During the Civil War medical practice was in one of its earliest stages. This meant that medicine was not well practiced, things were not sterile, and doctors and nurses were not knowledgeable enough for the task at hand. Two thirds of men in the war died from disease rather than gunshots or weapon related injuries. The conditions were very unsanitary, and men often became sick just because of their living conditions. There was poor hygiene in camps, a lack of quality food and water, filth, bugs, and the extremely crowded camps made them a breeding ground for disease.
Clean and sanitary operations was something that had not been developed in medicine during that time. If a soldier could reach a doctor or surgeon, they would usually “treat” the patient by bleeding them out, purging, or even for certain diseases such as syphilis they would use mercury, a toxic chemical. Doctors and nurses didn’t understand infection, and even if they did, antibiotics were not available. Men often died or became seriously sick, from an infection in a small wound. Not only did doctors lack knowledge, they also lacked medical equipment.
When surgery practices were performed it was difficult to maintain sterility. Pneumonia, dysentery, smallpox, malaria and cholera were among a few of the diseases that swept over the Civil War soldiers. Typhoid fever greatly affected the confederate camps, and it was caused by drinking water contaminated by the Salmonella virus. Some major symptoms of these diseases included fever, chills, diarrhea, dehydration, fatigue, vomiting, headache, rashes, and even death. Many of these were a result of poor hygiene, as the soldiers didn’t receive daily showers.
They were also not cautious or sanitary in their daily lives. They didn’t keep the camps clean, didn’t keep food equipment clean, etc. Almost every man ended up with head lice at one point or another, the men often used the same pots to boil lice infested clothing as they did to eat with. Many also suffered from cholera due to latrines being too close to water facilities, and contaminating their water supply. Not only were the living conditions not suitable for a man, they were also extremely overcrowded. The close contact in the human-packed tents allowed for disease to spread rapidly.
Systems such as hospitals to care for the sick, had not been developed. As well as x-rays, blood transfusions, medical tests and antibiotics were non-existent. If a leg or arm was needed to be amputated, doctors tied a tourniquet above the injured limb and simply chopped it off. Patients were often only partially sedated, either with chloroform or alcohol. The painkillers that were occasionally offered to soldiers were usually opium and morphine. Although doctors and surgeons improved their practice as the war years continued on, they were still lacking the necessary tools, equipment, anesthesia, antibiotics, etc.
The men had a poor diet, and often became very weak due to the lack of food. Starvation led to their immune systems weakening, making them even more susceptible to disease. The men were so hungry and desperate to eat that they often turned to the rotten and spoiled food just to ease the pain in their stomach, only to result in them getting sicker. Fruits and vegetables were very rare, they mainly survived off staple foods such as bread, rice, beans, corn, etc. Occasionally the soldiers received meat, but it was often spoiled or filled with disease.
The men spent most of their time in crowded tents, rather than on the battlefield; They could expect to spend one day in battle out of 30. They spent the rest of their days in the unsuitable tents. These tents were portable and lightweight, but provided inadequate protection from the weather. The tents were made of a piece of cloth, and the men button up the sides and pitched the tent with two sticks. On the days that the soldiers were not sick they had to entertain themselves in one way or another. Many participated in card games, music, gambling, or any other activities that they could think of.
However, much time was still left over for sickness to take its course. A soldier’s chance of not surviving was about one in four, and three out of five died from disease. At the start of the war, there was no intention to set up a place to treat sick or wounded soldiers, especially the Union men. Although, after the Battle of Bull Run, the United States government agreed to start setting up hospitals in near-by towns. The reason there was no hospitals developed in the beginning is because the war generals thought that it would be a short war with few casualties.
They soon learned, after the Battle of Bull Run, that they were going to need more men, more supplies, and more medical care, they knew it was now going to be a long war. Even when the first hospitals were developed, the surgeons and doctors had very little knowledge. Most of them had never seen or treated such horrible wounds and diseases. These were called brigade hospitals because they were small, and could be packed up and moved easily in the event of a retreat. Later on towards the end of the war, divisional hospitals were created, these were larger, more permanent structures.
Because they could not be moved, many of them were taken over by the Confederates. Through every year that the war continued, the Union hospitals began to improve. They eventually received medical books, bedding and beds, vials, medicine, needles, and other necessary medical supplies. Compared to the Union men, the Confederacy formed medical care facilities much faster. Although they did have hospitals and medicine, they were at a disadvantage compared to the Union men, due to the lack of resources. The Confederate government agreed to purchase hospitals to help serve the army.
They soon realized after the Battle of Bull Run, that the hospitals were quickly overrun with sick and injured patients, President Jefferson Davis replaced David DeLeon with Samuel Moore, in hopes of a more efficient and improved medical standards. Moore improved the medical care and hospital standards for a while, but with the lack of field hospitals, surgeons, and their low capacity in the bigger, general hospitals, the Confederacy government allowed some soldiers to return home until they were healed.
In 1861, the confederate army began building and reconstructing new hospitals to hold more patients and the returning home policy was halted. The United States Sanitary Commission and the government then began giving each surgeon a pack of medical supplies, and more supplies to the general hospitals. In both the North and the South, over 20,000 women volunteered to work in the hospitals as nurses. They gave medicines and supervised feedings. They also cleaned bedding and medical equipment. Many patients and generals said that the women in the hospitals often provided a sense of joy in their lives.
Some prison camps in the North had ideal conditions, but compared to the South, they might have been considered a luxury. The North had an ample supply of food, clothes, and supplies. For the Confederate prison camps, they faced many shortages as the years went on. Many of the harvest fields were destroyed and some used for battlegrounds. The Confederacy could barely feed its own people and war soldiers, let alone the prisoners. The result of this was similar to some of the war conditions, disease and starvation. One major prison camp was held in the swamps of Georgie, otherwise known as Andersonville.
This prison camp held 32,000 prisoners, all of which suffered from the extremely unsanitary conditions. The camp also lacked adequate shelter to provide protection from bad weather conditions. Many of them men tried to climb the log walls and leave the horrible circumstances of the prison camp, until they saw a man get shot trying to escape. Due to the lack of shelter and buildings, many of the men suffered from severe sunburns and heat stroke during the summer. The sunburns eventually became so bad that they became infected with maggots and gangrene.
Many of the men suffered for weeks on end, wishing to die and end their misery. They started to become insane due to the lack of food, having hallucinations, seeing visions, and simply losing their minds. Towards the last year of the Civil War, hundreds of prisoners in the camp were dying everyday. Around 14,000 men died from what Secretary of War called “savage and barbarous treatment”. When the war ended, news broke out about Andersonville. The superintendent of the prison was charged with murder, he was later found guilty and hanged.