War Doctors

One of the biggest medical problems during the Civil War was the inadequate training most doctors received. Just before the war, the majority of physicians served as apprentices rather than attending medical school, which meant that many were woefully unprepared for what they encountered on the battlefield.

As horrible as Civil War surgery was, it was often amazingly successful in saving a wounded soldier's life. According to U.S. Army records, of nearly 29,000 amputations performed during the war, only 7,000 or so patients died as a result. The most successful were those surgeries performed within forty-eight hours of injury; wounds tended later than that had a much poorer prognosis.

In Europe, four-year medical schools were fairly common, and students received a great deal of laboratory training. As a result, European physicians had a far better understanding of the causes and treatments of disease and infection. Students in American medical schools trained for less than two years and received almost no clinical experience and very little laboratory instruction. Amazingly, Harvard University didn't own a single stethoscope or microscope until after the war.

At the onset of the war, the Federal army had fewer than 100 medical officers, and the Confederacy had only twenty-four. By 1865, however, more than 13,000 Union doctors had served in the field and in hospitals. In the Confederacy, approximately 4,000 medical officers and a great many volunteers tended to the wounded.

Despite their lack of training and the horrible conditions under which they often worked, Civil War doctors did an astounding job of caring for the sick and wounded. Millions of cases of injury and disease were treated in just forty-eight months, and for the most part, doctors were compassionate and caring individuals who tried to put the concerns of their patients first.

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