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Medicine in the 1860s
Medicine in the 1860s was, needless to
say, not very advanced. The whole notion of bacterial infection
was unknown, and some of the “cures” were downright laughable,
and often did more harm than good. Ordinary civilians suffered
the usual illnesses and infections, but the military men, living
with inadequate food, clothing, and shelter, suffered even more.
The following interesting facts about
Confederate medicine was obtained, in part, from The Complete
Book of Confederate Trivia by J. Stephen Lang.
(Transcribed by RaNae Smith Vaughn.)
For every Confederate soldier who died of
battle, three died of disease.
At the beginning of the war, no physical
exam was administered to Confederate recruits. Not until fall
1862 was a program for exams begun.
Oddly enough, the rustic soldiers suffered
the most from disease. Though they were of tough constitution,
they knew little about hygiene, and the toughest outfits of the
war were units composed of city-bred youths.
Latrines were called “sinks.”
“Gallinippers” was a nickname for
mosquitoes, a major problem for the Confederacy.
Soldiers attributed malaria to the miasma,
or swamp mist. They were at least correct in that there was a
connection between swamps and malaria—since swamps breed
Body lice were called by colorful names
such as “graybacks,” “tigers,” and “Bragg’s bodyguard.”
The childhood disease most common among
soldiers from rural areas was measles, which attacked in
epidemic proportions and led to thousands of deaths.
Dysentery and diarrhea caused a tenth of
its victims to die in the Confederate army. Men afflicted
composed from one-sixth to one-fourth of all hospital
Tar was often added to drinking water as a
Soldiers would wear flannel bands around
the waist to ward off the bad effects of chill and damp. They
were no more effective than the tar in the water.
Letting the beard grow long was
recommended as protection for the throat and lungs. This was
easy to do with little soap and water available for shaving.
As a home remedy for cold, molasses was
added to water.
Blood-letting was a primitive medical
method that was still used to cure pneumonia in the Confederate
Alcoholic beverages were regarded as a
cure-all in the absence of better medicine. This, at least, did
relieve some pain. Doctors were frequently teased about their
own “medicinal” use of alcohol.
Waysides were voluntary agencies set up to
care for ailing soldiers. They were also known as “soldiers’
homes.” They were the center of some controversy, since there
were reports of the waysides’ officials using donated goods for
their own benefit (something that continues in modern-day
The disease known as “night blindness” or
“gravel” was a complication caused by scurvy, a dietary
“Fighting under the black flag” meant
killing body lice.
The preferred and fairly effective method
of ridding a uniform of body lice was to singe it over a
campfire—which some soldiers referred to as “popping corn,”
alluding to the large size of some of the lice.
Smallpox was mistakenly believed to have a
venereal origin. Doctors did not believe this, but apparently
many soldiers did.
Smallpox was the contagious disease that
was believed to have been brought to the Confederacy by
Yankees. In all seriousness, some Rebs did believe this, and it
was true that many cases of the disease had been reported in the
Union army before it became known among Confederates.
The most common skin ailment of the
Confederate soldier was the “camp itch” or the “itch.” It was
hardly life-threatening, but in the days before skin ointment,
the camp itch could almost drive a man into frenzy.
Canvas-covered wagons served as ambulances
for the Confederacy.
The usual anesthetic for patients
undergoing surgery was whiskey or brandy, whenever it was
available. Often it was not available.
“Camp fever” was possibly another name for
typhoid, though the name is vague enough to apply to other
“Playing old soldier” meant faking
sickness at sick call.
Doctors received two years of medical
school before the Civil War.
“Laudable pus” implied festering caused by
infection—considered in those days to be part of the healing
The Confederate army had about 24 medical
officers when the war began.
The “Virginia quickstep” was not a
dance. It was a common camp complaint—diarrhea.
The “shakes” was one of many names for
Surgeons used silk thread for tying off
Most surgeons were referred to as
“butchers” because about 3 out of 4 battlefield operations were
The term “general hospital” came about
because these hospitals accepted men regardless of which
regiment they were from.
The Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond had a
400-keg brewery, a soap factory, ice houses, and a bakery that
could produce 10,000 loaves of bread per day.
For soldiers whose families wanted them
reburied near home, the corpse had to be disinterred, embalmed,
then transported home in a coffin—often an expensive process.
“Hop, step, and jumps” were the name for
army ambulances. They gave a rather rough ride.
Scurvy was the common prison disease that
caused men to lose their hair and teeth.
Opium, desperately needed in the Southern
hospitals, was captured from the Union ship Harriet Stevens in
1864 by the CSS Florida.
The biggest complaint Confederate
prisoners made about Union nursing chief Dorothea Dix was that
she only employed ugly women as nurses.
Clara Barton, who later founded the Red
Cross, traveled often through the Confederacy as she attended
wounded Union soldiers.
Yellow flags were used to mark field
hospitals. The flags often had a large “H” in the center also.
Yellow fever was especially common in the
New Orleans area because of the swampy terrain.
The latrine often went unused in soldiers’
camps. Most soldiers of the 1860s preferred to relieve
themselves behind a tree or tent.
“Way hospitals” was the name given to the
hospitals established by Congress at railroad junctions. These
were especially used by soldiers on medical furlough.
Only about 1 percent of battlefield
injuries resulted from sabers and bayonets.
“Surgical fevers” was the name given to
the infections that usually followed surgery.