During the Civil War, persons were called upon to perform surgery due to the incredible amount of injuries. Many had never performed surgery before. But they did not deserve the handle “butchers” that many were called.
Of the 3,000 Confederate surgeons only 27 had performed surgery prior to the beginning of the war. Of the 11,000 Union surgeons, the number was approximately 500. They learned as they went along. Union records indicated over 400,000 men were treated and surgeons performed about 40,000 operations. Confederate records are less available, but it is thought their numbers would have been similar.
In fact in his report following the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), the medical director of the Army of the Potomac filed this report “The surgery of these battle-fields has been pronounced butchery. Gross misrepresentations of the conduct of medical officers have been made and scattered broadcast over the country, causing deep and heart-rending anxiety to those who had friends or relatives in the army, who might at any moment require the services of a surgeon. It is not to be supposed that there were no incompetent surgeons in the army. It is certainly true that there were; but these sweeping denunciations against a class of men who will favorably compare with the military surgeons of any country, because of the incompetency and short-comings of a few, are wrong, and do injustice to a body of men who have labored faithfully and well. It is easy to magnify an existing evil until it is beyond the bounds of truth. It is equally easy to pass by the good that has been done on the other side. Some medical officers lost their lives in their devotion to duty in the battle of Antietam, and others sickened from excessive labor which they conscientiously and skillfully performed. If any objection could be urged against the surgery of those fields, it would be the efforts on the part of surgeons to practice ‘conservative surgery’ to too great an extent.”
Seventy percent of war wounds were to extremities. Amputations were so common that a surgeon at nearby hospital could perform a limb amputation in ten minutes. He had to move fast. He had a line of patients to tend to.
A soldier’s survival rate depended on where his amputation was located and how quickly he was treated. All totaled, about 74% of those with amputations survived. It is believed about 60,000 veterans from both sides came home from the war missing at least one limb.
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