Medical Practices of the Day

Medicine until the 1860s

Medicine in the 1860s was in a period of transition. The building blocks of modern practice—microscopy, pathology and clinical examination—were not utilized. While anesthetics like chloroform and ether were available and often used during surgeries, antiseptics and germ theory were still undiscovered. Most doctors continued to practice the “four humors” theory developed by Galen during the Roman Empire many hundreds of years ago.

American Medical Practice

In 1860, there were few medical schools in the United States. The American medical student would be expected to train for two years with little, or no, clinical or laboratory experience. Instead, students would attend lectures for the first year, then repeat the same lectures in the second year, and finally take an exam. The type of lectures students attended—like anatomy, surgery, and midwifery—were optional. If the medical student passed his examination, then he gained his medical degree and was available to practice anywhere in the country. Many proceeded to apprentice with more experienced doctors after school.

Medical Practice during the War

The Civil War was a defining moment in medical practice during the era. When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in 1861, neither the Union nor the Confederacy was prepared for a long conflict with numerous casualties. Terrible wounds were inflicted by cannon fire, rifles and close fighting with bayonets and sabers. Neither side had a system of hospitals, administrators, or doctors and nurses. Emergency hospitals were set up in homes, schools, churches, hotels, and tents near battlefields. The doctors that applied to be military surgeons were inexperienced and very few in number compared to the soldiers.

Two-thirds of the deaths during the war were caused by disease. Many soldiers enlisted from rural communities and had not been exposed to numerous people or diseases before. Thousands died from common diseases such as mumps, measles and diarrhea. Still more died from camp diseases like malaria, dysentery and typhoid fever from lack of cleanliness. It was reported that 60 percent of a regiment would often be cut down by disease before they even saw a battle.

Cures for disease and injury were strange and deadly by today’s standards. Tar would be added to drinking water to combat sickness. Pus from infection was encouraged and believed to be a part of the healing process. Speedy amputation was the solution for wounded limbs. Administration of anesthesia could often be heavy-handed; soldiers died from chloroform overdose and bled out when given too much alcohol.

Initially, untrained volunteers and convalescent soldiers served as nurses in squalid military hospitals. As Catholic sisters took up nursing duties, they did much to combat camp illness and battlefield injuries. Based on their hospital experiences prior to the war, they created order and cleanliness in chaotic military hospitals, and they would assist all in need. Even though volunteer sisters only numbered 640 during the conflict, they made up nearly 20 percent of the nurses of the combined Union and Confederate armies. In addition to medical assistance, the sisters also cared for families of the wounded, dying veterans and orphans.

The sisters’ work during the war was unprompted, unbiased, and often initially unwelcomed. But their help earned them much gratitude, many sympathizers, and saved soldiers’ and citizens’ lives. Both the Union and Confederate governments commended them for their selfless actions.

“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their Order…on their errands of mercy among the suffering and dying. Gentle, womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers…in contact with such horrors…words suited to every sufferer…exorcise pain by their presence…”

Abraham Lincoln

“I can never forget your kindness to the sick and wounded in our darkest days, and I known not how to testify in gratitude and respect for every member of your noble order…”

Jefferson Davis

Several digitized archival artifacts are located below.




| Photograph, Amputation | Artifact, Amputation Kit | Drawing, from a Diary |