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Museum of Civil War Medicine Examines How Medics Worked

September 10, 2007
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register
FREDERICK, Md. — If you’ve ever wondered how medics treated wounds during the Civil War, then the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is the place to visit.

Located just off Interstate 70 outside of Washington, D.C., about two hours from Richmond, Va., the museum offers several exhibits that show how medics handled war-time injuries.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is rather appropriately housed in a historic three-story brick building that in the mid-1800s was home to a furniture maker/undertaker. Back in those days furniture makers routinely served also as undertakers because the main role of the undertaker was to make the coffin or casket.   

Because it is a national museum, it is well-funded and therefore well done with two floors of exhibits that include lifelike mannequins in period dress. 

It begins on the second floor with an exhibit on early medical school education. From there it moves on to the recruiting and enlisting of soldiers during the Civil War. The recruit physicals were often very superficial and many soldiers were allowed to enlist with chronic diseases and physical defects that would affect their performance, according to information provided by the museum.   

An exhibit on camp life is next, followed by a display on evacuation of the wounded. At the beginning of the Civil War, there was no established plan for transporting wounded soldiers from the front lines to the field hospitals.

In 1862, the medical director for the Union forces, Jonathan Letterman, came up with an organized system of ambulances and stretcher bearers to evacuate the wounded that to this day serves as the basis for military evacuation procedures.

The first-floor exhibits concentrate more on what life was like for injured soldiers once they had been evacuated to a safe location.

They would first be brought to a field dressing station where their wounds were bandaged and they were given whiskey and morphine for pain.    

The next display talked about field hospitals where wounds were assessed and surgeons decided on the best course of action, which was often amputation. According to museum information, 95 percent of amputations were done under some form of anesthesia, usually either chloroform or ether.   

The final exhibit depicted a pavilion hospital where injured soldiers were sent to recuperate from their wounds. The museum also houses a number of collections of Civil War items, including dress and medical equipment.

Article Photos

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is located in Frederick. The museum is housed in a historic
three-story brick building that was once home to an
undertaker/furniture maker. Photo Provided

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