Boonville re-enactment reveals Civil War medicine to be grisly profession

Saturday, June 18, 2011 | 4:35 p.m. CDT; updated 10:12 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 18, 2011
The tables at Charles "Doc" Cunningham's medical tent are decorated by rows of metal medical instruments, which are used to treat wounded soldiers from the field during battle re-enactments. The official name is of the service is the Missouri Brigade Medical Service. Cunningham has been involved in re-enactments since 1991.

BOONVILLE — Steve Guinivan tramped back to camp, his left arm in a cloth sling.

“All I can say is I got shot, and the doctor said they’d have to take it,” Guinivan said. “A sniper got me.”

Guinivan appeared to be the first casualty Saturday morning at the Civil War re-enactment in Boonville.

If he were able to get his amputation within 24 hours, he would have an 85 percent chance of survival. Each day after that, his chances would decrease an additional 20 percent, according to David Chuber, a military historian at Fort Leonard Wood who gave a talk on Civil War medicine.

Three out of four operations during the war were amputations and took an average of 15 to 20 minutes, Chuber said. Union surgeons performed about 60,000 amputations per year.

Charles Cunningham, called “Doc” in his tent, set up his field hospital at the top of the hill above the Union camp.

Cunningham picked up his large, rusty amputation saw and sliced clean through a wooden table to demonstrate the saw's grisly strength.

He spread his tools out on a table, explaining the purpose of each one to interested passers-by. His display included more saws, a rib spreader, a tonsil remover and a doll in tattered pink and white clothes that he would give to injured young girls.

“This killed more soldiers than bullets,” Cunningham said, as he picked up a cone-shaped tool used to inspect every soldier’s ears, eyes and mouth when they enlisted. It often was unsanitary and spread diseases to each person subjected to the doctor's probes.

Chuber said this was not uncommon — three out of every four soldiers died of disease rather than wounds.

At the time of the Civil War, the U.S. had only three microscopes. The relationship between mosquitoes and malaria, water and typhoid, and unsterilized instruments and infection were unknown, Chuber said.

In 1861, the Union Army had 16,000 men and 98 surgeons. Doctors had little training and often the ability to pay tuition was the only criterion for a medical diploma, Chuber said.

"I once heard of a man who wrote, 'I was a surgeon in the war but had been a veterinarian before. I will go back to being a veterinarian because my patients complain less,'" Chuber said. 

In battle, aides would bring the soldiers behind the lines to dress their wounds. Hospitals often would be set up in factories, warehouses, schools and private homes away from battlefields. Transportation was difficult because an ambulance corps was not established until 1864, Chuber said.

“They were brought on wagons without springs, and they bounced down the road and their stitches broke,” Chuber said. “Many of them bled to death before they made it to the field hospital.”

Cunningham waited in the trees to give soldiers water and ice during the battle Saturday. Afterward, he began the operations in his tent.

Those operations included wrapping bandages around soldiers' wounds, cutting into artificial skin and a condom that would ooze fake blood, Cunningham said.

Chuber said the doctors were often “barbaric” and had few drugs for healing or anesthetic purposes.

They would often prescribe quinine, morphine and laudanum, a mixture of opium and whiskey, for everything from colds to malaria. They also believed whiskey, tobacco and caffeine would help heal wounds. At Gettysburg, 2 million gallons of whiskey were brought for the wounded, Chuber said.

Ether and chloroform were used as anesthetics, but ether could explode near candles and chloroform would put everyone to sleep in an enclosed space. When chemicals were scarce, soldiers would be forced to endure the pain, Chuber said.

"In closing, I will repeat what one surgeon said. 'We did not the best we would, but the best we could,'" Chuber said. "Surgeons at the time learned a lot about soldiers and a lot about healing, but they did it at the cost of patients."

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.