Wages of War

The field hospitals where A.P. Hoadley worked during much of the war were makeshift and crude. They were set up in tents and barns, on front porches and under trees--wherever surgeons could find a sheltered spot beyond the range of enemy artillery. With the first sounds of gunfire, orderlies were sent out to collect the wounded. They loaded them into horse-drawn carriages, stretchers, and two-wheeled carts that were known as "hop, step and jumps" or "avalanches," because of the torturous jostling that victims had to endure on their way to the rear.

Hospitals were so understaffed that the wounded often lay on the bare ground for hours before receiving any medical attention. They cried out in misery, but whiskey was the only available painkiller, and nurses administered sips sparingly.

Once their turn at the surgeon's table finally came, patients faced yet another danger--infection--a complication that could be just as deadly as flying bullets. While most Civil War surgeons were aware that clean conditions somehow reduced the rate of infection, they did not know the value of sterilizing their instruments. Sometimes water was so scarce in the outdoor hospitals that a surgeon operated for an entire day without washing his hands or his equipment. Between cases, he swiped his bloody hands across his apron or cleaned his knife on the nearest rag, then went on with his work, unknowingly spreading life-threatening bacteria from one patient to the next.

Those fortunate enough to survive an operation in the field were eventually moved to general hospitals that sprung up in many cities near the war zones. While these wards were often breeding grounds for infections such as gangrene and blood poisoning, they were also the site of several important medical advancements. As the war dragged on, doctors slowly discovered the importance of ventilation and isolating infected patients. And the U.S. Sanitary Commission, founded in 1861, provided trained nurses and inspectors, who placed an increasing emphasis on cleanliness in army camps and hospitals.

Still, these improvements seemed insignificant in the face of so much suffering. By the end of the War, nearly a half million soldiers would perish from wounds or disease.

Dear Sister Emma | A Principle of Duty | Sickness and Suffering | Please Write Soon
I hope some day to return | Take good care of it...

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Last updated:
October 14, 2003

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