Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War
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The Civil War was the greatest health disaster the United States has ever experienced, killing more than a million Americans and leaving many others invalided or grieving. Poorly prepared to care for wounded and sick soldiers as the war began, Union and Confederate governments scrambled to provide doctoring and nursing, supplies, and shelter for those felled by warfare or disease.
During the war soldiers suffered from measles, dysentery, and pneumonia and needed both preventive and curative food and medicine. Family members―especially women―and governments mounted organized support efforts, while army doctors learned to standardize medical thought and practice. Resources in the north helped return soldiers to battle, while Confederate soldiers suffered hunger and other privations and healed more slowly, when they healed at all.
In telling the stories of soldiers, families, physicians, nurses, and administrators, historian Margaret Humphreys concludes that medical science was not as limited at the beginning of the war as has been portrayed. Medicine and public health clearly advanced during the war―and continued to do so after military hostilities ceased.
nearly equal numbers at northern camps in Elmira, New York, and Chicago and on the mid-Atlantic coast. The condition of prisoners became propaganda fodder for both sides, and publicity about their fate stoked the fires of hatred in both North and South. Controversy has surrounded no other Civil War stories as persistently as those of Andersonville or Elmira.16 It is hard to see either side as noble when both were so overtly cruel to their prisoners of war. Historian Charles W. Sanders Jr. lays
the tip of a scalpel or dried and carried in an envelope. From the earliest efforts of Benjamin Waterhouse to popularize vaccination in the early republic, vaccination was a singular preventive technique. But not until the Civil War did the government step in to impose vaccination on a population. Vaccination had been a private affair, something for individuals to negotiate with their physicians, not a government-sponsored intervention. The Civil War highlighted the public importance of this
wrong way, the boy might well have died. Derby was a Harvard-trained physician who had served in the war as surgeon to the Twenty-Third Massachusetts Regiment, a regiment that saw action in North Carolina and Virginia, including at Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg. He would have been exposed to all of the same literature as Kempster and would have had experience with far worse injuries than that suffered by this child. And he would have seen the power of disinfectants to prevent and heal
contagious. Lacking conclusive evidence for either position, they chose up sides based on political or commercial interests.5 Politicians continued to debate the proper response to epidemics, with one side arguing for urban sanitation and the other advocating quarantine. Neither method saw much success in limiting epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, for reasons evident from a modern understanding of their modes of transmission. European and American physicians were aware of the failure of
Imagine a modern hospital without televisions, and then add the circumstance of stays lasting weeks or months. Most feared was the soldier who lapsed into “nostalgia,” a condition described in chapter 1, that is, homesickness or despondency that was dangerous to the patient. One article that appeared in the Annapolis Division 1 Hospital paper and was then reprinted in the Satterlee Hospital Register described this complaint and particularly called for letters from home as a sure palliative.