American Civil War Medical Care & Medicine: Facts, Conditions & Techniques

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The medical care of soldiers during wartime highlights the best medical technology and practices of the time. Although not great at the start of the Civil War, medical practices improved drastically by the war's end.

Medical Care in the Civil War

Chloroform, opium, whiskey, smuggling and surgeries on kitchen tables. Together, these things sound like the plot of a a weird mystery television show. However, would it surprise you to know that each of these things played an integral and helpful role in treating wounded soldiers in the Civil War? Modern medicine has clearly (and thankfully!) come a long way since the Civil War. In this lesson, learn about the conditions of hospitals, medical statistics and inventions and innovations during the war.

Hospital Conditions

A Union hospital located near Washington, D.C. Before the war, this building was a hotel.

Prior to the Civil War, there were no major hospitals established around the country to treat mass casualties. Since the location of battles was not planned, doctors had to do the best they could with what was available. Initially, barns, homes and tents were used to treat soldiers and even perform surgeries. Having little understanding of hygiene, doctors would often move between patients without washing their hands or medical instruments and even use dirty rags to cover wounds. Do you think this make doctors in the Civil War irresponsible or even at fault for many of the deaths? Although these practices seem crazy by modern standards, remember that without the knowledge of disease that we have today, doctors were doing their very best to treat and help as many injured soldiers as possible!

In the Union, the work of Surgeon General William Hammond revolutionized the conditions of hospitals by the war's end. Hospital buildings and tents were designed to have better ventilation so that the spread of disease was limited. Doctors were taught better hygienic practices so that they did not act as the carriers of disease between patients. Additionally, Hammond created standardized hospital inspections to ensure that all hospitals were being run to standard.

Medical Facts and Statistics in the Civil War

In the Civil War, the most common cause of death was not related to battlefield injuries. Instead, disease was the cause of about two-thirds of casualties in the war. Cold winters, close living quarters, and a lack of understanding about hygiene and the spread of disease meant that illness like dysentery and malaria spread rapidly.

Often called ''Sawbones'' because of the high number of amputations they performed, Civil War doctors performed more amputations than any other procedure. Due to unsanitary conditions, disease was so rampant in Civil War hospitals that even minor injuries often required amputation to prevent the spread of infection. Since antibiotics had not yet been discovered, once an infection started, there was little anyone could do to stop its spread other than removing the infected area. Fortunately, for soldiers requiring amputations, about fifteen years before the war doctors started using anesthesia (in the form of chloroform) when performing operations. Although not always available before surgeries, most patients were able to have this form of anesthesia to lessen the pain they endured. Whiskey and even opium were also used to help ease pain.

Most medicine needed for the Civil War was produced in the Union. This was great news if you were a soldier fighting for the North because it meant that medicines were easily accessible and relatively cheap. However, it left the Confederacy in trouble because they had no way of getting the medicines to help their soldiers to survive. To fix this, the Confederacy would steal medicine and sew it into the jackets of women so they could smuggle it into the south.


The number of soldiers requiring medical attention brought more awareness and attention to medical practices in the United States. Looking on the brightside, the following are medical innovations that happened because of the Civil War:

  • The U.S. Sanitary Commission was established. This organization raised money for medical supplies and basic hygiene. Although the U.S. Sanitary Commission does not still exist, its fundraising and aid efforts served as the model for organization like the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton

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