Civil War Trivia

Sources: Rita, Oconto County Coordinator, WiGenWeb and Joan Benner, Adams and Marquette County WiGenWeb Coordinator

CIVIL WAR SUTURES After the war, 1861 - 1865, the medical doctors from North and South came together in an attempt to exchange what they had learned. This information was to be used in the emergency treatment of civilians. One glaring difference was the substantially higher number of ancestors who survived major surgery in the South than in the North, where the post treatment infection rate caused high numbers of fatalities. The doctors of the North (often called "sawbones" for all the amputations done) used imported silk thread for stitching wounds. It was strong, light and "slick" , making use much easier during stitching. Because of the naval blockades, there was no silk thread in the South, for even the most prominent of patients. Cotton thread was not a success as it broke down before the wound had healed sufficiently. Horse hair was tried. But because it was too stiff to make sutures in it's natural state, it was boiled in water to soften and become more pliable. The result was that the Northern silk thread had been handled by countless unwashed hands from several continents and introduced all the pathogens it carried right into the wound. The horse hair was sterile when it came from boiling, and handled by significantly fewer numbers of people. Far fewer pathogens were introduced right into those wounds. With antibiotics and sterile procedural practices still years away, many folks owe their ancestral branches to the boiled horse hair sutures, and to the women and men who devised that method of softening the fibers for using in textiles. Rita - Oconto County WIGenWeb Coordinator

DRUMMER BOYS Did you know that a drummer boy was one of the 'most wanted' targets besides the officers of a Company or Regiment? The drummer boy, often only 12 to 15 yrs of age, was usually found in close proximity to the officer in command, and he 'drummed out' the officer's orders to charge or retreat, maneuver to a certain direction, etc. It was often so loud with the sounds of battle (horses, guns, etc) that the officer's voice could not be heard, but the tapping of the drummer boy was heard amidst the terrible din, so the drummer boy was an important communicator of the officers' orders. The enemy also knew that if the drummer boy was nearby, so were the officers in command, thus placing the drummer boy in mortal danger. Just as General Arnold Schwartzkopf knew that if the USA knocked out Saddam's communication abilities in the last Gulf War (Jan 1990), they knew back then that silencing the officers who gave the directions, or the drummer boy who communicated them, would send the enemies' company into confusion and defeat soon after. Your drummer boy ancestor may have been young, but was very much a part of the danger and action. Joan - Adams and Marquette County WiGenWeb Coordinator

Everyone thinks about the Hollywood version of the Civil War surgeon doing amputations of limbs after battle, with profuse bleeding and the soldier in horrible pain. The truth is, the surgeons treated many more wounds caused by horses (they kick and step on people), campfire and gunpowder burns and metal shards from musket percussion caps that ended up embedded in people. Hollywood movies suggest a few swallows of whiskey or a bullet to bite on were all that was offered to help the soldier through their treatment which often meant amputation of a limb. The military almost universally used ether as general anaesthetic in its field hospitals, which was instrumental in proving to other surgeons that ether was a safe and effective surgical anaesthetic. Ether continued to be widely used in surgery well into the 20th century. Modern Civl War medical re-enactors associated with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine near the Antietam National Battlefield, have fired a Minie ball, a type of muzzleloading rifle bullet into ballistic gel to prove a Minie ball could travel through as many as four human bodies possibly infecting each with germs from the animal fat that lubricated the projectiles. Many more soldiers died from disease during and following the Civil War than from wounds sustained on the battlefield. The idea of cleanliness and infection control were just beginning to be considered and many doubted the importance of handwashing, cleaning instruments and disinfectants to help prevent post-surgical infection. For example, tetanus bacteria thrive in soil and when introduced in deep wounds, can be deadly. (Tetanus vaccinations were not widely available until WWII--National Network for Immunization Information, Jan 2007) Antietam National Battlefield is where nearly 23,000 casualties occurred September 17, 1862, including an estimated 3,700 killed, 17,300 wounded and 1,800 captured or missing. It is known as the bloodiest day in U.S. military history. Joan - Adams and Marquette County WiGenWeb Coordinator
This site is maintained by Joan and was last updated February 2007

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