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One of the beautiful things about working in a public library is the lovely donations we receive from our patrons that cross my desk almost every day. I literally assess each one to see if it fits our collection, as well as meeting our collection development criteria. If so, then it is processed for our library shelves, if not, the item is given to the Friends of the Library who in turn sell it for a ridiculous low price (often $1-$2 for hardback) at their annual book sale. The money they make goes straight back to the library via support for materials, supplies, furnishings, and funding our Summer Reading Program.

There are always books I put aside just to share with you, Dear Readers, here at 19th Century Modern, before the item is sent to its final resting place. Here is an excerpt from a fascinating book that did not past muster for our collections, but is a marvelous niche resource, nevertheless. The citation listed at the very end of the post:

Of the 618,000 fatalities on both sides during the Civil War, about two-thirds (414,000) were the result of disease. Canon and cavalry were no defense in the surgeons’ fight against these enemies. [. . .]

Cases                           Disease                                Deaths

  • 1,155,266           Acute Diarrhea                     2, 923
  • 49, 871               Typho-Malarial Fever        4,049
  • 170,488             Chronic Diarrhea                 27, 558
  • 75,368                Typhoid                                  27,050
  • 2,504                  Typhus                                    850
  • 11,898                 Continual Fever                   147
  • 233,812               Acute Dysentery                  4,084
  • 25,670                Chronic Dysentery              3,229
  • 73,382                 Syphilis                                  123
  • 3,744                   Delirium Tremens              450
  • 2,410                   Insanity                                  80
  • 2,837                  Paralysis                                  231

Acute and chronic dysentery are sometimes called fluxes, and the eruptive fevers are the diseases of small pox, measles, and scarlet fever. Gangrene is not mentioned in the official records because it was not thought of as a disease but the result of the operation. We know now that hospital gangrene is a result of a  unique organism and should have been  classified with the diseases. Instead of the malarial fevers the term swamp fever was used; they mean the same thing.

Nature’s curative powers and a good diet were often more effective than the physician’s healing art in the 19th century, a time when doctors often did not know the causes of many disorders and could only treat the symptoms. The prevalent medical theory of this time was that when a person was sick, the body was full of “ill-humors,” and to rid the patients of these products, purgatives were given. It was not until World War II with the advent of antibiotics (especially penicillin) that we learned how to cure disease.

Without the benefit of modern medicine, however, the doctors of this time fought disorders with limited knowledge and various drugs available to them.  One of the major forms of drug therapy was the use of home remedies by soldiers. Most of these remedies are in the category of eclectic medicine, that is plant derivatives used for curatives. [. . .]

Image result for american civil war field hospitals

The supply table also listed other available supplies and the amounts in which they were dispensed during the war. Medicinal whiskey, the old standby, was issued in the amount of 2,430,785 quarts. Also used were 978,943 ounces of sweet spirit of nitre; 2,072,040 ounces of cinchona (quinine) products; 1,232 ounces of strychnine and 539,712 pounds of magnesium sulphite.

The most striking item in the catalogue of statistics is the notation that the total issue of opium preparations (including powered opium, and camphorated tincture of opium) was a staggering 2,841,596 ounces. In addition 442,926 dozen opium pills were prescribed. [. . .]

In conclusion, let us list the contents of the U.S. Army Medical Pannier:

  1. Cantharides
  2. Silver Nitrate
  3. Silver Chloride
  4. Iodine
  5. Tartar Emetic
  6. Paragoric
  7. Ferric Sulphate
  8. Spirits of Ammonia
  9. Cathartic Pills
  10. Ipecac Pills
  11. Mercurous Chloride
  12. Beef Extract
  13. Coffee Extract
  14. Condensed Milk
  15. Alcohol
  16. Black Tea
  17. Spirit of Nitrous Ether
  18. Strong Alcohol
  19. Cough Mixture
  20. White Sugar
  21. Chloroform
  22. Liniment
  23. Syrup of Squill
  24. Ammonia Water
  25. Ether
  26. Opium
  27. Fluid Extract of Chincona
  28. Fluid Extract of Valerian
  29. Fluid Extract of Ginger
  30. Olive Oil
  31. Oil of Turpentine
  32. Glycerine
  33. Ipecac Powder
  34. Quinine Sulphate
  35. Potassium Chlorate
  36. Potassium Bicarbonate
  37. Potassium Iodine
  38. Rochelle Salt
  39. Morphine
  40. Camphor and Opium Pills
  41. Mercury Pills
  42. Opium Pills
  43. Tannic Acid
  44. Alum
  45. Callodion
  46. Creasote
  47. Fluid Extract of Aconite
  48. Fluid Extract of Colchicine
  49. Tincture of Ferric Chloride
  50. Lead Acetate
  51. Zine Sulphate

The list was the supply of ammunition from which the Civil War surgeon drew to defend his patients from the raves of disease. There was not much in the way of curative powers in any of these compounds. The best line of defense was to stay healthy; the odds of that were staggering. [ . . .]

*Dammann, Dr. Gordon. Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment, vol 1. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, pp 44-46.