Although my upcoming American Victorian romance release, The Physician’s Irish Lady, takes place two years after the Civil War ends, the hero, a small town physician, had served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the war.
Civil War field surgeons were often called butchers, but it was the weaponry of the day, the slow-moving minie bullet that was responsible for the catastrophic injuries and amputations that were so common in Civil War field hospitals. At the Battle of Chickamauga, John Bell Hood’s leg was struck by two minie bullets, shattering five inches of his upper thigh bone. Surgeons had no choice other than amputation with the state of nineteenth century medicine. Men who lost arms, such as Stonewall Jackson and Oliver O. Howard, had high morality rates. Amputees were a very visible reminder of the brutality of this war. At the time, weaponry had far surpassed the medical techniques needed to aid such injuries.
Soldiers wounded in battle might wait at least a day, maybe two before treatment could be administered. And antiseptics weren’t used in surgery until 1865, the final year of the war. Even a simple precaution like hand washing wasn’t routinely done before a surgeon operated. Clothes of doctors were blood splattered while going from patient to patient. If something was dropped during the surgery, it would be rinsed in cool, bloodied water. Sponges were dipped in cool water and used over again on different patients.
One surgeon recalled: “We operated in old blood-stained and often pus-stained coats, we used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected plush lined cases. If a sponge (if they had sponges) or instrument fell on the floor it was washed and squeezed in a basin of water and used as if it was clean.” http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/features/medicine/cwsurgeon/amputations.cfm
The term “Sawbones” was used to describe a doctor because the bonesaw was a common instrument used to amputate a shattered limb. The surgeon would saw through the bone until it was severed. The limb was then tossed into a pile of limbs from other unfortunate patients. “A good surgeon could amputate a limb in under 10 minutes.” http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/features/medicine/cwsurgeon/amputations.cfm
Only if a soldier was lucky would he escape what were known as “Surgical Fevers”. Gangrene, Pyemia, a form of blood poisoning; as well as other infections developed from the lack of cleanliness and antibiotics, which didn’t exist at the time, and the fact that surgeons were required to work with speed. Once an infection entered the body, it was difficult to treat with the medicines available.
For more information on Civil War surgery:
The Physician’s Irish Lady will be released by The Wild Rose Press on 1/22/14, but will be available for purchase later this month on Amazon Kindle.