During the Civil War, soldiers' lack of basic hygiene may have been deadlier than bullets or bayonets. For each soldier who died on the battlefield, two more died of disease. Filthy living conditions, along with lack of knowledge about germs and bacteria, caused thousands of soldiers to get sick and die. Many doctors were just as unhygienic as their patients.
Lack of Medical Training
When the Civil War began, American doctors were woefully unprepared. On average, they received about two years of medical training before they began treating patients. Doctors in this time period had little understanding of basic hygiene, sanitation practices, germs or bacteria. In addition, there were too few trained doctors to go around. Doctors on the battlefield often had a shortage of supplies, too. Due to this lack of knowledge and understaffed hospitals, thousands of soldiers died in the war that might have lived with proper care.
Living in Filth
Civil War camps were often just as dangerous as the battlefield. Soldiers allowed garbage to pile up in the camps. They also dug latrines too close to drinking streams. The waste from the latrines seeped into the water supply, causing many to get sick. Soldiers were cramped closely together, which allowed sickness and disease to spread quickly. They bathed infrequently and were usually dirty. Insects, such as lice, mosquitoes, fleas, maggots and flies plagued the soldiers day and night. Soldiers would sanitize lice-infested clothing in a pot filled with boiling water. They would then cook food in the same pot.
Civil War soldiers experienced a number of debilitating diseases. Of all diseases, dysentery was the biggest killer. It caused severe and bloody diarrhea. Typhoid fever, also called "Camp Fever," was the second-worst killer. It caused one-quarter of all disease deaths. Body lice transmitted the disease via bacteria. Victims had delirium, high fever, rash and an intense headache. Smallpox, a highly contagious disease, was also a big killer. Soldiers living in close proximity easily spread smallpox to one another. Tuberculosis, a deadly lung disease caused by bacteria, was also common. Mosquitoes spread diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.
During the Civil War, doctors treated patients with "cures" and operations that would seem deplorable today. For example, a doctor might collect pus from a victim's wound, then transfer it to another soldier's open wound. The doctor believed that pus was a good thing and that it would help the wound heal faster. Doctors used a mixture of chalk and mercury to treat closed bowels. They commonly used whiskey as an antiseptic and pain reliever. In many cases, a soldier's wounds were so severe that doctors had to amputate an arm or leg. They often operated with dirty tools and worked while dressed in a bloody apron. After an amputation, a soldier still might die from infection, blood poisoning or gangrene.
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