Book Review: Gangrene and Glory. Medical Care during the American Civil War, by Frank R Freemon
Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.
One of the facts that I hear reiterated again and again in the reading I've done on the American Civil War is that one of the biggest killers of the soldiers was disease. Yes, there's no doubt that men were wounded and killed by gunfire, cannon balls and bayonets, but they also died from disease caused by unhygienic conditions, lack of hand washing, and a general ignorance of germs and bacteria. In my own family tree, a 3rd great-uncle who served as a Confederate captain died of disease in a Georgia hospital. Having some knowledge of medical treatment, disease and care during the Civil War can be beneficial to the researcher.
"Medical Care During the American Civil War" is unique in that it is a history book written by a modern-day practicing physician. He begins by explaining American medicine as it was practiced in the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War. One fact he points out is that most Southern doctors learned medicine in the North, but different geographical regions see patients with different types of illnesses and ailments. These doctors didn't always get the training they needed to address the ailments of the community they would serve. Northern doctors were not concerned with illnesses Southern doctors saw or the populations they would serve, such as slaves. The practice of medicine, just as the country, was divided along northern and southern lines (pg. 24).
Freemon goes on in subsequent chapters to discuss medicine as practiced in the Northern and Confederate military, painting a picture of the differences in the types of medicine practiced during the War. Of interest to me was the chapter entitled "Medicine at Sea" which explores medicine as practiced on naval ships. In the case of the sinking of the C.S.S. Alabama by the U.S.S. Kearsage, Dr. David Llewellyn was operating on a soldier when a cannonball crashed into the room and then killed the very soldier the doctor was operating on. The doctor survived that attack only to die minutes later from drowning (page 98). This example, and later on when the issue of transporting the wounded via railroad cars is addressed, one gets a real sense of the total picture of what it was like to treat a military force on the move.
p>As with any discussion of medicine, it is not for the squeamish. Illustrations of amputations and photos of injuries may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they provide a fascinating look at how the practice of medicine had to meet the challenges of injuries previously unknown to most physicians of that day.
Having grown out of the author's doctoral dissertation, there are plenty of illustrations, photos and charts that help the reader better understand the time period and the story behind the topic. In Table 32 found on page 20, there is a breakdown of "Confederate Soldiers Sick and Wounded during the First Eighteen Months of the War." This chart lists 12, 225 deaths from "continued fever" and 4, 241 from "gunshot wounds." Even diseases we would associate with an earlier era , such as scurvy, were evident during the Civil War as shown in Table 25, "Scurvy in Sherman's Army." (page 168).
Of special interest is the glossary which provides readers with definitions of Civil War era terminology including military ranks, diseases, and medical references. A must for everyone researching a Civil War soldier, this books sheds light on the medical care that a soldier received and the conditions he faced .
Gangrene and Glory. Medical Care during the American Civil War
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