The Civil War in Primary Resources: An Exhibition by the Special Collections Library


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Soldiers spent most of their time in camp. Duties included drilling, standing watch, and digging latrines. To stave off boredom in their free time, soldiers played games, made music, and shared newspapers or mail from home. They lived in overcrowded tents, and body lice ran rampant. Vitamin deficiencies from improper diets weakened immune systems, and poor sanitation contaminated the water supply. These factors created deadly outbreaks of diseases such as dysentery and measles. For every soldier who died in battle, two succumbed to illness.

The Civil War caused an estimated 1.5 million casualties and 620,000 deaths. Wounded soldiers received emergency treatment in field hospitals near the front lines. Homes, churches, barns, and other buildings became makeshift infirmaries. Soldiers’ experiences here were frightening and chaotic. Surgeons operated on dining tables or pulpits; bloody, amputated limbs littered the floor; and both staff and supplies were limited.

Soldiers stabilized in field hospitals later recovered in cleaner, well-equipped general hospitals. While medical knowledge did not meet today’s standards, the heavy burden of sick and wounded led to drastic advancement in health sciences as the war progressed. Many modern medical practices such as ambulance systems, triage, treatments, and more are rooted in the Civil War.


U.S. Civil War 1861-1865


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