Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine
edited by James M. Schmidt and Guy R. Hasegawa, Edinborough Press, 2009, $29.95
In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln admonished his countrymen to “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” A frequent visi tor to the military hospitals and camps in and around the nation’s capital, Lincoln knew of what he spoke; he well recognized the drastic physical and mental toll that war takes on soldiers. Yet despite the vast array of books on our nation’s epic conflict, only a few thoroughly examine its medical aspects. Years of Change and Suffering helps fill that void.
James Schmidt and Guy Hasegawa have pulled together a notable assortment of essays examining Civil War medicine and healing on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Battlefield amputations are addressed variously in three of the essays, one challenging the conventional wisdom about the need and frequency of amputations. Alfred Jay Bollet exposes several myths, including the outright falsehood that amputations were usually performed without anesthetic, and notes that the procedures were not as sloppy and frequent as has been popularly portrayed. He writes that many doctors, in fact, believed that not enough of them were performed, both during the war and after.
The book’s closing essay looks at how combat exposure affected soldiers’ mental health—as well as their families back home—and what the medical community did (or did not do) to diagnose and treat such conditions.
Only one of the book’s contributors is a physician, and the articles are not written in dense medical lingo, except Henry Herr’s look at urological wounds and treatment. What should have been a gripping account of soldiers horrifically shot in the groin, their medical treatment on the battlefield and the after-effects in civilian life, is little more than a morass of medi-babble.
That aside, Years of Change and Suffering is an intrepid book that makes medical topics both interesting and readable for all audiences.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.