We’ve all seen it. That time-honored Civil War movie scene where a wounded soldier is hoisted onto a table by his buddies, given a stick, and told to bite like all hell. Then the saw comes out, the screams ensue, and the limbs start to come off. But, is this really an accurate portrayal of how battlefield surgery went down?
Footloose and anesthesia-free?
The short answer is no, at least not 95% of the time. According to Union records, over 80,000 surgeries were performed during the Civil War. Out of all of them, only 254 unlucky patients were forced to undergo surgical procedures without an anesthetic of any sort.
That said, the anesthesia of the Civil War was not exactly the advanced kind used in hospitals today.
The bright side of chloroform
Back then, the most common chemicals used to put a patient under where chloroform and ether, both of which the Northern and Southern armies tended to keep in ready supply.
Once propped up on the table by his fellows, the doctor would place a little cone-shaped cloth dabbed with chloroform over the patient’s mouth. This would not only prevent him from feeling any pain but generally knock him out well enough to prevent the need for any stick biting.
They amputatin’ everybody up in here
But seriously, what was up with all the amputations in the first place? Hadn’t those guys ever heard of antibiotics? Well, in fact, they had not. Unfortunately for many a one-legged soldier, those were still a couple of years away from being discovered.
You also have to take into account that the ammunition these guys were using back then did not play. Rather than ending up with a nice, tidy bullet hole, most guys would find a shot limb more or less shredded to all hell. As the thinking went, better to lose a limb than risk an infection that could take you out later on.