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Civil War surgeons were inexperienced, untrained and very young

Battlefield amputation.
Battlefield amputation.
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There were many surprises in the Civil War. The biggest surprise of all was just how incomprehensibly unprepared they were for the deadly battle results. By the age of 15, most young men are enjoying life: sports, girls, cars, or playing Candy Crush on their iPhones. The ambitious ones, might even work part-time at Safeway. Just a short century and a half ago young Seymour Goodyear spent his teenage days doing something very different. Seymour was a farm boy from Georgia, but in the early 1860's his name turned up in the staff registrar of St. Charles Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Listed as a hospital steward, in the course of the Civil War, he assisted surgeons performing amputations and, in many cases, he performed them himself.

Men and boys made up the surgical corps of both armies. Aurelius Barlett was formerly a gold miner in Colorado, but he performed his duties as a surgeon for the 33rd Missouri infantry. A U. S. Marshal, David V. Whitney was made a surgeon, too, and placed in charge of an entire hospital. Both men, and many others, had no training or experience. Many were politically appointed. Some were dodging regular duty on the battlefield. Others simply found themselves needed because of the overwhelming numbers of casualties. Having a 15-year-old farm boy, or a gold miner or marshal, stand over you with a knife, could not have inspired confidence. It is also unlikely that many performing the amputations had even seen a dead body before. Consider the terrible sight of a battlefield hospital: seriously injured soldiers waiting their turn, and in full view of the mass amputations taking place.

There were, however, a small group of real doctors, those who had actually gone to medical school. In a letter to his wife, Dr. Daniel Holt describes in stunned disbelief his battlefield observations: "Every house, for miles around is a hospital, and I have seen arms, legs, feet, and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of the Southern sky, unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work to the putrid mess." Holt's words are disturbing but give a small window into history as it was happening.