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Sawbones: 1864

Sawbones: 1864

July 1864. "Broadway Landing, Virginia. Surgeons of 4th Division, 9th Army Corps, in front of Petersburg." Main Eastern theater of war, the siege of Petersburg. Wet plate glass negative, photographer unknown. View full size.


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The quick class in surgery

"Medical school" in the 1860's wasn't the 12 year program that it is today. And surgery didn't mean antiseptic and anesthetics either. You took in maybe six months of lectures (sleeping in the cold to prevent consumption, a vibrator will control hysteria in women, etc.) and then apprenticed with a practicing doctor. You could be out and applying leeches to patients within the year.

Civil War medicine consisted of being strong and fast. It was true meatball surgery. If somebody took a miniball to the arm, one applied a tourniquet above the wound and sawed the arm off as fast as you could saw, so the patient didn't die of shock on the table. And they used the same kind of saw you'd use to prune a tree.

I also suspect that the term surgeon, in this case, is more akin to the Korean War/Vietnam era term Medic than it is to operating room type surgery. These guys may not have even been doctors when they enlisted, but just like the Army today will make you a mechanic if they need more mechanics, the first guy in the enlistment line may have become a cook. The second guy a horse groomer, and the third guy was issued his saw, bandages, and stethoscope, and told that he was going to go look on the battlefields for any bodies that might still be alive.

1000-yard stare indeed...

These men may have seen more sights than any of us would ever want to see.

If they are indeed surgeons of the 4th Division/ 9th Corps, (Brig. Edward Ferrero's, consisting of newly-raised colored regiments), they would have no doubt have been overwhelmed dealing with the wounded from the disastrous Battle of Cold Harbor that June.

And on July 30, 1864- the end of the very same month this photograph was taken- Ferrero's division was to play a major role in the bloodbath that was the Battle of the Crater.

The losses in the 9th Corps at the Battle of the Crater alone were 473 killed, 1,646 wounded, 1,356 missing, for a total, of 3,475.

Civil War Surgeons

My God, the sights these men had seen and the stories they could have told.

Hat head

I don't understand. I see 4 or 5 cases of serious hat head here and only one hat.

I also wonder how old these men are. Three or four of them look very young to be surgeons and officers, but I suppose by July 1864 the ranks of those qualified had been substantially thinned.

Clarity and presence.

Just astonishing, at full size. I almost feel face-to face with these men, from 140 years ago. Marvellous.


I pass these guys every day here in Southern Illinois and the boot heel of Missouri. They're still around, and doing all right. The past is not dead, it's not even past.

They saw too much

They all look like they have the thousand yard stare. I agree, it's a wonderful sympathetic portrait.

Standing Out

They all look very much of the time - except the man top right. His face is timeless. You could pass him on the street tomorrow.

A wonderful sympathetic portrait.

Great-great Granddad

I wonder if any of these doctors could have treated my great-great-grandfather, Arthur O'Keeffe, of the Michigan 6th Cavalry, when his horse fell on him that year in nearby City Point. Forty years later, when Arthur applied for a Union pension, the examining physician noted that he wasn't as badly injured as he claimed to be.

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