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Recovery from battle wounds often tortuous in 1860s

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By Les Harvath
Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009
 

Phantom limb syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, facial reconstruction and brain and eye surgery all are the product of a battlefield.

The first concerted response to such wounds occurred during the Civil War in the United States.

"This was a time before doctors used microscopes, before they understood germs. Many of their practices would be appalling by today's standards, but this is what they had to work with," said Rea Andrew Redd, who will be the featured speaker at the Civil War Roundtable Aug. 13, in the Kara Alumni House at California University of Pennsylvania.

During Redd's address, "Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War," he will provide an overview of medical practices and advances made and detail the work of a Federal regimental surgeon.

"Actually, the Civil War turned into a complete medical laboratory," Redd said. "Doctors had an abundance of bodies to which they could apply their medical studies of the skeletal, muscular, and circulatory systems. In addition to being able to study aspects of brain and eye surgery due to soldiers' wounds, other wounds exposed the inner workings of the bones, the stomach, or other organs, enabling doctors to advance their knowledge of the human body."

Redd, director of the Eberly Library at Waynesburg University and an adjunct instructor in history, brings an impressive Civil War resume to the roundtable: He made a 20-minute movie about journalism in the Civil War for the New York Times Web site and has performed at living history events at Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper's Ferry National Parks.

The speaker said he has read volumes about the Civil War, but developed an initial interest in the conflict as a pre-schooler while perusing pictures in his older sibling's history books. His interest was so strong that his family claimed he had a Civil War gene in his DNA makeup.

Two members of his immediate family, Samuel Redd and George Redd, were members of Company C, 140th Pennsylvania Infantry, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac. Both fought at Gettysburg and survived the war. Distant cousins from Virginia and Alabama fought for the Confederacy, providing significant fodder for interesting discussions at family reunions.

To further his interest, Redd began to participate as a Civil War reenactor in 1993, with Company A, Ninth Pennsylvania Reserves.

"At that time, the movie 'Gettysburg' was out, as was Ken Burns' Civil War series, and the tide was right," said Redd, 57, who resides in McMurray. "I found a group in its 12th year as reenactors, joined, and the group is still thriving."

As a reenactor, Redd serves in the Union infantry, portraying a captain of medical services with the U.S. Signal Corps. He may drop rank to an infantry private or corporal or, as color sergeant, carry the regiment's colors.

Medical practices at that time

"Even though a popular school of thought is that medicine in the U.S. was inferior to that on the European continent during the mid-nineteenth century, that's not the case," he said. "Medical science in the United States at the time was as advanced and comparable to medicine being practiced in Europe.

"There was talk about phantom limb syndrome and post-traumatic stress syndrome even during the Civil War era, plus there was even facial reconstruction occurring toward the end of the conflict. With photography rapidly developing, doctors were able to photograph many stages of surgery. Advancements in reconstructive surgery developed to the point where a soldier's jaw was rebuilt over period of three years' time."

During the Civil War, there were appalling numbers of casualties accompanied by simultaneous and incredible medical discoveries, Redd noted. Because synthetic medicines were still non-existent, medicine was all herbal.

After the war, he said, the discovery of vitamins would change the face of medicine.

"As of 1862, there was plenty of chloroform for anesthetic purposes, and huge government contracts were awarded for its manufacture," he said. "As a result, the pharmaceutical industry was birthed during the Civil War."

Chloroform was administered through a copper funnel with a sponge at the end; a soldier inhaled the chloroform before the operation. There was no shortage of chloroform during the war, in the North or South, and there was enough even on the battlefield, as long as supplies arrived with the troops.

On those bloodied and corpse-strewn battlefields, the wounded received what medical care was available. Surgeons frequently wiped a knife, thick with blood following an operation, on their clothing, only to reuse that same surgical tool on the next patient.

Northern medical personnel developed the use of the ambulance to remove the wounded from the battlefield, to perhaps a farmhouse two miles from the battlefield, which was where physicians performed amputations. Physicians, Redd noted, also speculated about blood transfusions, about getting new blood into a wounded soldier, but how was the question that puzzled them.

Gangrene, the death of soft tissues leading to a loss of blood supply, was another problem frustrating doctors on the battlefield. Wounded soldiers faced chronic blood poisoning, and there were no X-rays to determine precisely what damage wounds caused, whether from wool (uniforms), leather or buttons, which often shattered and spread throughout wounds. This lead to gangrene and often forced multiple amputations.

Amputation of a foot did not necessarily stop the spread of infection but resulted in amputation of a leg below the knee. However, infection would often lead to an entire leg being amputated, and the spread of gangrene often resulted in death, many times in a matter of days.

Redd points to numerous advancements during the war. For the first time, dried vegetables were used to feed troops, and the first canned milk was sent to soldiers.

"That canned milk, or bottles of milk, along with a little whiskey, often saved a soldier's life," he said.

Redd's historical anecdotes have been related to middle- and high-school students, for historical societies, and at Soldiers and Sailors Museum in Pittsburgh.

Redd has put on a stove-pipe hat to perform as Abraham Lincoln for schools and historical societies and at the Allegheny Cemetery.

"Everything about the Civil War comes together, from the reenactments to historical research and stories," he said. "This is something I grew up with, and I enjoy sharing my stories with anyone who will listen."

Redd has a Civil War blog at www.civilwarlibrarian.blogspot.com .

 

 
 


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