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Courtesy of the Tishomingo County Historical & Genealogical Society
Original files are housed in the John Marshall Stone Research Library
Tishomingo County Archives & History Museum
203 East Quitman Street
Iuka, MS 38852
Phone: 662-423-3500

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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 mosquitoes.

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 admissions.

Tar was often added to drinking water as a disease preventive.

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 army.

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 charities.)

The disease known as “night blindness” or “gravel” was a complication caused by scurvy, a dietary deficiency.

“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 diseases.

“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 process.

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 malaria.

Surgeons used silk thread for tying off blood vessels.

Most surgeons were referred to as “butchers” because about 3 out of 4 battlefield operations were amputations.

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.

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MSGenWeb Tishomingo Co. Coordinator: Jeff Kemp

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