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Civil War Medicine

by Janet King, RN, BSN, CCRN.


May 8, 1861 - Private Benjamin Underwood from Bradford, Vermont stood in the ranks of the 1st Vermont Infantry alongside his friends, cousins and other relatives - once farmers mostly, soon to be US soldiers. They were assembled this day on the parade grounds at Rutland. None had slept well. A cold wind had blown most of the night, coming down the slopes of Pico and Killington - blowing down the tents that he and his comrades shared. Anyway - who could sleep? Today they were being mustered into the US Army - to fight for their country and to preserve the Union! That is what Benjamin Underwood volunteered 3 months for. Everyone knew the war would not last much past one battle - and he was determined to make his family proud. The Governor's speech wore on and the proud flags of the State of Vermont and of the United States waved in the breeze. He shifted about, trying hard to hear the words of patriotic inspiration..."I charge you to remember that this flag represents but one star in that other flag - which I now present" ...

A sneeze and a cough escaped him, despite his trying to suppress them. His throat was so sore! Wasn't it mighty hot out here? The governor continued - "..bearing the national emblem, the stars and stripes. Vermont claims no separate nationality. Her citizens, ever loyal to the Union and the Constitution, will rally in their strength for the preservation of the national government and the honor of our country's flag!" The speech seemed to go on forever.

By the end of the day, Benjamin had a severely sore throat, was feeling weak and hot and a bit light headed. After being sworn in as a US volunteer, he returned to his camp duties and despite his feeling ill performed guard duty that night. The following week found his regiment headed toward enemy territory - Virginia. He along with others suffered the sea-sickness and discomforts of a crowded troop transport . Finally, on May 13 the regiment reached their destination, landing at Ft. Monroe, Virginia off Chesapeake Bay. He thought he would feel better - that the fever and aches were related to the boat ride, but there were days he barely made it through drill. He could not sleep - between a rash that itched like the devil and a severe cough and pain in his chest - how could he? Finally on the 17th of May, after fainting during drill, the regimental doctor looked him over. He shook his head and announced "measles" and "your lungs are afflicted quite severely". He was moved by his comrades to a tent designated as a hospital and during the night became delirious with a fever. On the 20th of May, 1861 12 days after being mustered in, Private Benjamin Underwood died. He did not die as he had envisioned he might - on some "glorious battlefield" fighting to save the honor of a proud and cherished flag. The surgeon, in his regimental report, listed the cause of death as "measles with pneumonia complicating".

Pvt. Underwood would become a statistic in time. The first Vermonter to die in the Civil War. One of 6 million cases of sickness documented among Union troops during the conflict, and one of 2,354 Vermonters who died of non-battle related causes during the war. In reviewing his cause of death, one can find another statistic: That 2/3rds of Union deaths were related to measles and other medical problems, many of them "childhood diseases" and diseases related to poor sanitation and poor preparation of food - not at all related to Confederate shot or shell.

But what of Benjamin Underwood - former citizen of Vermont, resident of Bradford?

The following sections on "Civil War Medicine and Vermont Soldiers" will endeavor to answer that question and others. It will attempt to look beyond mere statistics and look at Vermont soldiers on a personal level - to explore the trials they endured from the ravages of disease to battle wounds, that if not killing outright, often caused suffering that lasted decades. It will look beyond the surface: What of the soldier's family? How did disease and disability of the soldier effect his family and his community?

 In the coming sections we will look at:

  1. In the Beginning: Vermont's Medical Team Goes to War
  2. The Microscopic War: Diseases prevalent among troops, effects of disease on individuals. Medical treatments, medicines etc.
  3. The Surgical War: Effect of bullet/shell/sabre; surgical treatment of injuries.
  4. From Battlefield to Hospital: Care of the soldier after wounding.
  5. In the Hospital: General hospitals in Vermont and elsewhere; day in the life of patients, doctors, nurses, visitors.

Janet King, great-great-granddaughter of Private Riley Elkins, Company C, 8th Vermont Infantry, grew up in Kansas and went to college there, receiving her BSN in 1984 and has been an RN in adult critical care nursing since that time. She moved to Anchorage, Alaska, in 1989, and fell in love with the ocean, lakes and mountains. About a year later she discovered a deep interest in the Civil War and has been a serious student since then. She became interested in the "human" side of the war: what people experienced, what became of them after battles or in camp. She discovered a wealth of information on Civil War medicine that told another story of the soldier's experience; one that is often overlooked in traditional history book. The wounding of a soldier can be told simply by statistics but the suffering and often years of healing of a wound (if it healed at all) really tells the true story.

Janet will endeavor to show this aspect of the soldier's life - the story the statistics overlook -

What diseases did the men acquire?

What were the treatments?

What happened to the soldiers after they were wounded? (Triage came into being in Civil War times)

How were the wounds treated?

What were the hospitals, doctors and nurses like?