Serving the Surgeons

Surgeons have been branded as butchers since the day the war ended. Some surgeons granted, were imcompetent but the majority saved many lives. Their methods, as out-dated as they are  for today’s doctors, saved the lives of those men who would have died a slow, painful death from their wounds.

The surgeons can be credited with a better use of anesthetics than is shown by the modern media and Hollywood. In just about every movie ever, you see men screaming, writhing on the table, and fighting the doctors. There is also the common misconception that some soldiers only had a bullet to bite during operations.  I can’t speak for every case but this is wrong. Anesthesia was used by doctors in both armies.  Doctors used sponges in the Federal Army to administer Chloroform or Ether to their patients. In the Southern Army surgeons quickly ran out of sponges but  still administered Chloroform (which was used more often then Ether) to the patients who chose to be anesthetized.

How the surgeons anesthetized their patients had its draw backs though. The sponges used were never clean. One surgeon recalled this ” 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”.

Now that we have the pre-operational things out of the way we can get to the actual amputation of the injured limb. The surgeon who would have actually done the sugery would be the division’s best surgeon, usually called the operators,  not just any doctor preformed amputations.

The first thing done was to make an incision. According to each case the operator had the option of either making a circular incision in the appendage or to cut a flap of skin.  The next thing to be

A surgeons tools for amputation used during the civil war

 done is cut through the muscle until you reach the bone. The surgeon would use his bonesaw to do this (thus giving surgeons the nickname sawbones). The surgeon would file the bone so as to make it smooth and to assure that the bone would not poke through the stump later on. Next in the process the surgeon would tie the artery which was severed during the cutting of bone and muscle.  Cotton, silk, or horsehair were used to tie off the artery. Finally, the surgeon would (if the flap method was used) sew the two flaps of skin created earlier in the operation together, leaving a drainage hole for fluids. The stump was sometimes covered with plaster and a bandage to aide the healing process and prevent infection, other times it was just bandaged. The soldier was then sent off to recooperate, usually waking up thirsty, and in pain.

Many soldiers survived the operation. The primary amputation mortality rate was: 28%. That is a great number of men. The secondary amputation rate (those who died from diseases related to the amputation) was : 52%. This seems more like a life saving operation rather than butchery.

A soldier who survived an amputation

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Published in: on September 21, 2010 at 12:31 am  Comments Off on Serving the Surgeons  
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