Civil War Collateral – Modern Medical Advances…

My family recently made the trek to Disney World and in an attempt to escape the blazing sun; we jumped into The Hall of Presidents attraction.  For those not familiar, the HoP is a multimedia show featuring animatronic figures of the 43 U.S. Presidents where several pivotal Presidents provide a brief of important events during their service.

Especially evocative were Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War which got me thinking about the human cost of the war which lasted from 1861to 1865.  I extracted a few statistics from the Civil War archives: 



War Total

Total Deaths




Wounded In Action




Total Casualties




 The astonishing statistic I came across is that ~33% of the deaths for both sides were as a result of diseases; that is ~390,000 souls.  The most prevalent were not due to battle but the unsanitary conditions from the encampments which festered typhoid and dysentery (top killers).  With only a rudimentary understanding of infection and how it is transmitted, water borne illness quickly spread compromising already weakened soldiers.

 It was clear that the innovations of warfare had outstripped the medical advancements at that time.  Military strategies developed during the hit-or-miss round ball musket era did not adjust to the more accurate and devastating bullet.  The only medical solution at the time for an appendage bullet wound was amputation.  With limited understanding of infection management, amputation was only partially effective as the methods of that time did little to make sure tools were sterilized between patients – gangrene often resulted.

 With healthcare costs and reforms in the forefront of our social agenda globally, it is interesting to reflect on the progress we have made in recent history.  It is ironic that conflicts, like the American Civil War, are a catalyst for medical advances like antibiotics developed in the late 1800s.