instruments that would have been used during the era of the Civil War.

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