The critical role of medicine in the Civil War has garnered increasing interest in recent years. The conflict’s staggering casualty count brought into focus the treatment of the sick and wounded at a time when military medicine and medical care were entering a period of rapid development and change, and a handful of museums are now specifically devoted to this aspect of the war.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., began with the collection of Gordon E. Damman, D.D.S., the museum’s founder and the co-author, with Dr. Alfred J. Bollet, of the book Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History. Mostly through local and private efforts, its collection has since grown into an extensively developed resource. The museum leads visitors through the health care available to Civil War soldiers both in the field and inside hospitals of the era.
The museum’s founder located the facility in downtown Frederick to take advantage of the city’s tourism industry and its connection to the September 1862 battles of Antietam and South Mountain, where overwhelming numbers of casualties signaled new challenges for wartime surgeons as well as the community of Frederick.
The building that became the museum’s home, a portion of which is a pre-Civil War structure, once housed an undertaking business. It was also used by the Union Army as an embalming station late in 1862. Ramps connect the galleries to preserve the uneven floors in this historic building.
The tour, which begins via the elevator to the second floor, is self-guided, but docents are available for large groups. The first displays one enters on the tour are in narrow rooms that are dimly lit, which helps protect the fragile artifacts but also gives viewers a sense of the interior or night-lighting conditions under which battlefield surgeons were often forced to operate on wounded soldiers.
In the first hall there is a survey of medical education in the 1860s, as well as an exhibit that details the introductory medical examination a soldier undertakes to determine his fitness for service. These and most other exhibits use a combination of life-size dioramas, text panels and murals to augment authentic and replica artifacts.
The museum’s next exhibit room depicts camp life, including a look at general nutrition as well as sick call. Battlefield exhibits cover field dressing stations, including a replica of an actual site at Gettysburg, field hospitals and transportation of the wounded.
One of the strengths of this museum’s displays is its inclusion of unusual aspects of Civil War medicine, such as dentistry, pharmaceuticals, hospital ships, embalming and even veterinary care. One section has also been fitted out to resemble the interior of a fascinating Civil War innovation: the hospital railroad car.
Overall this facility offers enough unique presentations to give it a special place among medical museums. There is even a personal touch, likely to capture the imagination of many visitors— the story of Maine amputee Peleg Bradford, whose words and artifacts feature prominently in some of the displays.
The one section that seems to beg for improvement is the pavilion hospital area (which is brightly lit, appropriately enough), as well as a handful of miscellaneous displays that visitors encounter just before finishing their tours. Reflecting the hospital culture thrust on the United States by the war, they tend to be repetitive and less compelling than the rest of the artifacts and info on display here.
The museum has just opened two new exhibits. “Faces of Civil War Medicine” is a video program featuring photographs of wartime medical personnel and caregivers, all of whom are identified. (The public is invited to submit documented additions.) The “Modern Medicine” exhibit focuses on the work of the U.S. Army medical agencies at nearby Fort Detrick.
It is eye-opening when you consider how much medical knowledge expanded during the course of the war. There’s no better way to understand what sick and wounded troops went through than visiting a museum that explores 19th-century treatment. It’s just what the doctor ordered.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.