Photo Credit: A Union doctor in a straw hat, foreground, examines a soldier’s leg wound while other casualties sprawl on the ground at a field hospital following the Battle of Savage’s Station, Virginia, on June 29, 1862.
Healers or Horrors: Civil War Medicine
A visit to the Civil War surgeon, often literally a “sawbones,” was a horror more feared than death on the battlefield.
By Richard A. Gabriel
Safe behind its ocean barriers, the United States paid scant attention to the wars that raged abroad during the early 19th century, taking little notice of the lessons that might have been learned from the European experience with mass killing. With few opportunities for its own military medical establishment to acquire field experience, the U.S. Army’s military medical service remained primitive. In 1802, the U.S. Army Medical Corps comprised only two surgeons and 25 orderlies. By 1808, the number of surgeons had increased to seven and surgical assistants to 40. There was no ambulance corps during the War of 1812; after the battle wagons were sent to search for the wounded. There were no hospitals, either, and the wounded were treated in temporary shelters near the battlefield. Even these primitive facilities were dismantled when the war ended. In 1818, Congress finally authorized the appointment of Dr. Joseph Lovell to head the medical corps as surgeon general.
At the start of the Mexican War in 1846, the American medical corps consisted of one surgeon general and 71 medical officers. Statistically, the Mexican War was the deadliest ever fought by an American army. Of the 100,182 soldiers committed to the campaign, 1,458 were killed in action and another 10,790 died of disease, a disease mortality rate of 11 percent. This compared to a similar rate of 6.5 percent for the Civil War, 2.7 percent for the Spanish-American War, and 1.6 percent for World