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Quinine, Morphine And Whiskey: Tools Of The Civil War Battlefield Doctor

Discussion in 'Medical Care of the Civil War' started by CMWinkler, Dec 30, 2012.

  1. CMWinkler

    CMWinkler Brigadier General Moderator Forum Host

    Oct 17, 2012
    Middle Tennessee
    Quinine, Morphine And Whiskey: Tools Of The Civil War Battlefield Doctor
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    Civil War field hospital. (NARA )​
    December 29, 2012|By DAVID DRURY, Special to the Courant, The Hartford Courant
    From his post with the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment, Dr. Nathan Mayer watched as wave after wave of blue-clad infantry fell beneath the Confederate guns massed atop Marye's Heights.
    "All day long I had seen the troops, in brigade lines, marched up a wide slope against stone walls, defended by confederates. And line after line was received by deadly volleys, broken and driven back, while batteries from the top of the slope threw shrieking shells at them,'' wrote Mayer, a regimental surgeon from Hartford, as he recalled the Battle of Fredericksburg, one of the worst Union defeats of the Civil War.

    That night in mid-December 1862, "we surgeons labored in a large freight depot till morning. The carnage had been terrible." Nearly 500 amputations were performed, with severed limbs piled into "a heap of feet, arms, legs, etc. under a tree in front of the hospital,'' the poet Walt Whitman wrote.
    The German-born Mayer spent more than three years in service with the Union Army. He treated typhoid, malaria, smallpox and the many other infectious diseases that decimated the soldiers' camps. He was once taken prisoner and briefly incarcerated in Richmond's notorious Libby Prison. He survived a bout of yellow fever during an outbreak that struck down his entire surgical staff, and risked court martial by employing an unauthorized treatment to save his patients.
    Mayer's wartime experiences, which he related in a lively memoir composed 40 years later, belies the stereotypical image of an ill-trained, ill-equipped, whiskey-swigging sawbones drowning in the catastrophic suffering of the times.
    As battlefield losses mounted, and disease riddled the camps, Mayer and others like him worked tirelessly to tend to the legions of wounded and sick.
    In an era when the benefits of hygiene and causes of disease were, at best, dimly understood, they relied upon the best tools at their disposal: recently developed anesthesia for surgeries, opiates to relieve pain, and quinine — the ground, liquefied bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree — to treat tropical fevers.
    "In one pocket I carried quinine, in the other morphine and whiskey in my canteen,'' he wrote, describing a daylong march in which he trailed his regiment, examining stragglers and treating the sick and injured.
    Civil War Medicine
    Every Connecticut infantry regiment was assigned a head surgeon and one or two assistants. They were medical doctors who were also commissioned officers. They were assisted by stewards, enlisted personnel or non-commissioned officers who may have had some prior medical or pharmaceutical training.
    The job of the regimental surgeon was to keep the soldiers under his charge fit for duty. "They were like the family doctors of — on paper —a thousand men'' said Dr. Robert "Mick" Bedard, a West Hartford allergist who has written and lectured about Civil War medicine and performs the role of regimental surgeon during historical re-enactments.
    The doctors were of mixed quality. Not until the Flexner Report of 1910 were requirements for medical education standardized. The most highly trained attended leading medical schools like Yale or Harvard College or, in Mayer's case, Ohio Medical College, and received additional training abroad in anatomy and surgical technique. Even the best mid-18th century medical education was primitive by today's standards.
    The Civil War was waged in the generation just prior to the discoveries of Koch and Pasteur, when the link between bacteria and disease was conclusively established, and at a time when Lister was just beginning experiments proving the benefits of sterilization.

    Doctors in the 1860s shared an understanding formulated by Galen and the ancient Greeks "that disease was the product of an imbalance of humours,'' Bedard said.
    The miasma theory – that deadly diseases were transmitted through "bad air' from rotting vegetation – remained accepted theory. Troops were coached to protect themselves against the vapors of swampy, humid regions by not venturing out at night without caps and coats, even so leaving them helpless against the disease-carrying mosquitoes or microbial organisms in the drinking water that were the real culprits.
    Not surprisingly, two-thirds of the 625,000 deaths during the Civil War resulted from sickness and disease.
    The best regimental surgeons — like Mayer, "a cut above,'' according to Bedard — were brave, energetic, resourceful, compassionate and pragmatic. Experience taught that well-supplied, well-fed troops in sanitary living quarters were healthier; that some medicines, treatments and techniques worked better than others; and that those stricken by disease or recovering from battlefield wounds had a better chance of survival with fresh air, regular changes of dressings and active nursing care.

    The Civil War battlefield was no place for the faint of heart. Amputation was performed routinely to remove limbs shattered by artillery and rifled lead shot to reduce the risk of gangrene.
    The use of chloroform, ether and nitrous oxide for anesthesia had been well-established by the Civil War, thanks to pioneers like Hartford dentist Horace Wells. Chloroform was preferred for field use, being less flammable than ether and easy to administer. So easy, Mayer discovered that it could be dispensed by untrained soldiers called in to assist in the care of wounded comrades.

    For pain relief, doctors relied on morphine and opiates. And, of course, there was whiskey, which for some surgeons became an occupational hazard, as evidence by court marshal records of Army surgeons.
    A system developed during the war to manage battlefield casualties — triage — remains in use today, Bedard said. At field-aid stations close to the front, doctors made preliminary assessments of who was unlikely to survive, who could be sent back to fight and who needed to be sent to the rear. They dressed wounds and performed emergency surgery. The seriously wounded were then moved to corps hospitals for major surgeries, and later transported by rail, ship or carriage to centralized hospitals in cities, including Knight Hospital in New Haven.
    Dr. Mayer's War
    The oldest of four children, Nathan Mayer was born in Bavaria on Dec. 25, 1838, the son of a rabbi. The family moved to the U.S. when Nathan was 11 and he attended schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, graduating from medical school there in 1854.
    Two years later, the Mayers moved to Hartford where Nathan's father, Isaac, became the first rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel.
    In 1859, Nathan Mayer left the states for further medical study in Munich and Paris, returning in Jan. 1862.
    Eager to serve his adopted land, Mayer was interviewed by Gov. William A. Buckingham and in March 1862 was commissioned an assistant surgeon. He was assigned to the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiment, based in New Bern, N.C.
    In his memoir, Mayer described with good humor how he lost his service trunk in transit and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to meet most needs. He was assigned 30 typhoid patients and scoured the area for fresh milk and kegs of beer "and stimulated my patients Munich fashion." All but two survived.
    His smallpox patients were kept in isolation under the care of Negroes. "I was the only white person who went to the smallpox tent. Remember I had only my uniform — my trunk was lost — so you saw me in a scarlet, much beflowered calico morning robe, my head tied up in a bandana, stalking across the field and into woods to see my patients."
    Through that spring and summer, Mayer learned to ride a horse, not very well by his account. After his unit moved north into Virginia and Maryland, he performed his first amputations and treated Confederate prisoners.
    He arrived at Antietam the evening before the battle and spent the next day, Sept. 17, under heavy fire, treating the badly wounded of his regiment, before relocating to a farmhouse that had been converted to a field hospital. "Every room was soon filled; the barnyard and garden were crowded with wounded, and I should not have known where to place more," he wrote.

    In late 1862, Mayer was transferred to the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and in January 1863 was promoted to regimental surgeon. In April 1864, he was taken prisoner following the Union defeat at Plymouth, N.C. Following a brief incarceration, he was exchanged and was assigned to Foster General Hospital in New Bern.
    There in the summer of 1864 he performed heroic service in combating a yellow fever outbreak. When the accepted method of treatment, large doses of quinine, proved ineffective, he defied an order by the U.S. Surgeon General, and the objections of his own staff, and prescribed Calomel (mercury chloride), successfully saving many lives. Mayer himself barely survived the fever, which struck down all 18 of his surgical staff, killing nine.
    By the end of the war, Mayer was the hospital's chief doctor, its chief administrator, the medical purveyor for Gen. William Sherman's Army and in charge of inventory and storage of captured Confederate stores.
    The 16th's regimental historian, Lt. B. F. Blakeslee, wrote of Mayer: "He was a good physician, and as a surgeon could not be surpassed in the Army of the Potomac. He commenced immediately to make improvements in and out of the hospital, and to look to the cleanliness of the tents, company streets and cooking utensils. He also saw that the food issued was properly prepared by the cooks; and when he gave cough syrup, it was not stuff that men would use on their food for molasses."

    Mayer returned to Hartford after the war, becoming one of the city's most respected physicians. He was appointed Surgeon General of Connecticut in 1872 and was a founding staff member of St. Francis Hospital. He sat on the Board of United States Pension Examiners and served as its president at the time of his death. His long association with the Hartford Medical Society saw his election to the presidency of the organization in 1906, and culminated with the award of the Society's Loving Cup on New Year's Day 1912.
    In addition to his professional accomplishments, the good doctor found time to indulge his lifelong passion for literature and music. A published poet and novelist, with five novels about Jewish life to his credit, he spent 41 years as chief theater and music reviewer for the Hartford Times. His wartime experiences would remain close to his heart until his death, July 10, 1912, as evidenced by the poem he wrote and recited in 1894 at the dedication of the memorial to the 16th Connecticut at Antietam.

    He dedicated the work "to my brave and faithful comrades whose individual history, endurance, sufferings and loyal devotion in campaigns, in hospital and in prison, no one had better opportunities to know."

    RebelCause, AUG351 and Pvt.Shattuck like this.

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  3. Jake Patterson

    Jake Patterson Sergeant

    Sep 29, 2012
    I'm in the middle of a project about a soldier from the 21st MA who transferred to the 1st U.S. Arty. He was on Stafford Heights watching what is described above.
  4. Roland

    Roland Sergeant

    Nov 29, 2012
    Thanks for posting!

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