Compared to today’s standards, medicine in the Civil War was in the dark ages and barbaric as the stethoscope was not discovered until 1838. Most colleges taught only one yearly standard of lectures. Sitting through the same set of lectures twice in two years would result in graduation, and the ability to practice medicine. Not much was known about battle wounds, antiseptics, and sanitation since medical thinking was centered on the bowels and bladder during the 1800’s.
The number of deaths in the Civil War totaled 624,571, due in part to the lack of sanitation knowledge and “no universally recognized professional standards for doctors,” existed. More deaths were caused from infections and disease accounting for two out of three deaths by the end of the war. In the 19th century, much of the medical staff had been poorly trained, lacked formal education, and had little experience. A medical license or degree was not required to practice medicine.
Many of the soldiers had not built up immunity to some of the common childhood illnesses and tight living quarters such as chicken pox contributing to soldiers becoming ill and spreading diseases. However, the Civil War changed the United States while bringing advancements in medicine we still implement today. The foundation of nursing, a new profession started during the Civil War, was aided by the United States Sanitary Committee, Dorothea Dix, and Clara Barton.
Walt Whitman Walt Whitman (1819-1892), a poet and journalist from New York, went to Fredericksburg after hearing his younger brother, George, was wounded. Whitman spent two weeks helping his brother as he healed from a minor wound. The war deeply touched Whitman as he listened to the stories the soldiers had told. Appalled by the conditions in the hospitals, he began tending to soldiers, with care and affection. He was often found writing letters home for the soldiers and dressing wounds. Whitman would bring the soldiers gifts of fruit and often bring much needed comfort to the men.
He assisted in caring and providing comfort for the soldiers through the end of the war. Whitman wanted to show what the nurses did for the soldiers; how without their assistance, there would have been many more fatalities. He wanted the soldiers’ stories to live on due to their sacrifice. Whitman wrote “Wound Dresser,” a poem to give readers an account of the war, something that had never been done before. The poem takes the reader into what the conditions were like for the soldiers and nurses during the war.
Whitman describes one soldiers’ injury: From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood, Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head, His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet look’d on it. Lines 30-39, he chose to describe injuries and events how they occurred instead of concealing the truth. The nurse is seen washing the amputated limb of a soldier that has not yet accepted his injury.
He could not bring himself to look at what was left of his limb, knowing that his life was now forever changed. An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again. Whitman felt it was important that everyone knew what the soldiers had to endure. Doctors performed an estimated 60,000 amputations during the war. The soldiers experiences became reality while Whitman document what he could of conversations between himself and soldiers.
The determination, loyalty, and compassion to the war the soldiers had, was the same that Whitman provided to the men he touched. Whitman’s poem reminds his readers that war was not easy, the caretakers, were seeing wounds, amputations, and copious amounts of blood they had never seen before. Whitman shows the suffering of the soldiers, the fact that the soldiers didn’t want to come to terms with an amputation. They would rather have died on the battlefield. Due to their suffering, Whitman shows how death can be a sad beautiful act. His poem gives readers a window to a new profession, nursing.
Advancements in medicine September 17, 1862 in Sharpsburg, Maryland, 22,717 men died or were wounded in the single day Battle of Antietam. Dr. Jonathan Letterman formed the Ambulance Corps under his appointment as Medical Director. The ambulance corps was the first of its kind, and would later build the foundation for the modern day ambulance company. With the ambulance corps assistance, hospitals were quickly filling to capacity requiring the military to requisition buildings and convert them into a hospital. The Union Hotel, Georgetown, was one of the first buildings that was requisitioned to the military in September 1862.
During the 1800’s, little was known about germs and antiseptics. The cause and treatment of infection and disease was poorly understood by doctors. Wearing pus and blood stained coats, doctors failed to sterilize equipment and their hands. While quickly moving onto the next patient preforming amputations, equipment was often wiped “clean” on their coats. While antiseptics existed, they were often used to disinfect floors. Due to the misunderstanding, Louis Pasteur, a French scientist, began studying and conducting experiments to gain and understanding. By 1857, germ theory was discovered.
It was discovered that tiny microorganisms caused disease and infection. A lack sanitation was a major contributor to infection, as it was not practiced in hospitals or the battlefield. Pasteur’s theory on the effectiveness of antiseptics during surgery was proven and accepted by medical professionals in 1867 with the assistance of Joseph Lister. Sanitary Commission If a water source looked clean, it was assumed that it was good for drinking. However, latrines were often dug close to water sources. Soldiers would often go months without bathing and clean clothes.
Mainly relying on donations, the Commission organized Sanitary Fairs as fundraisers to show patriotism and support for the war effort. Sanitary Fairs were an extravagant event for host towns, bringing the community together by donating items for an auction, selling baked goods and quilts. Sanitary Fairs were a social event for families providing activities for all ages. Admission into the fair gave citizens an opportunity to bid on auctioned items donated by the public and view military exhibits of artifacts from the war. In April 1861, the Women’s Central Relief Association (WCRA) was formed as a private relief agency.
The WCRA was a volunteer effort “to provide for the soldiers what the government cannot in addition to training women nurses and send them to hospitals with supplies. ” The WCRA sought to coordinate relief efforts and improve the conditions of the hospitals and camps by conducting sanitary inspections. Coordination between the War Department and The Army Medical Bureau was paramount for the success of their efforts. The association quickly gained support from the public, physicians and women of high society wishing to help fund the efforts and wanting government approval and support for their efforts.
Despite hesitation from President Lincoln, on June 13, 1861, the association was officially established as the United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission appointed Dorothea Dix Superintendent of Nurses in June 1861. She was to serve as a point of contact between military officials, doctors, and nurses. Dorothea “Dragon” Dix Witnessing the living conditions of inmates and the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix, felt the need for change. She advocated for the mentally ill, suggesting that they should not be treated as prisoners, but a patient.
She helped to establish vast improvements and training in mental health facilities. Additionally she assisted in the establishment of 32 new hospitals across the US. Dix wanted to form a female nurse’s corps and offered her services to the Union Army at 59 years old. She was appointed Superintendent of Nurses, without any formal training in nursing herself. Her role was to recruit nurses, organize volunteers, have them trained and ready to work, and find them a hospital to work at. With a growing need for more nurses, Dix was able to convince military officials that women were able to fill the role.
Recruitment of female nurses began immediately. There were many surgeons and military officials that were against bringing women into the environment. Dix had strict requirements for all of her female nurses. They had to be “plain in appearance, over thirty, have no jewelry, and not looking for a husband. ” Dix was known to be authoritative and stern. She was protective of her nurses, defending their right to further their domestic roles. She was passionate about treating the soldiers to the best of standards possible. Dix would go to great lengths to obtain needed supplies, even spending her own money.
Doctors and Dix did not always agree on proper care for a soldier; often the Doctor would get threatened by Dix. During a visit to the hospital at Hampton, Virginia, Dix came upon a group of three soldiers enduring punishment for an undeclared offense. An infuriated Dix demanded to know who had authorized the treatment. She was told it was the surgeon in charge and went directly to the department commander, General Butler. In her stern belting voice she said, “In this branch of service, which one of us outranks the other, the surgeon in charge, or myself? ” Without hesitation General Butler answered “Miss Dix, of course.
The soldiers were immediately released; the surgeon in charge upset that a woman interfered. She was not afraid to challenge a man’s authority, and did so often. Clara Barton, Angel of the Battlefield Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821 to Stephen Barton, a highly regarded in the Massachusetts legislature and Sara Barton, a homemaker. Both Stephen and Sara Barton were involved in charity work, encouraging their children to get into the service field. Clara Barton, the fifth child, grew up helping to nurse her ill or injured siblings back to health.
A “Victorian sense of decorum” prevented Clara Barton from disguising herself as a man in order to join the Union Army. With the military influence of her father, Barton felt that she needed to do something. Before his passing, the Barton family gave young Clara Barton their blessing to assist in the war efforts. Stephen Barton gave his daughter his Masonic emblem, advising her “I know soldiers, and they will respect you and your errand. ” She wanted to be a nurse, but her independent nature was not suitable to work under the strict direction of Dorothea Dix.
Barton volunteered her time to soldiers bringing them food and advertising in newspapers for supplies to aid the wounded soldiers. Her advertisements were answered by many charities sending her “bandages, medicine, food, lanterns, and other provisions. ” In August 1862, Barton went to the battlefield for the first time to tend to the wounded soldiers in the field hospital. The military did not fund Barton’s efforts; she was an independent agent enabling her to utilize her contacts and resources to provide a higher level of care for the soldiers.
Doctors in the field hospital were running out of supplies but Barton had the resources to give them the supplies they needed. She would bring the soldiers food, coffee, and clean shirts. Barton was always humble and compassionate towards the soldiers. She was determined in her efforts to provide the best care for the soldiers despite the unsanitary conditions of a field hospital. Barton became known as “the angel of the battlefield” for her resourcefulness and loyalty to the soldiers. Conclusion The Civil War was the deadliest war in United States history.
The destruction that it caused the United States would take years to recover from. The war brought many firsts for the country; the official start of the nursing profession, the foundation of emergency medicine, and doctors learned new techniques of performing many procedures. Many female Americans learned a new way of life, working for the first time. The United States Sanitation Commission assisted in furthering medical science in ways of the importance of antiseptic medicine. Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton, two pioneers of the Civil War, gained the trust of many of the soldiers and surgeons.
Their assistance during the Civil War prevented many more men from certain death. Walt Whitman’s poem, “Wound Dresser” gives us a view into a new profession, nursing. This new profession was aided by the United States Sanitary Committee, Dorothea Dix, and Clara Barton paved the road for the nursing profession today. Whitman’s realistic account into the war efforts gave readers insight into what really happened in the war and what they had to endure. Whitman said after the war, “I have never left [those] real, terrible, beautiful days… the real war will never be in the books.