Many folks no doubt recall the scene in the 1939 film “Gone With The Wind” in which Dr. Mead amputates the leg of a screaming Confederate soldier as Scarlett O’Hara looks on in horror. This scene has summarized, and is maybe even the cause of, Americans’ views on Civil War medicine for generations. The Civil War is often seen as taking place during the “medical Middle Ages,” with doctors as bloodthirsty butchers using dirty tools to hack off limbs without the use of anesthetic. In reality, the experience was much more advanced than we often hear.
While it is true that there was no knowledge of germs and medical practitioners at the beginning of the conflict were sometimes poorly trained, this view ignores the fact that by the Battle of Gettysburg, the Medical Corps of both armies had developed into a professional machine.