Civil War Surgery

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and a small group of men rode at dusk along the still-steaming battlefield perimeter on May 2, 1863. During daylight the Confederates had won a stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Va. Despite marked manpower and hardware inferiority, the leadership of Generals Robert Lee and Stonewall Jackson sent Union General “Fighting” Joe Hooker literally running from the battlefield. Jackson’s evening patrol was to ensure stability and set his plan for the next day.

Encountering other Confederate soldiers on the path in the waning light, the Jackson patrol exchanged words with the men, but the North Carolina contingent of soldiers did not believe the approaching mounted men were Confederate, so they fired into their midst. General Jackson fell, having suffered two gunshot wounds. The large caliber (.58), soft-lead minie ball was heavy, and it expanded when it went through tissue, resulting in shattered bone and tearing of internal soft tissues. Minie ball injuries to an arm or a leg usually meant amputation, and torso or head wounds were most often fatal.

Friendly fire was the source of General Jackson’s mortal upper-arm wound. He was attended by the 27-year-old surgeon, Doctor Hunter McGuire, medical director of the left wing of the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Jackson’s command. Jackson had sustained a minor wound to his right hand and a severe, heavily bleeding wound to his left upper arm. Dr. McGuire amputated the left arm about two inches below the shoulder, administering chloroform anesthesia. Post-operatively, Dr. McGuire diagnosed his patient with pneumonia. Jackson remained ill and died a week later from, presumably, pneumonia. Interestingly, some historians wonder if he actually died of a pulmonary embolus because he had been in bed rest for a week and died of a respiratory event. Either way, he succumbed to complications of his initial injury.

Civil War-era surgery was a gruesome event; it is remarkable that so many of the soldiers actually survived the ordeal. Anesthesia was administered by placing a handkerchief over the nose and mouth and dropping chloroform on the cloth until the patient was unconscious. The surgeon then had about 10-15 minutes to accomplish the surgery with the patient asleep. The most common Civil War surgery was the amputation of an extremity and this was usually accomplished in about 10 minutes. First-person reports and photographic documentation confirm the mounds of discarded limbs outside Civil War field hospitals. It is interesting to note that the use of anesthesia without a protected airway—as in the case of Stonewall Jackson—was the likely etiology of his post-operative (aspiration) pneumonia.

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