The National Museum of Civil War Medicine Is Worth A Visit

A visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., is an eye-opening experience, and one that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

As an author of half a dozen Civil War novels, I have studied the Civil War pretty deeply, but a visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine really opened my eyes and made me think about some of our medical practices today.

It’s amazing how many common medical practices were developed during the American Civil War. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine explains how these great innovations got their start.

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A wayside sign at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine describing what the building had been used for during the Civil War.
A sign outside the National Museum of Civil War Medicine explains caring for the wounded.

Museum of Civil War Medicine Building

Interestingly, the building where the museum is located has a historical background itself, though not as a hospital.

Rather, it was where doctors embalmed soldiers who died following the battles of South Mountain, Antietam, Gettysburg and Monocacy, before they were buried at nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery or shipped home.

The owner of the building was both a furniture maker and undertaker, which somewhat explains the location.

Important Civil War Medicine Facts

After the major battles during the Civil War, makeshift hospitals were established in virtually every large structure  — from barns in the surrounding countryside to churches in the downtown area.

Following the Battle of Antietam, some 8,000 wounded soldiers recuperated in Frederick, Md., at a time when the town’s population was only 8,000.

It’s hard to imagine, but before the Civil War, there was no such thing as a hospital. Doctors made calls and had offices, but no formal system existed for housing the sick and injured.

Civil War Medical Advancements

Many people don’t realize that the Civil War was a turning point in the history of medicine. One of the most important Civil War medical facts is that many of the advancements of our modern medical practices today were initiated during the American Civil War.

As I learned at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, some of the revolutionary new ideas that were discovered during the war include:

  • A structured ambulance system
  • On-site response by trained personnel
  • The use of triage
  • Focus on logistics
  • A hospital system with tiered levels of care

Interesting Civil War Medicine Fact: At the beginning of the Civil War, medicine was emerging from the heroic era, which involved a theory of bringing a balance to the humors of the body. There was no knowledge of germ theory or antiseptic practices.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, Camp Letterman became the first and largest battlefield hospital. Amazingly, there is a Gettysburg witness tree that still stands on the site of Camp Letterman, even though most of the area has been paved and built upon.

The  Displays At The Museum Of Civil War Medicine

The museum’s displays focus on Recruiting and Enlisting; Camp Life; Evacuation of the Wounded; Field Dressing Station; Field Hospital; and Pavilion Hospital.

Visitors can follow in the footsteps of soldiers and surgeons to discover the harsh conditions, personal sacrifices, and amazing innovations that continue to save lives today.

A display at the Civil War Museum showing the different sizes of soldiers who were recruited.
SOLDIERS WHO SERVED: This interesting display shows the shortest known soldier, who was 3’8″ (the shortest recommended was 5’3″). The average soldier was 5’8″ and 1/2. The tallest recommended was 6’3″ and the tallest known was 7’2″.

Camp Life During The Civil War

A display showing a soldier playing a banjo to depict camp life at the Civil War Museum of Medicine.

How about this for a Civil War medicine fact? Camps were where recruits were sent to become soldiers — and it was one of the most dangerous places to be.

Even healthy recruits became victims of illnesses that were easily spread in camps.

In fact, of the 700,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, two thirds were killed by disease, not bullets.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman, the Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, created a revolutionary triage system for sorting and treating the wounded based on the severity of their wounds.

His system was first used after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, and is still in use today.

Hard to imagine, but at the beginning of the war there was no established system to transport wounded soldiers from the front lines to the field hospitals in the rear.

Read about a “witness tree” that still stands at the site of Camp Letterman in Gettysburg

A display showing the innovation of a stretcher system during the Civil War. A soldier is lying on a stretcher in front of a tented wagon with two other soldiers helping.

In August of 1862, Dr. Letterman also created a highly organized system of ambulances and trained stretcher bearers designed to evacuate the wounded as quickly as possible.

Field Dressing Station As Part of Civil War Medicine

A display showing a field dressing station at the civil war museum of medicine in Frederick, Md.

The first level of care received by a wounded soldier was at a field dressing station, located close to the fighting.

Medical personnel bandaged wounds and administered whiskey for shock and morphine for pain. The soldier would then be transported to a field hospital.

It was common for medical personnel from both the North and South to treat the wounded from the other side.

“Humanity teaches us that a wounded and prostrate foe is not then our enemy.” – Jonathan Letterman

Field Hospitals Helped Save Lives During The Civil War

A display showing an amputation during the Civil War with three men leaning over a soldier on a table. One is holding a cone over his mouth and two others are working on his leg.

The second level of care was a field hospital, usually located in a barn or tent to the rear of fighting.

Wounded soldiers were triaged into three categories: mortally, wounded, slightly wounded and surgical cases. Most surgeries were amputations and took place at field hospitals.

This picture is of a typical amputation, 95 percent of which were performed under some sort of anesthesia.

Pavilion Hospitals During The Civil War

Prior to the war, any system of hospitalization was virtually unknown. With the large number of wounded and sick needing long-term care, a network of general hospitals was created.

At first existing buildings were used, but soon large pavilion-style hospitals were constructed that were clean, well ventilated, and highly efficient.

A scene at the Museum of Civil War Medicine showing a hospital with one man looking in a cabinet full of medicine, another lying in a bed with a missing arm, and another standing over him. There is garland hanging on the wall.

The quality of the care that the patients received improved dramatically after the first months of the war.

More On Civil War Medicine Facts

When the Civil War was fought, medical knowledge and technology were still primitive compared to what we have today. Here are some facts about Civil War medicine:

Amputation was a common treatment because it was thought of as the best way to prevent the spread of infection. It’s estimated that about 60,000 amputations were performed during the Civil War.

Anesthesia was available but not always used: Ether and chloroform were available as anesthetics, but they were not always used due to a shortage of trained medical personnel to administer them.

Medical personnel were often untrained. Of course the demand for medical personnel during the war, especially after major battles, was high. Many people with little to no medical training were recruited to serve as nurses and doctors.

Infection was a major problem. Since they did not have any knowledge of bacteria at the time of the Civil War, unsanitary conditions of field hospitals and camps contributed to the spread of infections. It’s estimated that about two-thirds of Civil War deaths were due to disease, not battlefield injuries.

Despite the challenges, the Civil War also saw some medical advancements, including the widespread use of antiseptics, the development of new surgical techniques, and the creation of ambulance systems to transport wounded soldiers.

Overall, the Museum of Civil War Medicine points out the challenges that were faced due to limited medical knowledge and resources of the time.

When visiting the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, N.C., I learned a lot about medical advancements that took place after the Civil War.

The Museum Of Civil War Medicine

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine has plenty of hands-on and interesting displays for kids, providing an entertaining learning experience while learning Civil War medicine facts.

Check out a video of one of the exhibits HERE.

Museum Location: 49 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.

There are two other museums associated with this one. The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum located 437 7th Street NW
Washington, D.C., and the Pry House Field Hospital Museum located at 18906 Shepherdstown Pike, Keedysville, Md.

Other museums that I’ve enjoyed visiting are the Gettysburg World War II Museum and the Weeden House Museum and Garden.

If You Visit The Museum Of Civil War Medicine

An interesting historical landmark near Frederick is the Landon House which was the scene of JEB Stuart’s Sabers and Roses Ball. It’s now private property, but it’s an amazing structure to see.

Of course, just up the road less than 30 miles is Gettysburg, with lots of things to see and do, especially if you’re into Civil War museums and history.

And for a historical destination that dates back to the French and Indian War, the Fort Frederick historical site is a great day trip, especially in April when they hold their annual Colonial Fair.

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