Medicine then and now: Take a visceral visit through the Civil War

Gregg Clemmer

National Museum of Civil War MedicineLife-like displays tell the story of the harsh realities of field medicine during the Civil War.

It remains the deadliest of all our wars, killing more than 700,000 Americans. Yet, despite the enduring lessons you can learn on our nation’s Civil War battlefields and campsites, one of the most unique experiences awaiting you is a visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., and its affiliates, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum near Antietam Battlefield and the newly opened Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C.

Why might these particular museums command your attention? Disease, not bullets and bayonets, killed two of every three dead soldiers in the Civil War.

National Museum of Civil War MedicineLife-like displays tell the story of the harsh realities of field medicine during the Civil War.
National Museum of Civil War MedicineLife-like displays tell the story of the harsh realities of field medicine during the Civil War.

Expanding on the idea of founder Dr. Gordon E. Dammann, who sought a more public venue for his collection of Civil War medical artifacts and their legacy to medical advances, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine opened in 1996 to considerable acclaim.

Today, the museum’s displays spread over 7,000 square feet on two floors, highlighting everything from antebellum medical education, wartime recruitment, and camp life to evacuation of the wounded, field dressing stations, and the inevitable field hospitals. Displays on the subsequent evolution of pavilion hospitals and the graphic necessity to embalm the dead represent just a fraction to the Civil War’s impact on modern military medicine.

The exhibits are complemented by a stunning array of wartime artifacts. A viewing-windowed wooden coffin with built-in ice chest and bottom drainage speaks to the challenge of returning a body to loved ones. There are period embalming pumps, stretchers, amputation kits, and various uniforms of medical personnel.

As in many Civil War museums, you can see a variety of weapons, including swords, an Enfield bayonet, a .36 caliber Navy Colt revolver, and a Wickham musket, along with various lead bullets, shell fragments, and cannon balls. The damage caused by those weapons required the prompt medical attention of the museum’s ebony-handled amputation knives, dental extraction pliers, monaural stethoscopes, styptic holders, bone saws, and other medical equipment.

The museum’s apothecary bottle collection not only reflects the medicinal legacy of the times, but spurs your imagination. The bottles once contained everything from kali mur (potassium chloride), laudanum, ipecac, belladonna extract, and morphide sulphate to nux vomica, powdered rhubarb, spirits of turpentine, lead acetate, blackberry balsam, and even Carter’s Little Liver Pills.

Among the special summer programs the museum offers in June and July is the fourth annual Cigar and Whiskey Night on June 20, featuring the attraction’s story-telling executive director George Wunderlich on banjo, accompanied by an exquisite array of spirits and tobacco products available for tasting and sampling.

On July 2, the museum will host a vivid narrative from writer and journalist Hilda Koontz on the Mississippi River steamboat Sultana explosion on April 27, 1865, which killed more than 1,800 returning Union veterans — more than would perish on the Titanic 47 years later.

And, if you are passionate about Civil War movies, check out Dammann’s July 23 presentation on the accuracy of Hollywood’s portrayal of medical practices during the War Between the States. The founder of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine will investigate six films, analyzing their impact on the audience for what is right, wrong, and relevant by showing excerpts from each movie.

The museum’s Dispensary Store gift shop offers a wide array of books, souvenirs, and museum logo items. Should you wish to dig deeper, the research facility archives an impressive collection of soldiers’ letters, images, and government medical records, and has staff to help you document any ancestors who may have been injured or lost in the war.

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